Warhol, Pop Art, and Autism: Case Unravelled
On the 9th of July 1962, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibition opened at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. It was Warhol’s first solo gallery exhibition as a fine artist. The size of the show was determined by the number of varieties of Campbell’s soup available at the time. The 32 paintings were presented in the way tinned foods are normally offered for sale in a supermarket, in orderly, evenly spaced rows. But the gallery space was no ordinary supermarket, and the representations of Campbell’s Soup Cans were no ordinary saleable goods. The paintings cost 100 dollars each, compared with 29 cents for the original food item. The exhibition was simply a provocation; it juxtaposed the concepts of art trade and food trade in the most direct manner, making a conscious comparison between the two, and forcing reflection upon the emergence of a new, postmodern consumer culture.
The colourful, oversized replicas of ordinary soup cans sparked instant controversy. During the time Warhol’s show was on display, a gallery close to the Ferus ridiculed Warhol’s art by displaying dozens of real soup cans and encouraging people to buy three for 60 cents. But against all odds the resulting controversy only helped make Warhol famous in the art world. Paradoxically, from then on, he was considered a ‘serious artist’.
The image of a tin of soup repeated across a canvas has always been thought of as Andy Warhol’s ironic response to popular culture. But there is growing evidence that the late pop artist’s love of repetition was actually a symptom of autism, the psychological disability that channels thought down unusual or ‘eccentric’ paths. The first to recognise traits of some form of autism in Warhol’s behaviour, as well as his art, was the composer Ian Stewart. “Stewart explained that what first convinced him was the chapter ‘Underwear Power’ Warhol wrote in 1975. ‘I think underwear must be especially problematic for people who are autistic’, Stewart (who has autism himself) remarked, ‘because I have to get exactly the same type from the same high-street shop year in year out and I’m sure green underwear feels different from other colours’. For Warhol, it was necessary to examine even the label on the packaging to make sure nothing had changed, such as the washing instructions. Stewart goes on to address the question of how autism affected Warhol’s art, ‘He was, of course an exceptional draughtsman, one of the skills often found in people with autism. …He is usually credited with introducing multiple versions of the same images in a grid pattern into art. …Such patterns are more likely to register and be of interest to someone who is autistic’. …’He never had much to say and when he did talk it was always about his work. He was really wrapped up in his work’. The absolute flatness of his voice, his peculiar locutions, his inability to process human speech correctly are also indications. He cringed from physical contact. The obsessive playing of gramophone records, the collections of furniture and objects such as cookie jars are also significant, likewise his obsessive archival activities, in which he documented his ‘wrongness’. Biographers mention his tendency to establish routines, such as the regular morning and evening rounds of his collections.” (J. Bogousslavsky, M.G. Hennerici, H. Bazner, C. Bassetti, Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists)
Also, the Irish psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald observed certain symptomatic behaviours suggesting that Warhol could have been affected by autism. “As a young adult he was described as a mixture of 6-year old child and well-trained artist. He was very naive and left himself open… there was something fragile and unprotected about him. He was very much a night creature and literally afraid to go to sleep at night. He was certainly narcissistic and fed his narcissism with his publicity and his control of other people. …Fitzgerald ends his profile of Warhol by saying that a very strong case can be made for the contention that he had Asperger’s syndrome. He had major social relationship problems and showed a lack of empathy with people. He was a workaholic with narrowly focused interests. He showed motor clumsiness and spoke in a monotonous voice. His thinking style was mechanical; he was extremely controlling and immature in personality. He was also an artistic genius.” (Bogousslavsky)
Despite all of these seemingly valid arguments, there is no medical evidence that Warhol was indeed affected by autism. Warhol’s fans do not want to give in to this idea at all. Otherwise, there would be a danger of his art being perceived not in terms of a conscious creational act or a significant cultural statement, but as an output dictated by symptomatic impulses. But then we should remember that having autism or Asperger’s syndrome does not exclude conscious or logical thinking. Among the names of famous people with autism are Albert Einstein and Stanley Kubrick. Should Warhol also be on this list?
Film Credit: starlett lopez