Opinion: Andy Warhol and Autism

According to some popular theories, Andy Warhol was on the Autism Spectrum. Although there is no way to test this, the “evidence” is quite convincing. Andy engaged in repetitive behaviors such as eating Campbell’s Soup nearly everyday and wearing only green underwear.  In addition, he struggled to answer interview questions ( it is unclear whether this is due to nerves or an inability to articulate his thoughts) and often had his muse, Eddie Sedgwick, answer questions for him. 

Andy Warhol and Eddie Sedgwick

Many of history’s most gifted and creative people are also believed to be somewhere on the spectrum including Albert Einstein, Lewis Carrol, and Issac Newton. Unfortunately, not everyone is sympathetic towards Andy’s possible condition.  An article from the Guardian I used as a reference for this post said, “For fans of Warhol, however, the suggestion that their hero’s view of the world was impaired by a mental disorder is upsetting. It undermines the idea that he knowingly shaped our understanding of pop art.” I don’t mean to suggest the author is unsympathetic as she clarified many Autistics are talented and insightful people within the article. I am personally disgusted by the idea Andy’s appreciation of everyday objects could be viewed as less meaningful because of a mental diagnosis that was also an incredible gift. For as great of an artist as he was, if he were autistic, I highly doubt that diagnosis “impaired” his view of the world but made it more magical. For most of us, eating a can of soup is nothing more than a mundane event. For Andy, just looking at a soup can was an incredible experience. He saw his everyday life as art and any diagnosis he may have does not invalidate that view.

Andy Warhol- Soup Cans, 1961

I do not want to minimize Andy’s struggles as a possible Autistic or at least a highly unique person, but I would like to see the mundane world with as much curiosity and enchantment as he did. The only glimpse any of us get into his mind is through his artwork and diaries, and if he did feel isolated in any way (as many Autistics do), I am impressed by the courage he showed by sharing himself and his work with the world. I taught swim lessons to autistic children for many years so I am aware of the signs and struggles of autism especially when it comes to verbal communication. When I pay close enough attention, I usually discover a child is trying to communicate with me in a different way like Andy did with his paintings.

If you read my previous posts, then you are familiar with the struggles of 60s artists to combine “art and life.” Andy had no trouble with this as it’s something he did naturally as his everyday life was already enchanting to him.

Although it is covered up in early art books, (those published in the 60s-80s), many 1960s artists struggled with mental illness and health issues or were a part of the LGBTQ+ community. We should not make these things invisible to history as they are important to the identities of the artists and, whether they are relevant to the artwork or not, should not be hidden in the “shame” of decades past.

The Guardian. (2020). Was Autism the Secret of Warhol’s Art? theguardian.com/uk/1999/mar/14/vanessathorpe.theobserver

Crow, T. (1996) The Rise of the Sixties. New York, NY: Harry N Abrams Inc.

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