Consumers, Warhol, and 1960s America

Making art from the advertising that inundated modern America

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola [3], 1962, casein on canvas, 176.2 x 137.2 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Alejo Benedetti, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Warhol, Coca-Cola [3]

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Key points

    • Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, increased factory production and economic prosperity in the United States contributed to a rise in consumer culture dominated by recognizable product brands and iconic advertising images popularized through mass media.
    • The widespread appeal of products like Coca-Cola suggested an ideal of American democracy where individuals shared common experiences, regardless of class or social difference.
    • By imitating the style and commercial technique of mass advertising, Pop Art rejected an emphasis on the skill of the artist.
    • Warhol replaced art’s traditional subject matter with images of everyday, mass produced objects.

Many post-war artists turned to the “everyday” as an antidote to capitalist conformism—as a field of spontaneity, serendipity, and freedom. But others wondered whether the American everyday had not, in fact, already been thoroughly saturated by corporate media. By the early 1960s, the post-war economic boom had progressed to the point where its commercial effects had permeated the everyday landscape with standardized objects, architectures, and media-dizzying arrangements of billboards, subway advertisements, tabloids, comic books, movie posters, and supermarket signs—and the din of televisions and radios. What would happen to the critical function of art if it were to expand so far as to include not only (to quote [Allan] Kaprow) “the odor of crushed strawberries” but also “a billboard selling Drano”? Would art simply collapse into advertising? Would commodities be reclassified as art?

From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 592. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Go deeper

Learn more about this work from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Read about the rise of the suburbs and consumer culture in the years after World War II

What was the Consumer Era?

Find out how consumerism helped shaped American identities in the 1950s

Learn more about Pop Art from Tate, MoMA, and DPLA

More to think about

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a dramatic increase in consumer culture and advertising imagery. Warhol’s Coca-Cola [3] incorporates both the subject and the style of these new images, but is this painting critical or celebratory of this “culture of excess”? What are the arguments for both positions?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.