Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

Socialism probably isn’t the first political movement you’d think to associate with Andy Warhol. The king of Pop art was best known for work that cheekily glorified postwar American consumer culture, from paintings of Coca-Cola bottles to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, and for his glitzy presence in high-society New York City.

But as he was growing up in an immigrant family from present-day Slovakia in Depression-era Pittsburgh, Warhol’s social environment hardly reflected the individualist, commercialist fantasies that characterize much of his art. His poor neighborhood had strong ties to Communist-lead activism and union organizing. Most of the art professors with whom Warhol studied at Carnegie Tech, including R. L. Lepper and Samuel Rosenberg, were left-wingers of the Social Realist school: they largely depicted downtrodden neighborhoods in their paintings, critiquing the social structures that perpetuate their conditions.

“Where did the working-class Warhol go?” asks US-based, Russian-born artist Yevgeniy Fiks. “Was Warhol influenced by his Socialist professors in some way?” In his new exhibit at the Warhol Museum, Andy Warhol and the Pittsburgh Labor Files, Fiks explores Warhol’s relationship to his working-class roots, highlighting the reactionary elements in his artistic focus on consumerism.

The exhibit consists of a cardboard box filled with documents Fiks collected from left-wing political life in working-class Pittsburgh. It’s displayed alongside a permanent exhibition about Warhol’s early life, but the documents in the box itself don’t include any work by Warhol, nor do they mention his name. Using provided white gloves, visitors are encouraged to look through the box. There, they’ll find old photos of the streets of Woods Run, where Warhol grew up, images of Social Realist artworks by Warhol’s art professors at Carnegie Tech, pamphlets from the communist movements of the ‘20s, photographs from union rallies of the ‘30s, a government report on communist activities in Pittsburgh during the Red Scare of the ‘50s, and more. “The viewer can draw his or her own conclusions about how these cultural waves in Midwestern proletarian life ultimately shaped Warhol’s visual language,” Fiks says.

Not much is known about Warhol’s personal politics — he’s often perceived as apolitical. But we know this much: “Warhol hated the social class into which he was born. He wanted to get out,” Fiks says. “He grew up super poor. A bottle of Coca-Cola wasn’t something his family could afford every day. So it’s funny and contradictory that when he grew up, he had this idea of consumerist culture as something very democratic — that in America, everyone could drink Coca-Cola — the President, Elizabeth Taylor, you.” Warhol’s narrative — in which he transformed himself from Andrew Warhola, the youngest son of Czech immigrants, to Raggedy Andy, as he was nicknamed as a struggling freelance illustrator at Harper’s Bazaar in 1948, to international art star Andy Warhol — doesn’t include the elements of hometown pride that some rags-to-riches stories do. He didn’t want to still be Andy from the block.

(click to enlarge)

Fiks maintains that Warhol’s portraits of Communist leaders like Mao and Lenin, as well as his hammer and sickle series, weren’t personal political statements so much as they were images of celebrities and iconography in the popular imagination — a hammer and sickle was given basically the same treatment as the Campbell’s soup logo. But the context of his upbringing complicates one’s understanding of these works. “What’s the exact nature of the connection between Warhol’s making a portrait of Lenin in the 1970s and his memories of banners baring Lenin’s image during Communist demonstration in Pittsburgh in the 1930–1940s?” Fiks asks.

The project is not about trying to claim Warhol as a Social Realist artist. Rather, “it’s about showing the ambient noise, the social historical background into which he was born, and against which he rebelled,” Fiks says. “It was a search for the working class Warhol. It’s kind of elusive. Maybe it doesn’t exist. What happened to that working class Warhol? I don’t have an answer. The closest thing I can come up with is that he repressed it in himself.”

Yevgeniy Fiks: Andy Warhol and the Pittsburgh Labor Files continues at the Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh) through January 10, 2016.

The Latest

Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

17 replies on “The Socialist Education of Andy Warhol”

  1. Interesting article – I guess a more general way to understand this is that there is a dotted line connection between Socialist Realism and Pop Art. This not merely an observation that relates to Wharhola’s oeuvre. It’s more a matter of the seeing the common element that underlies the use of a simplifying visual style to present ideas (or an attitude) about very complex social and political reality. Perhaps we should start referring to Pop Art as Consumerist Realism!

  2. Warhol may have been as Socialist as Toulouse Lautrec was or Henry Ford.

    We’ll never know, but some will manipulate the unknown to promote their wishful thinking, especially close to political election time.

