12 Things You Might Not Know About Andy Warhol

Susan Greenwood, Liaison Agency/Getty Images
Susan Greenwood, Liaison Agency/Getty Images

Andy Warhol is best known for creating iconic Pop art paintings of Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s. With the Factory, his New York City studio, he made films (such as Chelsea Girls) and championed bohemian performers (including Edie Sedgwick and Nico) that he deemed superstars. He also co-founded Interview magazine and presciently declared that everyone in the future will be world-famous for 15 minutes. To celebrate what would have been the artist's 90th birthday, here are a dozen things you might not know about Warhol.

1. HIS PARENTS WERE POOR IMMIGRANTS FROM CENTRAL EUROPE.

After leaving their village in present-day Slovakia to come to America, Andrej (or Ondrej) and Julia Warhola welcomed their son Andrew Warhola to the world in 1928. The family, including Warhol's two older brothers, lived humbly in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Andrej worked as a construction worker and coal miner but died of tuberculosis peritonitis when Warhol was 13.

2. HE WAS A DEVOUT CATHOLIC WHO REGULARLY ATTENDED MASS.

Warhol grew up as a practicing Byzantine Catholic, and he quietly continued to practice his religion as an adult. He went to a church on Manhattan's Upper East Side almost every day, attending Mass or praying in the afternoon. Warhol also wore a crucifix necklace, carried a rosary, and regularly volunteered at a church-run soup kitchen. Some of his art, such as his series The Last Supper, depicts religious themes, and Warhol is buried in a Catholic cemetery in Pennsylvania.

3. HE WAS THE VELVET UNDERGROUND’S MANAGER.

Pop artist and film-maker Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

In 1966 and 1967, Warhol organized events dubbed The Exploding Plastic Inevitable to combine his interests in art, performance, music, and film. He featured the Velvet Underground in The Exploding Plastic Inevitable and encouraged the band to perform with Nico, one of his superstars. Warhol then co-managed the band, produced the Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled album, and let the band use his banana artwork as its album cover.

4. DRELLA WAS HIS NICKNAME.

Warhol's friends and creative collaborators in the Factory called him Drella, a portmanteau of the names Dracula and Cinderella. Because he was often insincere and flippant, especially in interviews, it could be hard to uncover Warhol's true thoughts. But the nickname Drella conveyed the passive-aggressive, Jekyll and Hyde-like nature of his personality. Two members of the Velvet Underground even released an album in Warhol's memory called Songs For Drella.

5. HE USED URINE TO OXIDIZE SOME OF HIS PAINTINGS.

In 1977, Warhol started creating a series of abstract paintings called The Oxidations. Using a base of copper paint, he added urine to oxidize the paint, creating unique colors and textures. Warhol encouraged his friends to urinate on the canvases. Because each person's diet and vitamin intake differed, their urine created slightly different colors in the oxidation process and turned the copper paint various shades of green, brown, and yellow. In 2008, one of his paintings in this series sold for almost $2 million.

6. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR A GRAMMY AWARD.

In the 1950s and '60s, Warhol worked as a freelance commercial artist for companies such as Harper's Bazaar, RCA Records, and Columbia Records. Besides creating cover art for the Velvet Underground, he designed album artwork for the Rolling Stones, John Cale, and Aretha Franklin. His 1971 cover for the Rolling Stones's album Sticky Fingers—a risqué image of a man's crotch (in jeans) with a working zipper—was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Album Cover. (It lost to a band called Pollution.)

7. HIS SILVER WIGS COVERED UP HIS EARLY BALDING.

In his early 20s, Warhol began going bald, so he wore wigs to obscure his hair loss. His silver wigs—he had a collection of dozens—contributed to his bohemian image and avant-garde mystique. Warhol's iconic 1986 series of self-portraits, called Fright Wig, shows his (fake) hair sticking straight up. In 2010, his purple self-portrait sold at Sotheby's for more than $32 million.

8. HE WAS A LIFELONG MAMA’S BOY.

Until her death in 1972, Julia Warhola was her son's close and constant companion. Mother and son lived and worked together in New York City for almost two decades. Julia appeared in his film Mrs. Warhol and provided calligraphy and lettering for his projects. A collection of her drawings is even on display at Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum.

