In addition to the growth of car sales, American industry and the production of consumer goods experienced a phenomenal boom following World War II. The US economy expanded, shifting its factories from wartime production to the manufacturing of products to fulfill growing domestic desires. The expanding array of consumer products made way for advertising to become a thriving industry. During this period Andy Warhol worked as a commercial artist and illustrator. His later work as a one of the most prominent American Pop artists centers around that same consumer culture—as both subject and conceptual framework—from his media manipulation of found images to serial repetitions of commercial products, all iconic in their ubiquity.
Bracketed within this attention to consumerism is Warhol’s interest in the ultimate objects of desire and conveyors of goods: vehicles. He produced screen prints of cars, trucks, and crashes, including Truck (1985), which depicts a semi barreling forward. The misalignment between its various silk-screened layers almost mimic the blurred effects of speed. The graphic flatness of the image resembles the printing on the side of the truck itself, which focuses our attention on these grotesquely colorful, hulking, animated billboards that are typically invisible in their omnipresence.
Signs in the vehicular landscape are not limited to discrete objects but form a continuous atmosphere. Informed by his trips between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, Ed Ruscha cataloged this atmosphere in a collection of paperback books with a serial Warholian accounting of found objects or readymades selected from the vehicular landscape. Like instructional manuals or surveys, those books feature roadside scenography that is characteristically industrial, utilitarian, mundane, and even ugly. These mass-produced, cheaply printed books mirror the repetitive and disposable qualities of their subject matter.
In his book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1st edition, 1966), Ruscha presents two panoramic photomontages of LA’s Sunset Boulevard in concertina format. The street front is littered with words in the form of commercial signage that creates a kind of super graphic field, akin to what Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour later termed “decorated sheds” in their architectural publication Learning from Las Vegas (1972). The everyday content in LA, like Las Vegas, is iconic in its capitalist uniformity.
Noel Mahaffey’s screen print Night—Times Square (1979) portrays an environment of a different nature: the gritty and dark New York City of the 1970s. Neon signs feature prominently, advertising restaurants amid seedy establishments. Veiled in a nighttime chiaroscuro, facades, figures, and van are only partially visible in the wash of colored light emanating from the signs. Despite the beautiful glow of lights, Mahaffey’s image has a sense of foreboding. Reflected in it are the urban issues found in New York and many US cities at the time that were struggling with economic stagnation due to suburbanization and waves of crime.
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Truck, 1985. Screen print on Lenox Museum board, 32 x 40″. Extra, out of the edition. Designated for research and educational purposes only. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937), Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1st edition, 1966. Artist’s book: offset printed, 7 1/8 x 5 3/4 x 3/8″ (closed); 7 1/8 x 297″ (open, unfolded). Published by the artist, Los Angeles. Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library, Washington University in St. Louis. © Edward J. Ruscha IV. This collection of images was recently digitized and made public by the Getty Research Institute.
Noel Mahaffey (American, b. 1944), Night—Times Square, from the portfolio City-Scapes, 1979. Screen print, 247/250, 22 x 30″. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Harold J. Joseph, 1980.