“I have a fantasy about money:
I’m walking down the street and I hear somebody say in a whisper
‘there goes the richest person in the world’” ~Andy Warhol
The building is not at all what I expected. Perhaps I did not know precisely what to expect. One side of my brain expected a multi- colored eyesore that city commissions would have surely been bribed to accept. The other side of my brain had not actually formulated a concept. But as our little white rental car rounded the top of the Warhol Bridge spanning the Allegheny River I was not quite prepared for the austere building which occupied the corner of East General Robinson Street and Sandusky Street; A building which, despite the mid-1950’s governmental exterior, housed The Andy Warhol Museum. As we approached, it perhaps came as a surprise to find that my thoughts gravitated to the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas (the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy in 1963) which we had visited only a few months prior to our sojourn to Pittsburgh’s most famous museum.
Perhaps it is fitting…. Warhol always had a thing for Kennedy.
I like to think that the unique duality would have amused Warhol as much as the perceived connection to Kennedy amused me. After all, Warhol was known for turning convention on its ear, portraying tragedy in Technicolor and having a very real knowledge of what being shot is like. Further, Warhol and Kennedy both stood out as very singularly romanticized icons in an era of icons, perhaps some of the most enduring of the 20th Century.
While most of us think of Warhol as glitzy New York, he was in reality, a Czech Steel Town graphic designer from Pittsburgh. He made no secret of his aversion to the city of his birth, preferring New York’s bustling business people and freedom of artistic expression over blue collar, callused hands and sports teams that hallmark much of Pennsylvania. It might also be true that New York might garner more visitors numerically, but part of the charm of the Warhol Museum being in Pittsburgh was walking the halls nearly unmolested by the throngs that typically clatter through New York museums. Further, the highly successful efforts to re-brand Pittsburgh as an arts center is part of a multi-year project by city leaders to revitalize the downtown districts. With support of families with names like Carnegie, Heinz and Hillman, the Warhol Foundation has arguably had the most influence on the artist’s stature and pricing than any other single entity. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the Warhol Museum collection consists mostly of work completed prior to his being shot by crazed feminist “Factory Girl” Valerie Solanas in 1968. Warhol’s work post his near-death experience is a dramatic departure from his previous output. In some sense, the old Warhol figuratively died that day and was replaced by a graphic designer who would paint nearly anything asked of him.
When the museum opened its doors in 1994, Warhol was a largely undervalued and only moderately appreciated artist whose presence in museums of modern art was apparent, but not significant. He was still considered to be little more than a glorified designer. Intervening years have allowed Warhol to become a beacon of all things “Art”. Museums started snatching up significant but relatively inexpensive works from the Warhol Foundation who were using the nearly $30M raised from the sale of estate works to sort out legal wrangling which took place just after the artist’s passing in 1987. This influx of major works into the market and museum-scene, along with simultaneous donations of major pieces to New York’s MOMA such as “Gold Marilyn Monroe” (1962) and “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times” (1963) perpetuated Warhol’s bona fides as a True Blue Icon. When Warhol’s “Four Marilyns”, the 1962 painting of Marilyn Monroe four times, sold for $38.2 million at Phillips Auction House in May of 2013, Warhol works completed the 180 degree turn from blue collar graphic design to museum-level Icon. Further, this congealed the importance of the Warhol Museum’s collection consisting primarily of his early output which is so important to the telling his tale… Past, present and future.
ANDY WARHOL Four Marilyns (1962) acrylic, silkscreen ink, pencil on linen. 29 x 21 1/2 in. (73.7 x 54.6 cm.)
