From grit to glitter and back again: the strange journey of Andy Warhol
From the grey of downtown Pittsburgh emerges the city's most colourful - and unlikely - celebrity
The question comes from the sidewalk. “So, do you have to pay to get in?”
I have been sitting on the steps of the Andy Warhol Museum for five minutes, checking my notebook, making sure I have scrawled impressions on everything that has intrigued me in four absorbing hours within – and I haven’t noticed the two women approaching from downtown Pittsburgh. I look up, out of kilter with their meaning. “Yes, but it’s shut for the day,” I reply.
The nearer of the two – they are both perhaps in their early 50s, going home after a day at work – chuckles. “No,” she says. “I mean, do I need to pay if I want to go in one day? I come this way every morning and I’ve never been inside.” And they continue north, under the flyover of the I-279 highway, which frames the museum as neatly as the River Allegheny two blocks to the south, their laughter cascading after them.It seems a pertinent representation of Warhol’s relationship with his “home” city. Few would deny that the pop-art icon was one of the most famous creative forces of the 20th century. But his every achievement – the magnetism of his Factory studio; his elevation of the Campbell’s soup can; his management of the Velvet Underground; his granting of eternity via portrait to figures as diverse as Debbie Harry, Yves Saint-Laurent and Dennis Hopper – was chalked up in New York.
Pittsburgh – where he was born 90 years ago next week, on August 6 1928 – boasts no such flecks of silver. Hemmed into south-west Pennsylvania – at the spot where the the Allegheny and the Monongahela forge the River Ohio, and weave it west as the key tributary of the Mississippi – it is, instead, a workhorse of America’s north-east. It is steel, sweat, toil. It is, by repute, the decline of the industrial USA, a blue-collar behemoth brought low. It is the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins, depending on the sporting season. It is not the singer from Blondie in turquoise eye-shadow. At least, that’s the theory.Since its opening in 1994, the Andy Warhol Museum has tried to square this circle – as a tribute to a cherished son of the city which admits that he moved away as he turned 21 (in 1949), but salutes his brilliance all the same. It examines the man as much as his work and legacy, across seven storeys of an enormous building in the North Shore district. Its walls and storerooms shelter more than 12,000 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photos, films and videos – making it the biggest museum in North America dedicated to a single artist. And it tells his story via a quirky reverse chronology which starts at the top of the structure and directs visitors towards the ground.So it is that I emerge on the seventh floor to be greeted by a Warhol who is just a boy of eight, his hair that blonde sweep-over but his gaze shy. He is blurry playing in his parents’ garden in 1936; firmly etched though less recognisable in his 1945 black-and-white high-school graduation photo – drab in jacket and tie, fringe slicked back.
Other exhibits add colour – his close, inspirational relationship with his mother Julia underlined by a raft of her paintings; his steps towards sexual freedom demonstrated by romantic trinkets – a 1956 letter from Carlton Willers, his first boyfriend, addressed to the artist’s Manhattan apartment at 242 Lexington Avenue; an image of Warhol taken in 1958 by lover Edward Wallowitch. These totems survived due to Warhol’s magpie nature. On the third floor, 610 personal time capsules (of magazines, postcards and ephemera), collated between 1974 and his death in 1987, reveal a hoarding tendency inculcated by his Depression-era childhood. In a diary entry for May 24 1984, he peers inward. “I opened a time capsule [today]. Every time I do it’s a mistake, because I drag it out, and start looking through it.”The rest of the gallery showcases a career that was anything but distracted. There is a clarity of thought and a steely ambition to the silk-screen prints on the sixth floor – the toying with the image of the most noted man of that moment in Elvis 11 Times, a still of Presley as a gunslinger in the 1960 western Flaming Star, repeated from left to right, like a spool of film reel pinned to the plaster. That it is hung here next to Little Electric Chair (1964-65) – four colourful (pink, yellow, purple, black) reproductions of the state instrument of death at Sing Sing prison in New York (which discontinued its use in 1972) – emphasises Warhol’s ability to jump from light to dark. He does so in a single installation in Jackie (1964) – a treatment of varied photos of Jackie Kennedy snapped before and after her husband’s assassination, the camera leaping from celebrity to tragedy.Elsewhere, there is only celebrity. A fifth-floor room holds an array of Warhol’s rainbow transfigurations of superstars – Mick Jagger, full of lip and pout in 1975; Jack Nicklaus rendered so tousle-haired-handsome in 1977 that he is more Steve McQueen than golfer; Joan Collins in her 1985 Dynasty pomp.
