Monday, September 01, 2003

Andy Warhol, Silver Screen

Article on the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, solicited by and published by altelier Magazine of International Art, International Edition published in English and Japanese, September 1994.

I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, thirty miles or so from where I grew up. The museum took over a building that used to house a music store, where I first went as a high school student to help pick out sheet music for the marching band. I announced the half time shows, wrote the copy and eventually chose the music. The last time I'd gone there to find some music books was just a few years before the museum opened. Perhaps by now the Andy Warhol Museum has become as much a part of Pittsburgh as Volkwein's Music used to be.

Accompanied by mimes, jugglers, puppets and Buffo the Clown, attended by art world celebrities such as pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and Picasso biographer John Richardson, and graced by Hollywood stars like actor Dennis Hopper and director John Waters, the Andy Warhol Museum officially opened in Pittsburgh in May 1994. According to its director, Thomas Armstrong, "it is the most comprehensive single-artist museum in the world."

Andy Warhol was born into a immigrant working class family in the industrial city of Pittsburgh in 1928, and at the age of 21 left for New York City the week he graduated from college with a degree in design. He slowly became a successful commercial artist. By 1957 he had several assistants and incorporated himself as Andy Warhol Enterprises. Then suddenly in the 1960s, with his Pop Art paintings of mass-produced objects and silkscreen portraits of celebrities, Warhol exploded onto the international art scene. He became one of the most famous and most controversial artists of the 20th century, and changed the art world forever.

After Warhol's death in 1987, New York's Dia Center for the Arts (which had collected more than 200 Warhol works) and the Andy Warhol Foundation (which controls the Warhol estate) went looking for a major New York art institution to provide the financial backing for a museum dedicated to Warhol, but they found no takers.

Eventually they contacted Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, which agreed to join as a partner in this joint venture. "It was an opportunity to bring a collection into Pittsburgh that had a reason to be here," Tom Armstrong explains. "In addition, Pittsburgh is a city that has decided that culture is a viable part of its future, and they were anxious to have a facility that would attract an international audience."

Armstrong, who had championed the work of new artists including Warhol during his 15 years as director of New York's Whitney Museum, was hired as the Warhol's director. "I realized this was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in the beginnings of an unprecedented type of museum," he says. " I thought it would be an extraordinary way to culminate my career in the museum field." His job now includes raising money for an endowment and an acquisitions budget.

Using all eight floors of a redesigned and refurbished 88,000 square-foot stone warehouse, the museum covers all aspects of Warhol's thirty year career, which involved film, publishing (several books and Interview magazine, which he founded) and rock music (he sponsored the classic band, the Velvet Underground, which featured Lou Reed and John Cale.)

One floor is devoted to the Archives Study Center, a point of pride for Tom Armstrong. "Andy never threw anything away," he says. "We have scrapbooks, notebooks, some 2,500 video and audio tapes, and over 600 of what he called his 'time capsules'--at the end of every day he shoved all the ephemera on his desk into a box and sealed it. We have an enormous collection of extraordinary source materials. It really is the combination of these archives and the more than 3,000 works of art we have in our permanent collection that makes this museum so special."

These works range from early commercial illustrations to collaborations with younger artists in the 1980s. They include environmental works, such as "Rain Machine," made for the Osaka World's Fair. But for this inaugural exhibit, the heart of the building is devoted to the period of Warhol's most famous work--the 1960s.

Here are his straightfaced paintings of brand name products and examples of the silkscreened photographs of celebrities enhanced with bright, day-glo colors that he began making in 1962. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley as a gunfighter, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minelli and finally his 1970s series of "Mao" (which at the Warhol Museum are hung against his purple Mao wallpaper) shook the art world and astounded the public.

In 1963 he made his first silkscreen portrait of a smiling Jackie Kennedy, surrounded by a robust red halo. In 1964 he constructed a multi-panelled portrait of her from photographs taken at President Kennedy's funeral. The Museum also shows not only the original array of photographs sent to be silkscreened, but the scissored magazine pages they came from. Curiously, Warhol did not use the most dramatic image--a full face photograph reminiscent of a Madonna or a grieving Mona Lisa.

By the mid-1960s Warhol was whirling through international exhibitions, accompanied by the Velvet Underground and his traveling light show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. With his New York assembly-line of artworks and films he called the Factory, Warhol was a focal point and a generating force. His parties mixing pop stars and pop artists with socialites and the "Superstars" he created, became intrinsic to his legend.

His statements in the catalogue of his first retrospective at the Modern Museet in Stockholm in 1968 became Warhol's manifesto: "I like boring things." "I'd like to be a machine, wouldn't you?" "I love Hollywood. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic." "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." "In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes."