The pixie-like docent that warmly greeted us at the door of the Warhol Museum ushered us past the extensive lower-hall renovation which was underway. Photo-ops were hard to come by in the only area of the museum that photos were actually allowed. Museums often disallow photography in their halls, particularly with modern technologies and reproduction techniques being what they are. So these prohibitions are understandable and will be offset in the future by the Museum’s re-worked entry-hall which will be more-picture-friendly for Instagram, Twitter and Facebook users who often drive traffic to events and spaces. Much like the exterior, the interior was sparse and built the anticipation of knowing that the best was yet-to-come. As we ascended to the 6th floor, the idea that we would see some chronology of the events that shaped the artist’s early life vanished, as looming video screens obliquely hung on all sides in the darkened corridor. Screens were everywhere, each clicking away at some black and white loop of beautiful people in random acts… smoking, brushing their teeth, sitting, sleeping, over-acting, etc. Edie Sedgwick’s nymph-like visage stared at me with meter-wide eyes. Warhol produced thousands of hours of footage of all sorts. Viewers silently glided amongst these motion pictures, some with frenetic energy and others with drunken lethargy. This was one of Warhol’s favorite media, Video. It was fresh and new and there were ample avenues for him to explore with the famous people whom he loved to be surrounded by. Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol created a studio in his “Factory” (studio) where he made nearly 500 screen tests of famous and iconic personalities of the day on a clicking 16mm camera. These 3 minute-long screen tests included art-world luminaries such as Salvador Dali, Dennis Hopper and Edie Sedgwick and were virtually unknown outside the private world of the Factory itself. Later, Warhol morphed his interviews segments into full-blown question-and-answer sessions with the famous faces of Darryl Hall, David Bowie, Grace Jones, LAII (Keith Haring’s young protégé), Rob Lowe, Sammy Davis Jr, and a veritable cornucopia of 1980’s MTV bubblegum royalty. One video, shot from a roof-top, showed famed photographer Peter Beard bisecting a New York street corner with a delicate model balanced precariously on a chair. According to the title-plate, the model spent time in a Nazi prison camp because her father tried to assassinate Hitler during WWII. Duality indeed. In another clip Warhol awkwardly discusses having dinner with Larry Rivers’ soon-to-be ex-wife the week prior. Both seemed unprepared for the conversation. The rooms felt naughty. As if we were watching titillating things, conversations and private moments, that we shouldn’t be watching. The whole room made me uncomfortable. In some way… I guess it was supposed to.
Not surprisingly, this was also one of my wife’s favorite parts of the museum.
- ANDY WARHOL Film Stills The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © AWF
We also had the opportunity to make a 3-minute video as part of the Warhol Screen Test (http://screentest.warhol.org/). This opportunity was rewarded with perhaps the most uncomfortable video I have ever been a part of. A few screen shots of our video make it pretty clear who had more fun during the screen test. Welcome to my life.
As we descended one flight of stairs, we stumbled into a small room which revealed an entirely different side of Warhol, that of story-board artist and stream-of-consciousness drawing. “The Autobiography of a Snake Called Noa the Boa” was a 1950’s-1960’s illustrated series depicting the world travels of a snake named Noa, drawn for Fleming Joffe leather company, which sold shoes, handbags and other leather merchandise. After many collegiate nights of story-boarding my own movie and Ad concepts, I was struck by the imaginary notion that Andy hurriedly sketched these during the course of an idea-soaked night of booze and cigarettes. The drawings are not detailed or controlled, which is part of the appeal, instead they are a skeletal depiction far-removed from Warhol’s traditional meaty oeuvre.
ANDY WARHOL “Noa the Boa” The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © AWF
The next turn is what made my heart stop. “Elvis 11 Times”. Now, I am not an Elvis fan, per se… But, this silver image of the standing Elvis with outstretched gun (from a publicity shot from the 1960 film Flaming Star) stretching the length of a long wall was an impressive sight to behold. The work was originally intended to be cut down and used for 11 individual works which remained incomplete at his death. Andy himself remarks, “the rubber-stamp method I’d been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect. With silkscreening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It all sounds so simple — quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it.” The “Rubber Stamp” method he refers to is more commonly known as silkscreening (sometimes called Serigraphy or screen printing) which, by and large, has received a negative connotation in the last decade or so. However, in the early 1960’s this was a largely ignored, but ancient (dating to 960-1279 AD China) artistic media and something worth investigating for an inquisitive talent like Warhol. Many of his best known, iconic and valuable works were made with a combination of screenprinting and over painting.