9. TRUMAN CAPOTE CALLED HIM A LOSER.

 A visitor walks near Self-Portrait 1986 by artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) at the Graves Gallery on April 11, 2012 in Sheffield, England
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Warhol admired Truman Capote's work and lifestyle, but the playwright didn’t feel the same. Recalling his meeting with a pre-fame Warhol (whom Capote claimed had been essentially stalking him), Capote described the artist as "one of those hopeless people that you just know nothing's ever going to happen to. Just a hopeless, born loser, the loneliest, most friendless person I'd ever seen in my life." Despite this cruel description, Capote later warmed to Warhol, and the two men had occasional lunches and collaborated on Interview magazine.

But their relationship was more as frenemies than as BFFs. Warhol reportedly said that one of Capote's scripts was awful and that in 1980, the author had become very distant and unfriendly: "It's strange, he's like one of those people from outer space—the body snatchers—because it's the same person, but it's not the same person."

10. A RADICAL FEMINIST WITH SCHIZOPHRENIA ALMOST KILLED HIM.

In 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Warhol (as well as art critic Mario Amaya) at the Factory. Warhol fought for his life, spending two months in the hospital recovering from his chest wound. Solanas, a radical feminist author diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who advocated overthrowing the government and eliminating men, had appeared in Warhol's film I, a Man (that's Solanas talking on a staircase). She was mad at the level of control she felt Warhol had over her life, so she shot him. Nearly two decades later, Warhol died in 1987 of a heart attack after a gallbladder surgery, possibly due to complications from the gunshot wound.

11. HE MADE A COOKBOOK, AND IT'S AS BIZARRE AS YOU'D EXPECT.

In 1959, Warhol joined forces with his friend, interior decorator Suzie Frankfurt, to create a cookbook called Wild Raspberries. Mocking the genre of stylish French cookbooks, Warhol and Frankfurt wrote recipes for "dishes" such as Omelet Greta Garbo (to be eaten alone), Roast Iguana Andalusian, and Gefilte of Fighting Fish. Although the handmade cookbooks contained 19 Warhol illustrations, Wild Raspberries wasn’t a commercial success.

12. PITTSBURGH IS A MECCA FOR HIS FANS.

Visitors enter the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Archie Carpenter, Getty Images

Since 1994, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has featured a treasure trove of Warhol-related items, including his paintings, drawings, sculptures, films, and photographs. You can also find issues of Interview magazine, his audiotaped recordings, diaries, wigs, and massive perfume collection. Perhaps most interestingly, the museum houses more than 600 Warhol time capsules, containing over three decades' worth of his newspapers, business documents, and childhood mementos.

The Mona Lisa Does Not Actually Cause the ‘Mona Lisa Effect’

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? By a certain Leonardo da Vinci painting, perhaps? Scientists call it the Mona Lisa effect: the sense that the eyes of a figure in a painting or photograph are following you as you move around the room. But according to a new study in the journal i-Perception, the eyes in the Mona Lisa painting don’t actually fit the criteria.

The Mona Lisa effect is real—scholars have documented the phenomenon for nearly 2000 years. The effect doesn’t just depend on the direction of the painted figure’s gaze. The figure’s head position in the painting and the slant of the picture itself create specific geometric conditions in space, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painted person’s stare. The sensation can occur no matter where the viewer is in relation to the portrait.

Until now, according to researchers at Bielefeld University in Germany, no one had tested the effect on the Mona Lisa itself. Gernot Horstmann and Sebastian Loth, members of the university’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology, designed a study in which 24 participants viewed 15 different sections of the Mona Lisa painting on a monitor. A simple ruler was placed in front of the monitor, and each viewer marked the spot where they thought the gaze landed on the ruler, which indicated its angle.

An angle of zero meant a straight-at-the-viewer look. A slightly sideward gaze toward the viewer’s ear, corresponding to a 5-degree angle, would still prompt the sense of being watched. "But as the angle increases, you would not have the impression of being looked at,” Horstmann said in a statement.

After analyzing about 2000 assessments from participants, the researchers found that viewers felt the gaze of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to be at an angle of 15.4 degrees—looking off to their right-hand side, rather than directly at them.

“It is clear that the term Mona Lisa effect is nothing but a misnomer,” Horstmann said. But even though this particular phenomenon has been demystified, people's obsession with the painting will surely continue.

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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