Explore Andy Warhol’s life—from his Pittsburgh roots to his career in New York City.
Andy Warhol’s Life
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola on August 6, 1928, in a two-room apartment at 73 Orr Street in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from an area in the Carpathian Mountains in what is present-day Eastern Slovakia, his parents Andrej and Julia Warhola had three sons, Paul, John, and Andy, the youngest.
In 1934, the family moved to their home at 3252 Dawson Street in Pittsburgh’s South Oakland neighborhood, which was closer to their church St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic. Devout Byzantine Catholics, the family regularly attended mass and observed their Eastern European heritage.
As a child, Warhol suffered from Sydenham chorea, a neurological disorder commonly known as St. Vitus dance, characterized by involuntary movements. When the disorder occasionally kept him home from school, Warhol would read comics and Hollywood magazines and play with paper cutouts. Growing up in Depression-era Pittsburgh, the family had few luxuries, but Warhol’s parents bought him his first camera when he was eight years old.
He attended elementary at Holmes School and took free Tam O’Shanter art classes at Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie Museum of Art) taught by Joseph Fitzpatrick, before attending Schenley High School in 1942. Recognizing his son’s talent, Andrej saved money to pay for Warhol’s college education, and he attended Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) from 1945 to 1949.
Throughout his life, Warhol fixated on his physical imperfections. As a child, Sydenham chorea (St. Vitus dance) occasionally kept him bedridden, and he had pigment issues that caused discoloration of his skin, leading to the nicknames “Spot” and “Andy the Red-nosed Warhola.” In response to his perceived physical flaws, Warhol cultivated different looks through his clothing, wigs, cosmetics, and plastic surgery to change the shape of his nose. Later in his life he had premature baldness and massive scars from gunshot wounds suffered in 1968. His lifelong interest in beauty regimes and skin care made its way into his work, with early paintings depicting a nose job, wigs, and pain relief for corns. By the 1980s, Warhol had a near daily exercise regime and took vitamin supplements to improve his hair and skin; he incorporated bodybuilder imagery into his work and exercise equipment populates photographs of his studio.
After graduating from art school with a degree in pictorial design, Warhol moved to New York City to pursue a career as a commercial artist, and he dropped the final “a” in Warhola. He moved with fellow classmate Philip Pearlstein and created a circle of close-knit friends including college friend Leila Davies Singeles and dancer Francesca Boas. His work first appeared in a 1949 issue of Glamour magazine, in which he illustrated a story called “What is Success?” An award-winning illustrator throughout the 1950s, some of his clients included Tiffany & Co., I. Miller Shoes, Fleming-Joffe, Bonwit Teller, Columbia Records, and Vogue.
Warhol was known for his blotted-line ink drawings, using a process he developed in college and refined in the 1950s. This working method combined drawing with basic printmaking and allowed Warhol to repeat an image and to create multiple illustrations along a similar theme. He could also make color or compositional changes quickly in response to client requests.
In 1952, Julia Warhola moved to New York City to live with her son. Julia was an artist in her own right. Cats and angels were her favorite things to illustrate, and in 1957 Warhol published a book of her drawings, Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother. Warhol enlisted her to add her feminine and delicate penmanship to hundreds of his drawings, including advertisements, album covers, and book illustrations.
Warhol self-published a large series of artist’s books in the 1950s. He would hold parties at Serendipity 3, a restaurant and ice cream parlor on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where his friends would help him hand color his books. In 1956, he presented a solo exhibition at the Bodley Gallery called Studies for a Boy Book. These sketchbook drawings of portraits of young men and erotic portrayals of male nudes contrasted with the work of other contemporary gay artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who considered Warhol “too swish.”
In the early 1950s, many of Warhol’s friends and fellow artists were accepted to show at the Tanager Gallery in New York City, but the works he submitted were rejected because of their subject matter—two men embracing. Warhol was a gay man, and homosexuality was criminalized in 1950s America. Warhol filled sketchbooks in the 1950s with drawings titled Boy Portraits, which were loving, humorous depictions of the male form and studies of feet, torsos, and genitalia. During his foray into film in the 1960s, Warhol did not shy away from sexuality. His films included scenes of sexual escapades, explicit and not—from turning tricks to sleeping. One of Warhol’s earliest films featured his then-boyfriend, poet John Giorno, sleeping nude in the nearly six-hour-long Sleep (1963). Throughout his career, Warhol blurred the lines between his romantic and professional relationships, mixing business and pleasure. Edward Wallowitch, Ted Carey, John Giorno, Jed Johnson, and Jon Gould were some of Warhol’s business associates with whom he also had intimate relationships. He returned to the male—and female—nude in the 1970s with his Sex Parts and Torso series. In the 1980s, Warhol’s focus on the body in his work and return to hand painting corresponded with the early days of the HIV/AIDS public health crisis, which devastated New York City’s arts scene and gay community.