ANDY WARHOL Elvis 11 Times (1962) acrylic, silkscreen ink, pencil on linen. 432 inches x 78 (1097cm x 198 cm.) The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © AWF
The effect of such a large and overwhelming sight of Elvis in repetition is that of a fun-house mirror, playing the same image over and over and over. Molding it. Updating it. Modernizing it. Elvis can no longer be relegated to the past. He is the future. Cowboys are no longer a mythological persona in “Old West” storybooks, but an Icon worthy of adoration.
Standing back, I immediately sensed the scope with which Warhol saw the world. Not merely piece-by-piece as we often do, but in much broader strokes. No boarders or limitations. Turning left or right the room revealed its other contents, invisible to me only a moment prior. Marlon Brando’s “Wild One” on a natural unprimed canvas, Jackie O’s repeated portraits before and after her husband’s assassination, Natalie Wood, Mao, Hammer and Sickles, Cecil the stuffed dog. etc. All important, and all quite dead. The tendency with many artists, writers, poets and the like, is an preoccupation with death, mortality and existence beyond this mortal coil.
“Everything I do is connected with death”
Andy Warhol “Suicide (Fallen Body)” 1963. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © AWF
Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, including “Ambulance Disaster”, “Gangster Funeral”, “Electric Chair”, “Catastrophe” and others, create a discomfort as the larger-than-life images hang over you and you instinctively seek out vestiges of life from within the hazy faces buried in silkscreen ink. American audiences are particularly sensitized to these images due in part to a puritanical press-corps which prohibits photographic depictions of the dead in news stories far more than their European counterparts. Elegant in their starkness and relative abstraction, their beauty comes in spite of their morbidity. Warhol’s “1947, White”, a hauntingly serene work, was based on Robert C. Wiles’ death-photos of 23 year-old model Evelyn McHale who leapt from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in 1947. In her left hand, the elegant strand of pearls around her neck lay clutched as her body lay cradled in the roof of a parked Cadillac, in what has been dubbed the most “Beautiful Suicide”. She is famous only for her death, not her life. The ongoing, daily repetition of this tragedy, as well as the throngs of onlookers still gazing at her prone body drives home that we are sometimes remembered only for what is best forgotten.
The ascendancy and success Warhol experienced in the 1960’s coincided with and antithesized the melancholic Cold War as well as the Kennedy assassination (1963) and later with those of Bobby Kennedy (1968), Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). Seizing upon the angst of these external factors, Warhol satirized and iconized banal subject-matter such as Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell’s Soup Cans, Brillo boxes and other commercial objects which are purchased by the rich and the poor alike. He states, “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum of the corner is drinking. All Cokes are the same and all Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it… And you know it.” His perceived embrace of rampant consumerism in the face of political turmoil created a scandal around Warhol’s work and persona. His use of heavy subject matter like tragic death juxtaposes his use of the mundane and places each in the context of the other. Death becomes commonplace and Soup becomes extraordinary.
The 1980’s were a period of resurgence after the relative calm of the 1970’s. Warhol’s post-shooting output paled in comparison to those produced prior to the assassination attempt. The 80’s were bullish and embraced all things excessive. Warhol’s was now the venerated “old guard” for the New York Art scene. He was deified and served as mentor and friend to the new-generation of artistic powerhouses, Basquiat, Warhol, Schnabel, Salle, Scharf and others. Warhol’s Brooklyn Bridge glittered with diamond dust. Trump Tower oscillated between light and shadow. The Statue of Liberty shone in variegated colors and even camouflage. But, still Warhol gravitated to his morose roots as New York was gripped by an epidemic in gun violence. This constant televised reminder underscored his own ever-present and painful scarring and his brush with death. The stark depiction in red and black provides a reminder of how little things change.
