Philip Pearlstein, Andy Warhol in New York City, c1949
Credit: Philip Pearlstein/Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution

Soup cans. Super stars. Silver screens. When we think of Warhol, we think first of readymades, photography, silkscreen printing, and later, film.

But the 300 or so illustrated works in a surprising new show, Adman: Warhol Before Pop, more closely call to mind the evocative line drawings of Jean Cocteau and Henri Matisse than anything produced in the Factory era or thereafter, and in doing so they reveal a little seen side to one of the most influential artists of all time.

Open from tomorrow at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Adman paints a very different picture of the prescient (and despite appearances, profound) Warhol, whose legacy so indelibly impacted both American art, popular thought and culture.

Produced in an exclusive collaboration with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and helmed by its former (Australian) curator Nicholas Chambers, Adman has been billed as the most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to Warhol’s early career in more than 25 years. The show surveys his formative work as a commercial illustrator through to his first exhibitions, those that preceded his famous first Brillo box shows at New York’s Stable Gallery. Many works included in the exhibition, including intimate sketchbooks, are being displayed publicly for the first time, while others have not been displayed since Warhol’s initial exhibitions in the 1950s.

Other highlights (and there are many to behold) include an entire wall of shoe drawings (many silhouettes redolent of yesterday’s Gucci show) produced by Warhol for various advertising assignments, or as artworks for his own personal enjoyment. Many of these works take their names from those who moved in a coterie of the artist’s friends, many of them openly gay at a time when to be so was to court disrepute. That’s one of the more fascinating angles the exhibition explores – that of Warhol as queer pioneer – timed as it is to coincide with the imminent (and ongoing) Sydney Mardi Gras festivities.

Intimate portraits of the young artist by friends also provide a fascinating and alternative look at a man who would become simultaneously plagued and enamoured with his own image. On another wall, large scale shopfront window displays for clients like Dior at the Bonwit Teller Fifth Avenue department store have been recreated from sketches and photographs of the original windows.

While Warhol’s contemporaries like Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist would also complete similar projects under the guise of anonymity, Warhol unabashedly signed his and in doing so ushered in the unprecedented conflation of commercial and fine art that would prove so radical, not only in his career but in the course of contemporary American art. 

Adman is on at the Art Gallery of NSW from February 25 – May 28, 2017. You can find out more information here.

Tile and cover image: Courtesy of AGNSW