Pop art, defined in England in the 1950s in reference to the collages of Richard Hamilton, uses popular culture as both form and content for "high" art works. By the mid 1960s Warhol was the most famous Pop Artist outside the art world--the one who popularized Pop. When he survived an attempted assassin's bullet in 1968, he became almost mythic. The general public was fascinated by Warhol's audaciously familiar images and repelled by his outrageous lifestyle, while elements of the art world found his work both a logical outgrowth of the pop art of Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist, and a kind of nauseating apotheosis. "Before the Warhol canvases we are trapped in a ghastly embarrassment," wrote David Antin in a 1966 issue of Art News. "This sense of the arbitrary coloring, the nearly obliterated image and the persistently intrusive feeling. Somewhere in the image there is a proposition. It is unclear."

One potential problem of a one-artist museum is that it isolates the artist from his times and influences, which is a special danger in Warhol's case. He consciously absorbed the 1960s: a period of enormous energy, activity and change, when artists were experimenting with technology and borders were falling between various art forms, between high and popular art, and even between art and life. It was the era of happenings and the put on; of the Beatles, the Now Generation and Flower Power, John Cage and Marshall McLuhan (who said "The medium is the message" and "Art is anything you can get away with.")

Nevertheless, as critic Barbara Rose wrote of Warhol in 1971, "the images he leaves will be the permanent record of America in the sixties: mechanical, vulgar, violent, commercial, deadly." Though some would argue these images are deceptive because they are incomplete and skewed to the superficial, the existence of this museum seems to enforce Rose's observation.

Like John Cage, who released the music in ambient sound simply by calling it a song, Warhol found the charm in ordinary speech through transcribed interviews, and a different range of responses in watching a movie of a man sleeping. Among the Pop artists, Warhol was the most successful in suggesting that individuals need not be passively overwhelmed by the barrage of information and images--they could transform them into art. But many of Warhol's achievements appear somehow accidental. He confronted the culture with its own tawdry icons--celebrities and consumer products--but it's not clear he meant to do so.

Warhol led the Pop art parade basically by stepping out in front of it. After Johns painted a portrait of the American flag, Warhol took the next fatal step by painting the real icon to which the culture pledges its allegiance: the dollar bill.

But he approached the art world as he would a commercial client, asking essentially "What do they want?" He took the shrewd advice of a savvy art dealer who suggested that he paint dollar bills and "something like a can of Campbell's soup."

Normally a solo museum would seem to anoint a artist considered great by consensus, but the opening of the Warhol Museum was greeted in the local and national press with a cacophony of delight and anger, fulsome praise and utter derision. According to various views, Warhol was a social critic or social-climber, brilliant innovator or mindless imitator, a great artist or a con artist.

Was Warhol cynical or disingenuous? Did he mean to criticize or glorify consumer culture? Was he a serious artist or a lucky opportunist? According to Warhol biographer Bob Colacello he was all of this and more. "The ambiguity at the core of his work reflected the deep contradictions of his personality: Andy was innocent and decadent, primitive and sophisticated, shy and pushy, the eternal outsider at the center of a series of self-created in-crowds."

The Warhol Museum may encourage continuing evaluation of his legacy. At this point it seems clear that his pursuit of publicity and celebrity along with the mechanisms of a market that enhances the value of individual works through popular dissemination of their images was a watershed for contemporary artists, and helped create today's art world market and environment.

Cultural historians may see in his images the first evidence of a peculiarly working-class sensibility beginning to dominate a mass culture of the newly prosperous but uprooted, with mass produced objects and environments replaced the traditional, the hand-made and the local. The new consumers of culture found comfort not in the land of their ancestors or birth, but in the soup can label they remember from childhood. Their icons were no longer saints but celebrities, and the altar for the household gods was the television set.

Tom Armstrong hopes that scholars and others interested in the culture of the second half of the twentieth century will come to the Warhol museum. For the joint venture partners, it also keeps Warhol's work in the public eye and may enhance its financial value, which had shown signs of slipping. For Pittsburgh--now trying to find a new identity after losing its steel mills-it could attract tourists as well as scholars with its colorful celebrity faces (beginning with Warhol's self-portrait at the entrance ) and such crowd-pleasers as the "Silver Clouds" installation, a room of softly floating silver helium-filled balloons that gently bump and brush against visitors. Some locals have already begun calling it "Andyland." Visitors in the first few weeks appeared to include excited young artists and people unfamiliar with any art museum, who came to see what all this Andy Warhol fuss had been about. Some seemed equally interested in his paintings of celebrities and the magazine photographs that served as their sources.

The inaugural exhibition will be on view until May 1995.
In 1996, the Museum plans to take a Warhol retrospective to Tokyo and two other cities in Japan.