    Dare I guess which presidential candidate Carey Dunne favors?

    Yes I do, but won’t tell.

    1. You’re missing the point. I thought it was more about exploring why Warhol was such a hyper-capitalist through an examination of his familial setting and social context.

      1. Maybe I did miss the point, but the timing and nebulosity of the article inspired my reply.
        My maternal grandfather was much worse than my Socialist paternal grandfather.
        I loved them both for their clarity of thought, but not for content.

  3. It seems that Fiks premise is one that tries to bring a tenuous connection, at best, between Warhol’s familial roots, the political climate of his upbringing and education, and his unexpressed political views. Fiks delves into an interesting chapter in history but ultimately proves nothing. Also he gets some facts wrong, as Pittsburgh, which is a city located in western Pennsylvania, has never been part of the Midwestern area of the United States. The commonwealth state of Pennsylvania is not only one of the original 13 colonies, but it is and always has been considered a part of the Eastern corridor.

  4. “Not much is known about Warhol’s personal politics…” or his sense of morality, or his feelings about other people (particularly those he “used” in his factory) or his opinion about anything that matters. Warhol is the quintessential avant-garde artist escaping from anything that might tie him down: sentiment, tradition, feeling, personal relationships, what’s Pittsburgh compared to all that? When i first saw the hammer and sickle paintings I thought, he’s now succeeded in crapping on the left (Socialist art from the 1930s and Marxist theory from the 1970s) and at the same time crapping on whatever capitalist collector might fork over five, maybe six figures for the privilege of hanging a leftist icon over their couch. Politics is interpersonal. Warhol was anti-personal. Fiks, who is always interesting, ended up dumping all he found in a box, meaning he didn’t know what to do with it either. Warhol is unknowable.

    1. I don’t know, Peter. I think his politics (Warhol’s) are pretty clear. He may pretend he wasn’t one thing or another to gain favor and allow others to project on him, but I don’t see anything that points to anything progressive or really very left in his oeuvre post 1970.

      1. I agree, Hrag, there is no evidence of progressive sentiments or sincerity. Though his “Vote for McGovern” poster, with a reptilian Nixon was certainly leftist, his motives were always incidental and probably mercenary. A see him (and particularly the hammer and sickle pieces) as ruthlessly apolitical. Opportunism can only be political if it serves a political end. Otherwise its just parasitic.

        1. I think Mr. Warhol separated his politics from his work product, as most people do, and when he was acting in a specifically political manner, he was a liberal Democrat. It is true this is not particularly progressive — the New Deal was decades old when he emerged into the world as an adult, so it might be called a conservative position — but it seems as distinct as anyone else’s. He was also a devout Roman Catholic, apparently, which strikes me as something other than anti-personal.

          1. That’s a good point. A lot of people don’t want to share their political views. But there is still no evidence of a consistent political bias one way or the other, and yet there is a great deal of evidence revealing Warhol as a cold and indifferent player who was more at home among the tinsel of celebrity and superficial political gestures. As to his Catholicism, devotion to a religion, as events in Paris, Beirut and Kenya recently show, hardly illustrates compassion, and yet to be fair, nor does it eliminate it. Warhol wanted to be an enigma, and more than any other artist, succeeded. He and his work are “A to B and back again”. Hence, the inevitable if intriguing ambiguity of Fiks’s collection of documents.

          2. I don’t think Mr. Warhol’s attachment to the Democratic Party and the Roman Catholic Church were driven by compassion. Being a Roman Catholic Democrat was the default position for working-class people of Western Slavic descent in the middle of the 20th century. I have read that 72% of Polish Catholics voted for McGovern at a time when the great majority of their fellow-citizens were rushing to throw themselves at the feet of the other guy — whoever he was. As to his works and personal conduct, yes, certainly an enigma. I agree with you there.

          3. I think he didn’t separate his politics, or at least that wasn’t unique. He compartmentalized his personal life too, so i think it’s more just an issue of him compartmentalizing than separating as a conscious decision about politics. This is a great discussion. Thanks for engaging in it.

        2. I think that McGovern poster was opportunism, which seems to be something that pops up again and again in Warhol’s life. I bet someone major (maybe a collector or dealer) asked him to do it and he complied. The way he presented it demonstrates he was all surface, no content on that one. That’s my opinion.

  5. Read Warhol’s “America”. I came away with a pretty good sense of his politics, especially his views on homelessness.

Comments are closed.