Feb 24th 2021

Quantifying Artistic Success: The Ascent of Andy Warhol

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

 

Measurement

The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history.  This paper documents the case of one important revision, in which Andy Warhol has emerged as the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century.

Artistic Importance

Important artists are innovators. Artistic canons are created by artists, from their choices of which of their predecessors they follow. Art scholars record these canons: they write surveys of art history, that trace the intellectual genealogies of the innovators who have shaped their disciplines. The frequency with which each artist’s work is illustrated in these texts has proved to be an excellent metric for quantifying scholars’ judgements of the relative importance of the artists who comprise their subjects.

Rankings

As shown in Table 1, a 2002 study of 56 textbooks published during 1980-2001 ranked Jackson Pollock first among modern American painters, ahead of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Pollock’s position was not surprising: he was the generally acknowledged leader of the Abstract Expressionist, who changed the geography of the western art world by breaking the century-old monopoly of Paris as the center of western art, and establishing New York as the new capital.

But a surprise appears in the second column of Table 1, which presents the results of a parallel study done in 2018, based on the analysis of 55 textbook published during 2000-18. In this later study, Andy Warhol leapfrogs both Pollock and Johns, to rank as the most important American painter.

 

Table 1: 2002 Rankings of American Modern Artists

 

Artist

Total Illustrations

 

 

 

2002

2018

1.

Jackson Pollock

135

127

2.

Jasper Johns

124

99

3.

Andy Warhol

114

135

4.

Robert Rauschenberg

106

97

5.

Willem de Kooning

94

92

6.

Roy Lichtenstein

93

74

 

 

Warhol’s Ascent

 Understanding why Warhol came to be considered the most important American painter can begin by determining when he rose to this position. Table 2 offers a detailed view of this, by preventing rankings by decade. This disaggregated evidence shows that Warhol rose above Johns in books published in the 1990s, then surpassed Pollock in the decade after 2000.

Table 2: Numbers of Illustrations of Works by American Artists, by Decade

 

Artist

Decade

 

 

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

2010s

 

 

n

n

n

n

n

n

 

Willem de Kooning

34

41

26

53

61

36

 

Jasper Johns

15

36

34

71

83

37

 

Roy Lichtenstein

11

40

27

51

57

32

 

Jackson Pollock

43

61

37

99

96

68

 

Robert Rauschenberg

15

44

31

59

76

37

 

Andy Warhol

5

41

30

81

101

80

 

Scholars’ narratives of artists’ innovations necessarily lag changes in the art world, because they depend on recognizing trends in the behavior of artists, so the evidence of Table 2 suggests that Warhol’s ascent was a product of changes in American art before 1990. And this points to the key decade of the 1980s, when a new generation burst on the New York art world, not only declaring but demonstrating their allegiance to Warhol. These brash young artists, led by Jean – Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Julian Schnabel, paid tribute to Warhol as – in Haring’s words – “a teacher for a generation of artists now, and in the future, who grew up on Pop.” Both their art and their behavior reflected the basic influence of Warhol, as Haring declared that “Andy’s life and work made my work possible,” and called him “the most important artist since Picasso.”

DG_Warhol1
Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984

 

Warhol’s continuing ascent after 2000, shown in Table 2, was a product of the spread of his influence beyond New York, as Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Ai  Weiwei, and other leading young artists around the world continued to be inspired by Warhol’s art and his novel model of artistic behavior. Thus in 2015, Ai declared that “Warhol is the most important artist of this era, even though he has been gone for more than twenty years.”

DG_WeiWeiWarhol
Ai Weiwei paying tribute to Warhol, 1987

 

Warhol in Western Art

Warhol’s growing influence has raised his standing among western artists in general. Table 3 presents the results of a survey of textbooks published during 2006-18, that counted illustrations of the work of the greatest western artists of the 20th century. Warhol ranks not only above Pollock, but above all but two of the European masters. The simplest narrative from this ranking is that Picasso and Matisse revolutionized western painting in the first half of the 20th century, then Warhol revolutionized it in the second half.

 

Table 3: Ranking of Greatest Western 20th-Century Artists

 

Artist

 

 

 

 

n

 

1.

Pablo Picasso

202

 

2.

Henri Matisse

117

 

3.

Andy Warhol

81

 

4.

Marcel Duchamp

80

 

5.

Jackson Pollock

68

 

6.

Piet Mondrian

64

 

7.

Kazimir Malevich

60

 

8.

Georges Braque

49

 

 

 

 

 

In one respect, Warhol placed second only to Picasso among the greatest artists of the 20th century. In the importance of the work of artists in a single year, Warhol’s paintings of 1962 ranked below only Picasso’s paintings of 1907 in total illustrations. Thus art historians have judged that Warhol’s introduction of mechanical reproduction of photographic images in the paintings of Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe was the second greatest breakthrough of the century, behind only Picasso’s announcement of Cubism with the Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Warhol’s Legacy

Andy Warhol’s impact on contemporary art has been large, diverse, and durable. Reviewing his influence on younger artists during the past four decades has allowed scholars to identify his many innovations. His major formal contributions – use of mechanical reproduction, serial forms, and having paintings on photographs – were introduced in 1962. Over time, he also pioneered novel forms of artistic behavior, including painting by proxy, the model of the celebrity artist, the pose of the artist as trickster, the open avowal of his desire for wealth, the diversity of his activities, and his use of mundane subjects. Younger artists found they could tailor these innovations to complement their own personal forms of conceptual art. Today Warhol’s practices are echoed by leading artists all around the world, and quantifying the narratives of art scholars demonstrates that this has made him the most important modern American painter.

Georg Kubler understood that quantification had a place in art history, observing that “to explain something and to measure it are similar operations.” In the present case, measuring the timing of Andy Warhol’s rise in the canon of western art has led to a more systematic understanding of his ascent.

 

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