There is mischief too – the 41-minute silent movie Blow Job (1964), where the title teases outrage but the content is playfully vague, actor DeVeren Bookwalter shot from the neck up, smiling, smirking and smoking at the viewer. The trick is played again via Warhol’s feted Screen Tests – 472 soundless four-minute close-ups of actresses, associates, acolytes; Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsburg, all gazing at the lens, all more style than substance. In an adjacent studio, you are invited to make your own, with vintage equipment, and add it to the museum’s digital archive. As I press the “record” button, I hear in my head Warhol’s quote: “In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.” Accompanied, maybe, by a little giggle.
This glitter swirl vanishes on the street. Pittsburgh is not a place that cares for mini-movie montages. It may be the Andy Warhol Bridge that lifts me back into downtown, but even in its canary-yellow paint, it is solid and swarthy; functional not foppish. The vision of a metropolis rarely in thrall to fripperies defines the main Market Square – which is abuzz with eateries, but no gratuitous gourmet posturing.The Original Oyster House shouts loudly that it opened in 1870. It has surely altered the menu – clam chowder, breaded oysters, Iron City beer – little in the interim, nor the décor inside, where a signed photo of Frank Sinatra floats above the bar. On the far side of the plaza, Primanti Bros is just as steeped in Pittsburgh pragmatism, its thick sandwiches stuffed with meat and french fries.
Even my hotel, the Distrikt, though it flirts with the “boutique” tag, tips its hat to the classic depiction of Pennsylvania. From its roof terrace, I watch the Monongahela at dusk – barges pushing against the currents, freight trains of seemingly endless length slogging along the tracks on the south bank, horns sounding mournfully into the gloaming. That the hotel is slotted into a 1924 Salvation Army centre – the shape of the church, with its stained-glass windows, still visible in the lobby – only amplifies the idea of a city of grit.Not that Pittsburgh needs saving. True, there is a scratchiness to downtown – the onetime Kaufmann’s department store on Fifth Avenue, currently shuttered; the Warner Centre, a 1918 theatre on the same drag, limping on as a dowdy mall.
But there is also a liveliness – children in the fountains on PPG Place, couples on the grass of Point State Park, where the rivers merge. And an artiness. The North Shore has two further museums. Randyland – a curious cluster of pink flamingos, painted slogans and hippy vibe – is manna for the Instagram generation.
The Mattress Factory is more serious, a platform for contemporary artists – but no less bright in its execution. Its collection goes to challenging places – not least It’s All About ME, Not You (1996), a doll’s house by transgender provocatrice Greer Lankton whose emaciated residents echo the artist’s own doomed battle with anorexia and addiction.Japanese modernist Yayoi Kusama, meanwhile, turns the focus on the visitor in Infinity Dots Mirrored Room (1996) – an enclosed cube of gleaming surfaces that puts the viewer between three female mannequins and offers them their reflections, over and over.
Both museums sit so seamlessly between homes and gardens that I become sure I am lost as I try to find them. But then, such patches of everyday life fringe the core of Pittsburgh. Away to the east in South Oakland, I trawl a maze of the nondescript in search of 3252 Dawson Street, Warhol’s adolescent abode. It is as mundane as its context, 11 concrete steps leading to a chipped brown door.
It is, at least, marked by a sign on the next corner declaring the district the “childhood home of [American football star] Dan Marino, Andy Warhol and [the wrestler] Bruno Sammartino”. Two miles north, Warhol’s teenage alma mater, Schenley High School, is no more, shut down in 2008 and now repurposed as flats.However, one pivotal place in Warhol’s formative years does still sing. He studied for a degree in commercial art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in North Oakland – and devoted high-school Saturdays to painting classes at the next-door Carnegie Museum of Art.
Seven decades on, this institution still shines as a bastion of higher thinking, stuffed with masterpieces by greats both American (Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent) and European (Van Gogh, Monet, Munch).
It was founded in 1895 by Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist, who wanted a gallery that would enthuse the city and its (his) workers.
But if you might infer a patronising tone to the paintings around the Grand Staircase, where the smoke of Pittsburgh mills ascends to a pantheon of classical deities, you can only be amazed by the Hall of Architecture, with its life-sized plaster casts of some of the jewels of the Old World (Siena Cathedral’s pulpit and the north doorway of Bordeaux Cathedral, to name two) – and the Hall of Sculpture, which replicates the interior of the Parthenon in Athens.
Exploring the latter, I notice a group of school pupils drawing their surroundings, as Warhol would have done, and idly wonder if there is a future genius among their number. This time, I do not hear laughter.
– © The Daily Telegraph
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