ANDY WARHOL Gun (1982) acrylic, silkscreen ink, pencil on linen. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © AWF
Even the room filled with 15 floating metallic balloons remind you of the impermanent nature of life. Adults shuffled through the room like post-modern angels flitting between passing clouds. Fans gently ushered silver, pillow-shaped floating balloons around the rectangular space. This installation, originally the gallery concept for Leo Castelli’s opening night, was intended to be shown with floating lights attached to the balloons, but the balloons could not carry the weight. In the end, the balloons themselves sufficed as their own surreal statement. Snowflake-like fingerprints flecked upon the surfaces and for the first time, this Warhol seemed almost whimsical and approachable. Adults looked like kids. Present day was transported to the space-age, and angels seemed not so distant a concept.
Balloon Room at the Andy Warhol Museum by Carlos Hernandez
Warhol’s “time capsules” captured the innocent and banal of early 1980’s life, but also show what life was like for Warhol day-to-day. Trips to the laundry, the theatre, postcards, sketches, stamps, magazine and newspaper clippings and other ephemera. In total, Warhol kept 612 separate boxes of literally everything that he got his hands on from 1973 till his death in 1987. We scanned through personal photographs of Warhol goofing with friends, Basquiat, Schnabel, Neiman, Scharf and reminisced about the inherently collaborative nature of the artist. Inspired by a young street artist known by the moniker “SAMO” Warhol took up painting on canvas again to collaborate with his many followers. “SAMO”, now better known as Jean-Michel Basquiat, had a contrarian personality that Warhol could relate to as he re-made his life in an image that better suited him. Specifically, where Warhol grew up in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, Basquiat rejected an upper middle-class upbringing in Queens and embraced a life on the city streets of New York City. “Jean-Michel got me into painting differently, and that’s a good thing.” Coming from a world where image is so carefully trimmed, primped and preened, it was refreshing to see images that were rough, imperfect and truly experimental.
The re-energized Warhol toyed with true abstraction including hyper-scale gems made with diamond dust, creating a shimmery surface, shadows, camouflage, oxidation (metallic pigment and urine on canvas) and Rorschach tests. The Rorschach Test was commonly used by psychologists in the 1960’s as a method of determining homosexuality, which at the time was regarded as psychopathology. This stigma would have been intimately familiar to Warhol.
Jean-Michel Basquiat/Andy Warhol, Collaboration, 1984-85 Acrylic and oil stick on linen 76 x 104 1/8in. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © AWF
As we descended the final staircase, the pixie emerged once again. She politely asked us about our favorite aspects of the museum and informed us about the upcoming unveiling of the new lobby area. She noted that students study art downstairs and she is learning in the best possible place to be inspired.
What was our favorite aspect of the Andy Warhol Museum? The answer is hard to pin down to one thing or another. However, It might be this…. We left with a much clearer understanding of Warhol beyond Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn prints. We learned that Warhol liked to make videos of friends and TV shows of celebrity culture. He loved the Art of the Interview, no matter how awkward or difficult his subject might seem. (These interviews included Warhol’s own mother, who looked like an aged Andy in drag.) We learned he was obsessed with celebrity and all of the trappings of it. So much so that he kept a cache of black-and-white photos of Jayne Mansfield and Rock Hudson nearby at all times. We learned that he experimented with balloon installations, printmaking techniques and his Artistically–minded contemporaries. We learned that he created Interview Magazine in late 1969, and it since been dubbed “The Crystal Ball of Pop”. Reams of his magazines featuring covers with Katy Perry, Lil’ Wayne and Brad Pitt sit side-by-side on the wall with the likes of Sting, Grace Jones and Brooke Shields. This melding of MTV era celebrity and contemporary Pop culture updates Warhol and brings his influence solidly into the 21st Century.
In short, we learned that Warhol was not a two dimensional artist, but a multi-dimensional thinker. A person who took risks and paid a price for many of them in public and private life. Ultimately he was vindicated by history and remembered as someone great…. Not unlike Kennedy at all.