Warhol Before Pop: Photos and Notes From “Adman”

Normally I’m not the kind of person to be obsessively snapping photos when I’m out and about, but the Art Gallery of NSW’s new Andy Warhol exhibit had so many great pieces that I couldn’t keep the phone out of my hand. The exhibit is titled Adman and features Warhol’s work as a commercial illustrator through the 50s and his first forays into making serious art in the early 60s. I figured I’d compile the photos along with my notes on this blog just in case anyone’s interested.

Notebook Drawings & Julia Warhol’s Calligraphy

  • Here are a couple drawings from Andy’s notebooks. His picture of New York is a very early piece that showcases a blotting technique which prefigures the silk screen.
  • Apparently his mother was a bit of a wiz at calligraphy and helped Andy with lettering often during his early career. She also did some artwork for Moondog‘s albums, a person I’m still skeptical actually ever existed. Kind of shows you the spirit of the times that she would only be credited as “Andy Warhol’s mother.”

Commercial Work

  • This is some of Warhol’s more orthodox work as a commercial illustrator, although it’s still pretty quirky. The first image was actually a resume of sorts, the girl is drawn with a bunch of corporate logos across her body and Warhol’s name and phone number on her underwear. The two pictures featuring the fat girl, hearts, and perfumes are Warhol’s sketch planning for and eventual execution of a display containing perfume to be shown in a store.
  • I thought the two Japanese travel guides that Warhol arranged were really interesting not so much for their connection to Warhol, but for how they show American attitudes towards Japan in the immediate postwar years. Kinda reminds me of those tribes in New Guinea who cannibalize (or commoditize in this case) their enemies after defeating them.

Early Attempts at Non-Commercial Advertising Art

  • I really enjoyed this little section of Warhol’s work from the early 1960s as he was trying to transition away from his commercial career into what would eventually be pop art. Warhol’s principal technique for this stuff was to crop advertisements out of their native element and to distort illustrations and images of consumer objects. It seems Warhol was aping the style of earlier forms of avant garde art like abstract art and the cut-up technique before becoming comfortable with his own distinct voice.


  • My favorite part of this exhibit was watching how it cataloged  the development of Andy’s obsession with factory-like repetition. In the previous segment showing his very early attempts to artistically deconstruct advertising, we see how he mostly just plays with color, form, and cropping. What he’s trying to do there is to defamiliarize us to the common commodities that fill our everyday lives and remind us how they are really these discrete physical objects full of visual strangeness and wonder. The real stroke of genius in Warhol’s mature art, however, is how he pulls a complete 180 and instead of trying to liberate commodity objects, he instead shows that ALL physical objects, soup cans and celebrities alike, have been seized and commodified, rendered into these quasi-virtual things which aren’t really discrete physical things, but repetitions of a standardized form.
  • Most of these pictures showing Warhol’s early obsession with repetition actually predate Warhol’s conscious attempts at making avant garde art out of advertising and commodities, and his early attempts at serious art actually seems to regress a bit from what he was doing in his notebooks. It seems to me that Warhol had already unconsciously absorbed the spirit of the times during the 50s, and it first started to really come out in his work when he was just sitting there reproducing the same picture again and again in his books.


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