ANDY WARHOL: Prints of Pop Art



J. E. Morales

15 May, 2002




            The post World War II era in American history was a time pregnant with mass cultural changes.  If a country can be said to have an ego, America’s was one flush with confidence and optimism resulting from unequivocal victories abroad.  From far away battles, valiant soldiers returned home to celebrity and opportunity.  A mass production machine to support the war effort had been developed, successfully tested and was now fully fit and operational.  To avoid a huge economic implosion of this industrial complex a brilliant strategy of reassignment from the creation of machinery of mass destruction to machinery of mass consumption was engineered.

            According to economist and author, Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The End of Work,

a consumer culture was indeed thoughtfully and quite deliberately engineered .

                        Transforming the American worker into a status-conscious consumer was a radical undertaking.  Advertisers used every available means and opportunity to denigrate "homemade" products and to promote the "store-bought" and "factory-made" items. The young were particularly targeted.  Fear of being left behind proved a powerful motivating force in stimulating purchasing power. Labor historian Harry Braverman captured the commercial spirit of the times, remarking that “the source of status is no longer the ability to make things but simply the ability to purchase them.” [1]

This period of economic development saw the use of branding on an unprecedented scale.  Whereas before homemakers bought a pound of oats at the grocer, now they purchased a pre packaged box of Quaker Brand Oats®™.  Advertisers were paid handsomely to create psychical associations between quality and image – the corporate logo.  Not since the proliferation of ecclesiastical stained glass in 15th century cathedrals had artists been so widely employed in the creation of graphic means to communicate distilled, capitalistic propaganda – behold the revival of the icon.  It can be argued that due to its graphical nature and the popular culture it targets, the corporate logo is the true popular art form.  In terms of art history Pop Art depicts objects or scenes from everyday life and employs techniques of commercial art and popular illustration.  One such artist of this movement is Andy Warhol who’s print work is all but exclusively rooted in popular culture.

            Trained and employed as a commercial artist, Warhol’s formative years coincided with the proliferation of advertising.  Bombarded by the repetition of the mass produced good and its associated advertising Warhol eventually regurgitates these influences in a myriad of creative ways including reproduced corporate logos like those of Mobil Oil,  and Paramount Pictures; iconic representations of pop cult figures like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Jackie Kennedy; and actual product likeness of Coca Cola, Brillo Pads and Campbell’s Soup.

            The tenets of Pop Art are its graphical or illustrative style, bold use of form and color, repetition of imagery, and reference to everyday life.  One fine example that embodies all of these elements is Warhol’s S & H Green Stamps from 1965.  This 23 inch square screenprint is an enlarged image of  the popular point of purchase paper tokens issued to customers upon cashing out goods at supermarkets.  Similar to the actual item it mirrors, the print describes a grid of 70 stamps, green in color, each with the “S & H” logo printed atop in red.

            If Pop Art is rooted in an exposé of consumer culture’s fetishistic appeal to the iconic, then S & H Green Stamps can be considered an icon of an iconic age.  The repetition of the stamp image serves as a reminder that in the eyes of consumer culture, we re all the same.  The orderly arrangement of stamps in the rectangular grid recalls a platoon of military troops in formation wherein the individual is subordinate to the cause.  Or, in the case of the Green Stamps, the individual stamp is worthless and only has value en masse.  Though not valuable in itself, the Green Stamp program was a reward for consuming – the reward, ironically, was further consumption of (often) needless, mass produced goods.

            Warhol’s print is early in his long and prolific career based on such imagery and thus lacks some of the characteristics that make his later works more poignant.  Whereas in his later work such as Marilyn a series would be constructed from the repetition of an image in multiple prints,  S & H Green Stamps is a single print of a repeated image.  In his later work such as Paramount from 1985, (F&S #352) we see Warhol intentionally offsetting the registration of sequentially printed layers to emphasize the errors associated with routine, mindless repetition through mechanization not due to the fallibility of machines, but the consequences of the “quantity over quality” element often associated with mass production mentality.  In Green Stamps the registration is quite accurate and we see no imperfections associated with the slip of a screen as might have been pushed to hyperbole in a print such as $ from 1982 (F&S #278).

            It is important to look at a motivation behind the creation of consumer culture – the maximization of wealth – and how Warhol’s work speaks to that issue.  Again, the Green Stamp is a perfect example in that it undeniably references a sheet of bills as might be printed in a mint then cut into individual notes.  The connection between fine art printing and money is poignantly stated by master printmaker M.C. Escher: “[A fine art print] is no better than a bank note; you just print it off and get so much cash for it.” [2]   Of course, no example of this outmodes the Warhol’s aforementioned $ especially considering the $10,000 price tag  for each in the edition of 60.

            Warhol’s prints are unequivocally representative of Pop Art in all its celebrations and lamentations.  And since the subjects invariably reference pop icons and art, his prints are then reflexive – Pop Art prints of pop art.  The collection displayed at Augen Gallery in Portland, Oregon, is modest, though exquisitely representative of Warhol’s prints that speak of Pop Art and popular culture.   Because he is often likened to the dandy of the elite American artists, Andy Warhol, glorified like Elvis, “The King,” who he effigized,  is the Prince of Pop Art.

[1] Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 21.

[2] Bruno Ernst, The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher(Stradbroke, Holland: Tarquin Publications, 1985), 18.