Arts Review: Adman: Warhol before pop shows a different side to the influential artist

For most people the iconic artist, Andy Warhol is synonymous with the colourful pop art of Campbell’s soup cans, portraits of Marilyn Monroe and the record sleeves from The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones. What some people may not realise is that Andy Warhol was an accomplished commercial illustrator and draftsman who worked in advertising during the same period as shown in the TV series Mad Men. The Art Gallery of NSW’s Adman: Warhol before pop will educate and enlighten patrons about Warhol’s advertising work by drawing together over 300 objects, including some that have never been on public display before.

This exhibition includes drawings, photographs, artist’s books, shop-front window displays, vintage advertisements and personal items on loan from The Andy Warhol Museum in the late artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh. It is fascinating to walk through and track Warhol’s career in this exhibit. It begins in 1949 when the then Andrew Warhola was a new graduate from the Pittsburgh Carnegie Institute of Technology. Warhol would then shorten his name and move to New York where he was buoyed by the possibilities available in this big city and some early advertising assignments. Warhol showed an early knack for this work; he won several awards and his clients noticed that Warhol had a knack for communicating and persuading people with his eye-catching works and the different techniques he employed.

There is no doubt that Warhol was a true creative. He developed his own blot-line drawing technique and some of these pictures are on display here. These works allowed Warhol to make multiple copies of the same picture but no two were exactly the same. This along with his early work with hand-carved rubber stamps could also be seen as early precursors to his iconic silkscreen prints of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Deborah Harry, among others. At the time, Warhol was quizzed about his new method and technique and he said, “The reason I am painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”

Warhol has a great ability to experiment with different media and methods. In this exhibition, you can view very sensitive, intimate and homoerotic drawings and studies that he completed for his “Studies of a Boy” book and then view some collaborations he did with his mother (namely, her own distinctive typography) that became advertisements at a time where illustrations were used rather than photographs. You can also see some of his souvenirs from a world trip and then view his first forays into the pop world where he appropriated images from newspapers and magazines and when he first drew a woman’s shoes alongside a Coca-Cola bottle.

There is no question that Messer Warhol liked playing with and even thumbing his nose at convention. He signed his works at a time when fine artists used pseudonyms when they were employed to do commercial pieces. He was also influenced by many different people, places and things. A trip to Thailand saw Warhol spotting lots of gold leaf in traditional art and architecture so he used this in his own volume called A Gold Book, which he gave away to friends and prospective clients as well as in some of his subsequent silk screens.

Adman is an excellent coup for the Art Gallery of NSW as it shows a different side to one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. In this presentation, the colour is used sparingly but it is obvious that the techniques are first-class and that the creativity, humour and sensitivity really get a chance to shine through. Adman: Warhol before pop allows us to witness Warhol’s personal growth and journey as he negotiated the advertising world before becoming a successful artist in his own right. This exhibition should make you stop and consider Warhol’s work in a completely different light and that’s surely a sign of great art and an awesome exhibition if there ever was one.

Adman: Warhol before pop is open at the Art Gallery of NSW until May 28. For more information and tickets visit