Neurodiversity Spotlight – Andy Warhol

Eden Kayser

(Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait Fright Wig, 1986, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc © The Andy Warhol foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 1998.1.2890)

Andy Warhol was one of the most popular artists in the 1960s. While most well-known for his pop art, he also experimented with performance art, filmmaking, video illustrations, and writing. Warhol’s paintings often contained images of consumer goods and pop culture icons that both criticized and celebrated America’s culture around money and fame with bright colors and bold lines. Warhol’s style of painting was different in that it contained recognizable mass-produced imagery to convey a statement about commercialism. Years after his death on February 22nd, 1987, fans of his speculate that he may have been on the autism spectrum.  

In a 1999 article from The Guardian, Arts Correspondent Vanessa Thorpe highlights Warhol’s repetition of printing the same image uniformly on canvas. Repetition is a trait commonly displayed in autism. Warhol’s use of repetition and attention to detail is seen in his most famous works including Campbell’s Soup Cans, Colored Mona Lisa, and the Marilyn Monroe Series. Repetition was displayed not only in his art, but also in behavior. In a detailed blog about Warhol’s life, people who knew him observed that we would repeat patterns, records, phrases, and questions, many times.  

In a neurodiversity article written by Delaney Caverly, she mentioned Dr Judith Gould’s observations that during interviews Warhol would show difficulty with social engagement, upholding conversations, and would seem reluctant to answer questions. He would use minimal words when speaking to others and had difficulty recognizing friends. Warhol would also avoid physical contact with others and poorly displayed empathy. This suggests he had social ineptitude which is a very common struggle for people with autism.  

Composer Ian Stewart first started this theory, and after working with Warhol, got an official diagnosis himself. Stewart observed Warhol’s unusual routines, including only buying the same brand of green cotton underwear specifically sold from K-Mart in mass-quantities. Stewart claimed Warhol was convinced that green felt different from colors, suggesting he had a sensitivity to texture. Being sensitive to stimulants including light, sound, touch, texture, taste, smell, pain, temperature is a common trait found in autism.  

Though he was never given an official diagnosis, medical professionals believe Andy Warhol most definitely had autism. However, some fans were upset when the theory was proposed, feeling it reduced Warhol’s achievements by undermining the idea of him intentionally shaping other’s understanding of pop art. This does not change the fact that his art has some of the most valuable and recognizable works of all time. Whether or not he had autism, should not take away from his success, as his artistic perspective still touched audiences world-wide.