Of the many misunderstandings and underestimations of Andy Warhol, the most wrong-minded may relate to how willful and even conniving he was as an artist. By no means the naïve ditz that his (meticulously tended) persona put forth, Warhol was instead smart and timely in countless ways. And he had a handle on controversy too—as a means to an end with attention as a just reward.
Periods of Warhol’s shapeshifting career are marked with artworks that took provocation as a priority. Here are 12 of his most controversial offerings.
Campbell’s Soup Cans
For those of us not around at the time, it’s impossible to reverse-engineer just how wild it must have been to see paintings of Campbell’s soup cans on canvases arranged like so many mass-produced consumables on grocery store shelves. It ranks among the shrewdest moves in 20th-century art, and though its seeming simplicity is more multivalent than detractors allow, it taps into a sentiment that Warhol nurtured for the whole of his life. As cited by fellow artist Barbara Kruger in the catalogue for the recent exhibition “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again,” Warhol himself later wrote, of another American standard: “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.”
As chronicled in mesmerizing fashion in an 800-plus-page tome known as The Andy Warhol Diaries, Warhol kept close track of his daily doings, including all kinds of mundane matters such as boring small talk and tallies of banal expenses incurred. “The record he kept included even the ten-cent calls he made from street payphones,” Pat Hackett, who edited the Diaries, wrote in an introduction. “It wasn’t that he was being overly cautious—the IRS had subjected his business to its first major audit in 1972 and continued the scrutiny every year right up until his death. Andy was convinced these audits were triggered by someone in the Nixon administration because the campaign poster he’d done for George McGovern in 1972 featured a green-faced Richard M. Nixon and the words ‘Vote McGovern.’”
Collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat
When Warhol worked on collaborative paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the ’80s, accusations of exploitation were hurled at both parties. Was Warhol trying to glean some contemporary relevance from a younger star? Was Basquiat scheming for more or different kinds of attention? The work they made together do not suggest a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, and it couldn’t be more obvious whose contributions are whose on canvases that don’t quite coalesce. As New York Times art critic Vivien Raynor wrote in 1985, “Here and now, the collaboration looks like one of Warhol’s manipulations, which increasingly seem based on the Mencken theory about nobody going broke underestimating the public’s intelligence. Basquiat, meanwhile, comes across as the all too willing accessory.”
Appearance on The Love Boat
In 1985, a little more than a year before his death, Warhol made a guest appearance as himself in The Love Boat, a TV show “by that point dropping fast in the ratings and with only seven months left until cancellation,” as described by Blake Gopnik in his biography Warhol. The artist’s eloquence on-screen was less electrifying than the silver wig he wore, with just a few halting lines that began with “Hello, I’m—” and ended with “Maybe you two would like to get together with us here in L.A.?” As chronicled by Gopnik, Warhol might have been his own harshest critic, writing of the experience in his Diaries, “Flubbed my lines in the morning, felt bad about it. Worked all day.”