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.

The New York Theory

Although Pop Art is a relatively young movement, art historians argue about how and where it began. I think all their theories have some merit so I want to cover the most prevalent ones in my posts and have you decide which one you agree with. I’m starting with the first theory I encountered; that Pop Art began in New York City. I’ve settled for the “New York Theory” since it doesn’t have a name yet.

Leading up to the mid 50s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant art form but many people struggled to understand it. If you’re unfamiliar with that movement, it’s the kind of art that would make a skeptic say, “My five-year old could paint that.” Then, according to this theory, in 1955 Robert Rauchenburg created a multimedia piece called, The Bed, that opened the public to new views of art. 

The Bed was part quilt, part Expressionist painting and left critics confused. It wasn’t completely abstract or completely realistic; it was a whole new brand of art. This lead many critics to fear America was reverting back to naturalism in art.

The Bed-Robert Rauchenburg 1955

Apparently they had nothing to worry about. Rauchenberg’s friend, and for some time, his lover, Jasper Johns, used this opportunity of combining the abstract and realistic to recreate familiar symbols such as American flags, maps, and targets. These symbols mean something to everyone but that something depends on her own experience. Depending on what way you look at it, the American flag, for example, could evoke feelings of pride and patriotism or feelings of fear and anger. Johns wanted to connect with the viewer and, unlike an Abstract Expressionist, did not want art to focus on his emotion. This way art became more about the viewer’s perception than his own.

Close up of Target with Four Faces- Jasper Johns 1955

“I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.”

Jasper Johns

The shift away from emotion became popular with other artists and led to a completely objective form of art: Pop Art. Instead of symbolic color, Pop Art featured items people used in everyday life such as beer cans, cars, and Coke bottles. Perhaps the most well known Pop Artists are Roy Lichtenstein (known for his comic-like art) and Andy Warhol (known for his celebrity portraits and Campbell’s Soup can). Warhol later became regarded as a “pure pop artist” for his objective portrayal of everyday objects that, according to him, “don’t really mean anything.”

Marilyn Monroe- Andy Warhol 1962

Pop Art expanded the definition of art to include people and life outside the galleries meaning those who couldn’t easily relate to Abstract Expressionism weren’t expected to intellectualize Pop Art.  According to this theory, it began with Johns and Rachenburg as a rebellion against established art. As we’ll soon discover, not everyone agrees…

Chipp, H. (1968). Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Famous Artists Annual: A Treasury of Contemporary Art. Westport, CT: Famous Artists Schools Inc.

Jason, H.W. (1986) History of Art.  New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.