The artistry of consistency
Today was a high content-consumption day for me. I spent the morning at the Whitney Museum’s new Andy Warhol exhibit, studying the turning points of his artistic career. I spent the afternoon digging into the life of Gloria Steinem, through reading numerous essays, watching a biographical play about her life, then hearing her speak shortly thereafter. While Warhol and Steinem may have little in common, there is one unifying thread between their two lives: Their consistency to reach their end goals.
Throughout it all, Warhol was a dedicated artist-as-businessman, appealing to the interests of popular culture and celebrity personas in the world around him. Steinem found her voice through the uncelebrated voices of her fellow women, and her fight for female equality became the most important story of her life. And over time, both Warhol and Steinem have profound effects among the people around them.
The woman seated next to me during the play burst into tears the moment she entered the Daryl Roth Theatre. At 61 years old, Steinem had been such an influence to her life that she was beside herself with anticipation and gratitude. This phenomenon, as we learn throughout the play, is not uncommon. At one point, a woman wrote Steinem that she had read Ms. magazine in jail, then became so empowered by female empowerment that she reformed her life and her relationships, then studied to become a lawyer.
And as for Warhol, the originator of “viral content,” his legacy lives on through the live energy even today in long lines at the museum entrance. Earlier in his life, Warhol was the victim of an attempted murder. I later learned the motive of his would-be murderer was that she apparently felt so overpowered by his artistic presence in her life that she felt controlled by him.
But what exactly is that thing?
For Warhol, did he unlock that celebrity status the first time he nailed that now-famous silk screen print of Marilyn Monroe? For Steinem, was it the moment she published her series, A Bunny’s Tale, where she infiltrated Playboy uncover and reports on what it’s like to be a Playboy Bunny?
While these moments certainly helped with early notoriety, one thing that becomes clear throughout any retrospective art exhibit or biography is that there often is not one major moment or work…but a million little moments.
Of course it’s easy for us to see that without looking under the hood. But Warhol operated (and Steinem still does) with surprising consistency, repetition, and determination. He’s not famous because he made one silkscreen image of Marilyn Monroe. He’s famous because he did it hundreds of times. And she’s not famous for one or two essays — her feminism stature carries the weight of decades-long efforts, campaigns, and movements.
An early painting of Coca-Cola, circa 1961 (now on display at the Whitney)
Perhaps the most telling moment for me from the day was witnessing a turning point moment in Warhol’s career. As it’s now well-known, Warhol was a Pop artist, constantly pulling in well-known brands and images of daily life into his art.
This inspiration spawned from his early life as an illustrator for advertising agencies and eventually became a major component of his personal brand.
But in the early ’60s, when Warhol was still experimenting with this new style, he drew two paintings of Coca-Cola bottles: One more free-form, and a second with cleaner lines and a more machine-like feel to it.
A 1962 Warhol image of Coca-Cola, with much more of a machine-like quality
Undecided about the best approach, Warhol convened gallerists, a curator, and a filmmaker to help him assess the work, posing the question: “Which do you like more?”
Everyone present agreed on the latter piece — the more mechanical and discrete image — as opposed to the expressionistic quality of the earlier version.
From that point on, Warhol committed to this new wave of pop culture as art, eventually honing in on the process to an entirely new level of accuracy and consistency through the repetition of his silk-screen technique.
This story stands out to me because it is a humble reminder that even great artists rely on feedback to improve. There is no “overnight sensation” effect in the work of a person who produces hundreds of short films in a three-year period of time. Each and every painting, drawing, silk-screen, and film is an added component to make up a complex and larger picture.
At the time, it probably didn’t seem clear at all. Just like the process of second-wave feminism was not a clear or obvious path from the start for Steinem. But of course, hindsight is everything. And looking back, it’s easy to assign names to his various waves of artistic expression as unique periods or phases in themselves.
It’s a good reminder for me that, if nothing else, consistency is the most important characteristic of any artistic endeavor. Each little touchpoint adds up over time and tells a bigger, clearer story later on. So the more you produce, the richer your story becomes.