In February 2018 I wrote a potted history of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens (you can read it here). Much new information had emerged since thanks to Blake Gopnik’s new biography Warhol — A Life as Art.
The story as I understood it back when I wrote that post was that Warhol had been searching for a way to mechanise his art, enabling him to produce many similar images with a minimum of effort. He had developed his characteristic dot-and-blot technique that allowed him to produce a third degree copy of an original drawing or photograph. Fist he would trace the image to be reproduced and then he would tape another paper so that it folded over the traced image and then he would ink the tracing an inch or so at a time and blot the the ink with the paper he had taped to transfer the image in reverse onto the second sheet. This was a time consuming method and produced only a single copy. He later tried making stamps to print recurring images, but was limited to relatively small images. He produced his S & H Green Stamps print by this tedious method. According to several authors, Warhol got the idea of silkscreening from the teenaged Sarah Dalton, who, together with her brother David, Warhol had taken under his wing in around 1961.
However, Gopnik has researched the subject in greater detail. Warhol certainly had experience of silkscreening during his years (1945-1949) at Carnegie Tech and often visited the avant guard Outlines Gallery in Pittsburgh where gallery owner Betty Rockwell put on a show of silkscreened works that Warhol would have seen. Thus there is no doubt that Warhol was aware of the silkscreen technique and had probably had some experience of using it in his studies.
So, why didn’t he take up the technique until 1962? Could the young Sarah have jogged his memory? Gopnik makes no mention of her in this capacity, though she turns up later in his book as the editor of Warhol’s first film Sleep.
I had previously dated Warhol’s first silkscreen prints to the Autumn of 1962. But Gopnik, who spent much time in the archives of The Warhol Museum, ahs found that Warhol’s first silkscreen was for a record cover in April 1962. That cover was the Take Ten album by Paul Desmond, recently “discovered” by Guy Minnebach.
Not only was this therefore Warhol’s first commercial silkscreen, it was his first silkscreened portrait. According to Gopnik, Warhol made the front cover of Time magazine in May 1962 photographed standing in front of his silkscreened Two Hundred One-dollar Bills, but I haven’t been able to find this cover. This suggests that Warhol was already using the silkscreen medium to produce art as early as this. Gopnik also suggests that Warhol was experimenting with portraits of Marilyn Monroe during the summer of 1962 — before her death in August of that year and that he, as a shrewd businessman, realised he could capitalise on her demise with his silkscreened portraits. Warhol probably also made his Elvis canvases during the late summer or early autumn of 1962 shown a year later in Warhol’s second show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.