As equally as he was an artist, Warhol was an entrepreneur. He kickstarted his career in the 1950s as a commercial illustrator, earning a sizeable revenue to finance his artistic ventures. Warhol grew up during the rise of post-war consumer culture in the U.S. and England and realized the benefit of assembly lines in manufacturing, employing studio assistants and processes to aid his artistic production. Warhol successfully balanced commercial and entrepreneurial endeavors with avant-garde, underground work. He continually pushed himself to experiment in new media—publishing, film, music production, television, fashion, theater—throughout his career and frequently collaborated with artists and brands. Warhol wrote in THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
In 1960, Warhol turned his attention to the pop art movement, which began in Britain in the mid-1950s. Everyday life inspired pop artists, and their source material became mass-produced products and commercial artifacts of daily life; commercial products entered into the highly valued fine art space. In 1961, Warhol created his first pop paintings, which were based on comics and ads. Warhol’s 1961 Coca-Cola  is a pivotal piece in his career, evidence that his transition from hand-painted works to silkscreens did not happen suddenly. The black and gray composition first sketched then hand painted is a blend of both pop and abstraction, which he turned away from at the beginning of his career before experimenting with it again in the 1980s.
Warhol turned to perhaps his most notable style—photographic silkscreen printing—in 1962. This commercial process allowed him to easily reproduce the images that he appropriated from popular culture. Among Warhol’s first photographic silkscreen works are his paintings of Marilyn Monroe made from a production still from the 1953 film Niagara. In 1962, he began a large series of celebrity portraits, featuring Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor. Warhol made his series of Campbell’s Soup Cans in 1962 and exhibited them the same year in his first solo pop art exhibition at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.
In 1963, Warhol began his series of Death and Disaster paintings that used images from magazines and newspapers as well as police and press photographs of suicides, car crashes, and accidents as source material. Warhol produced a range of films between 1963 and 1968, beginning with his first feature-length film Sleep (1963), five hours and twenty-one minutes of poet John Giorno asleep. His groundbreaking eight-hour-long silent film Empire (1964) features continuous slow motion footage of the Empire State Building in New York City. In 1966, he made his most commercially successful film, the three-hour-long, double-screen The Chelsea Girls.
In 1964, Warhol moved his studio to a large loft at 231 East 47th Street in midtown Manhattan. Warhol collaborator Billy Name decorated the space with silver paint and aluminum foil, and it became known as the Silver Factory. It was a creative hub for parties and experimentation, from drug use to music and art. Its popularity grew quickly, and it attracted a diverse and inclusive crowd of artists, friends, and celebrities, many of whom posed for short film portraits. With a stationary Bolex camera, from 1964–66 Warhol made almost 500 of these silent four-minute Screen Tests played back in slow motion.
Warhol first began making box sculptures in 1963. Invoking a factory assembly line and enlisting help from his studio assistants at the Silver Factory, he created hundreds of replicas of large supermarket product boxes—including Brillo Boxes, Heinz Boxes, Del Monte Boxes, and more. The ﬁnished sculptures were nearly indistinguishable from their cardboard supermarket counterparts, single packing cartons. The Brillo Boxes were first exhibited in 1964 at the Stable Gallery in New York where they were tightly packed and piled high, recalling a grocery warehouse.
Warhol expanded into performance art in 1966 with the debut of his traveling cinematic multimedia performance Exploding Plastic Inevitable, featuring The Velvet Underground and Nico. EPI was an immersive experience with live music, lighting effects, projected film footage, and live dancers.
Running at the same time as EPI was Warhol’s exhibition of Cow Wallpaper and Silver Clouds at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City. Created with engineer Billy Klüver, the metallic, floating Silver Clouds sculptures are made of silver plastic film filled with helium and air. Choreographer Merce Cunningham saw the sculptures at the opening and asked Warhol if he could use the floating installation as stage décor for his piece Rainforest (1968). The clouds floated among dancers on stage.
Warhol lost the lease on his Silver Factory in 1967 and relocated to the 6th floor of 33 Union Square West. On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas, a writer who had appeared in Warhol’s film I, a Man (1967), came into the studio and shot him. Warhol was physically and emotionally scarred by the nearly fatal shooting. This event significantly altered his working practice from an experimental, collaborative approach to a much more guarded one. The shooting damaged eight organs and left scars across his stomach and torso. The incident and numerous surgeries that followed required that he wear a corset for the rest of his life.
In college, Warhol developed a blotted-line technique that combined drawing with basic printmaking. Blotted line allowed him to create a variety of illustrations using the same initial pattern, important to his commercial illustration career when he could bring several ideas to clients. This was the beginning of his lifelong interest to quickly create multiples. Warhol famously quipped, “I want to be a machine,” alluding to his interest in mass production. His most notable style, photographic silkscreen printing, replicated the look of commercial advertising. It gave Warhol a faithful duplication of his source images while allowing him to experiment with various techniques, such as over-printing (printing one color on top of another), registration (aligning colors on a single image), and color combinations. Warhol worked with art assistants and professional printers to produce thousands of silkscreen paintings and print portfolios throughout his lifetime.
