If you think Andrew Warhola (his childhood name) was an artistic lightweight, with his soup cans and brightly-colored celebrities, spend some time at the fantastic Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
It is the largest museum in North America that is devoted to a single artist – seven floors of galleries plus an underground education space.
Why Pittsburgh? Because he was born and grew up there, to Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants who encouraged his creative talents.
This is a very pedestrian-friendly city, so to get to the museum from the downtown area, walk across one of the three distinctive yellow self-anchored eye-bar suspension bridges that span the Allegheny River to the North Shore. One of them is named for Warhol (it’s currently under renovation and expected to re-open in late 2017) and the others for Pittsburgh Pirates baseball great Roberto Clemente, and ecologist Rachel Carson, also from this city.
The museum floors are in chronological order of his work and life, so start at the top on the 7th floor (the 1930s – he was born in 1928) and wander your way down. Warning: you’ll be there longer than you expect. It’s that intriguing.
One wall has his high school graduation photo….
I enjoyed learning about his family and early childhood; it explained a lot about his approach to art and to the practical challenges of making a living at it.
A Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) he embodied one of the things that I like most about Pittsburgh; how the city combines creativity with practicality and engineering innovation.
Warhol became a very successful commercial artist and illustrator after moving to New York City in the 1950s. If all you know about him is Pop Art, the Factory, and clubbing at Studio 54….which is pretty much all I knew….then the galleries with his earlier works with rubber stamps and blotted line drawings will surprise you.
He was prolific. There’s an anecdote about how a company or agency would give him an idea or two, and he’d return the next day with a brown paper bag full of sketches. As Apple’s Steve Jobs said, “Real artists ship” meaning at some point, you have to produce the goods. He did.
Here’s an example from part of a very successful commercial series for I. Miller Shoes….not what you’d think of as “typically Warhol” is it?
His methods to create the early Pop paintings and prints were much more detailed than I’d realized. Items were painstakingly hand-drawn and stamped, including those famous everyday subjects like the soup cans.
One display showed me what it took to make just one of the Campbell’s soup paintings.
He started with this photo….
Then he used tools like this stencil to recreate it by hand….
Then it became this….
The entire museum is like that; it immerses the visitor into the artistic process, providing context and plenty of behind-the-scenes information.
There was so much to see from the 1950s and 1960s, I was a bit mentally fatigued by the time I made it to the “famous stuff.” A lot of space is devoted to his extensive work in video, movies, and television, which I honestly knew nothing about, so that took awhile to get through.
His celebrity portraits were such a blast of color….
There is gallery after gallery of portraits, photographs, memorabilia of the gilded New York days of the 1970s and 1980s, even a fun interactive exhibit with silver Mylar balloons, but one small gallery was a total surprise.
Andy Warhol was a technology nerd.
Commodore computers (remember those?) gave him an Amiga 1000 personal computer in 1985, and he became a brand ambassador for the company.
“For their launch, Commodore planned a theatrical performance, which featured Warhol on stage at Lincoln Center, with rock-and-roll icon and the lead singer of Blondie, Debbie Harry. In front of a live audience Warhol used the new computer software ProPaint to create a portrait of Harry.”
Can you imagine being in that audience? At the time, it probably seemed like crude gadgetry. Not a chance that such machines could ever be used to make “real” art, of course….
There’s even a technological archaeology story to all of it:
“Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, and Warhol’s digital images were frozen on obsolete hard drives and discs in the archives of the museum for nearly 20 years. In 2014, contemporary digital artist Cory Arcangel organized a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Andy Warhol Museum to recover the lost drawings. The team spent months working to extract the data from the original software to view the files.”
There is a desktop computer that visitors can use – complete with a heavy mouse with an actual roller ball like they used to have – to click around and see some of Warhol’s artwork made while using the Amiga.
As we were getting ready to leave the museum, I learned one more thing.
Warhol was horrendously self-conscious about his appearance and his body and he saved absolutely everything, two tendencies which are summarized by a small exhibit on one floor.
His daily life and routines, meticulously cataloged….
….including his wig. Yes, all that spiky hair was fake.
Looking at the “AW” label on this mop was quite poignant.
He was full of human frailty and bursting with ideas, trying new things and making art for decades until his untimely death in 1987, and I had had no idea.
Now I know.
You should go learn about him, too.
If you like this post, please consider subscribing to the blog via email. The signup box is toward the top of the right sidebar. We appreciate it.