In this conceptual approach to making art, Warhol inherited the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, an artist he knew, admired, painted, and filmed. Like Duchamp’s ready-mades, the ultimate importance of a work by Warhol is not who physically made each object, but the ideas it generates. As the son of immigrants, Warhol in his early works returned again and again to the theme of America itself. What else are the paintings of cheap advertisements for nose jobs and dance lessons concerned with if not the American dream and the price of conformity it exacts? As soon as he’d examined the American obsession with celebrity and glamour in the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, he was quick to show its race riots and electric chair. Unlike Duchamp’s, his was a highly public art, one that criss-crossed between high art, popular culture, commerce, and daily life.
Everything that passed before Warhol’s basilisk gaze—celebrities, socialites, speed freaks, rock bands, film, and fashion—he imprinted with his deadpan mixture of glamour and humor, then cast them back into the world as narcissistic reflections of his own personality. This is what makes him one of the most complex and elusive figures in the history of art. As Danto explains in his brilliant short study of Warhol, the question Warhol asked is not “What is art?” but “What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?”