Warhol became increasingly involved in publishing in the late 1960s, becoming fully immersed in the 1970s. In 1969, he co-founded Interview, a magazine devoted to film, fashion, and popular culture that gave him access to the stars. He published his first mass-produced book, Andy Warhol’s Index (Book), in 1967, and THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) was published in 1975. Published posthumously in 1989, The Andy Warhol Diaries chronicle his daily life from November 24, 1976, through February 17, 1987, five days before he died; his assistant and friend Pat Hackett transcribed their daily phone conversations detailing the previous day’s events.
Warhol and Craig Braun designed the cover for The Rolling Stones’s album Sticky Fingers in 1971, and the design was nominated for a Grammy Award. He had been commissioned previously for album cover designs and painted portraits, but in the 1970s he began to receive hundreds of commissions from socialites, music and film stars, and others. He was a regular at Studio 54, the famous New York disco, along with celebrities such as fashion designer Halston, Liza Minnelli, and Bianca Jagger.
During this period, Warhol used a Polaroid camera and a tape recorder to document his daily life, from business meetings to star-studded social occasions. He also used Polaroid photographs as source materials for his iconic celebrity portraits and many still lifes throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
A major 1972 exhibition that signaled Warhol’s renewed focus on painting featured a series of works depicting Chairman Mao. Warhol saw the pervasiveness of Mao’s image in China as akin to Western advertising strategies. By 1974, increasing his painting production, Warhol moved his office to a larger space on the 3rd floor of 860 Broadway on Union Square. The 1970s saw a prolific number of paintings, often including controversial or charged imagery, including Vote McGovern (1972), Ladies and Gentlemen (1975), Skulls (1976), Hammer and Sickle (1976), and Oxidation Paintings (1978), which were created by Warhol friends and studio assistants urinating onto a canvas primed with a metallic paint.
Warhol started his largest serial work in 1974, the Time Capsules. He filled, sealed, and sent to storage 569 standard-sized cardboard boxes, 20 filing cabinets (two Time Capsules per cabinet), and a large steamer trunk. Each Time Capsule is filled with ephemera—letters, photographs, publications, recordings, clothing, food, medicine, toys, antiques, ticket stubs, artworks, and more—dating from the 1950s to his death in 1987.
Warhol was infatuated with Hollywood celebrity and fame since childhood. He wrote to movie stars for headshots and fan photos, assembling scrapbooks between 1938 and 1941. In the 1960s, The Factory became a hangout for artists, musicians, and writers, including Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, and many more. Warhol’s Superstars, including Edie Sedgwick, Brigid Berlin, Ondine, and Candy Darling, were Factory goers who appeared in his films and became fixtures in his social life. In the 1970s, Warhol was a regular at the New York disco Studio 54, and he received hundreds of portrait commissions from wealthy socialites, musicians, and film stars. He remained in the spotlight in the 1980s with his television work and high-fashion modeling. Warhol achieved stardom, and helped others do the same, realizing his expression, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Central to Warhol’s practice were collecting and documenting. He collected everything from watches to cookie jars, and his largest serial work, Time Capsules, encapsulated items from his daily life from the 1950s to his death. He documented the world around him not only through his paintings and films, but also through his tape recorder and Polaroid photography, capturing his encounters, both mundane and magnificent.
Throughout his career, Warhol frequently collaborated with artists, and in 1984 he worked with young artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, and Keith Haring. When working with Basquiat and Clemente, each artist worked independently on the canvas before passing it along, the artist’s individual marks remaining distinct and recognizable signs and logos becoming part of the compositions. Warhol also returned to hand painting with a brush in the 1980s, something he had set aside in the 1960s in favor of the silkscreen.
Warhol took an interest in television and produced two cable shows, Andy Warhol’s T.V. (1980–83) and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes (1985–87) for MTV. He also made television appearances on The Love Boat and Saturday Night Live, appeared in both print and television commercials, produced music videos, and modeled in fashion shows. Continuing his artistic experimentation, Warhol made a series of digital artworks in 1985 using an Amiga 1000.
During the latter part of his career, Warhol again experimented with abstraction. His Rorschachs (1984) and Camouflages (1986) had no identifiable subject, a notable departure from his earlier works, though they were still immediately recognizable images.
In 1984, Warhol was commissioned by Alexander Iolas—who also gave Warhol his first solo show in 1952—to create a series of paintings to be installed opposite the convent where Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is housed. This commission resulted in one of Warhol’s largest bodies of work, comprised of about one hundred works featuring da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Nine months before his death, Warhol created a series of iconic monumental self-portraits featuring his gaunt face, fixed gaze, and a spiky wig, some of the canvases measuring nine feet square.
On February 22, 1987, Warhol died at New York Hospital in Manhattan due to complications following a surgery to remove his gall bladder. Warhol is buried next to his mother and father at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Bethel Park, a suburb south of Pittsburgh.
Warhol was born into a devout Byzantine Catholic family that attended mass at Pittsburgh’s St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. Later in life in New York City, Warhol regularly attended St. Vincent Ferrer to pray and to attend mass. As a child, Warhol would have seen the richly painted iconostasis during mass and learned about this wall of icons and their role in worship in Eastern Catholic churches. Warhol painted religious symbols using imagery such as Raphael’s Madonna, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and the cross as source material.
If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.