Andy Warhol: A Museum of His Own

“A Coke is a Coke,” Warhol once said, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”


PITTSBURGH — It’s Friday the 13th, and the Andy Warhol Museum is opening with a three-day party this city is going to remember. Warhol was never exactly God in New York, but he just became a saint in his own hometown. Pittsburgh loves Warhol. I mean loves. Nobody cares if this wasn’t always the case. This weekend, the King of Pop is ascending to his rightful throne, and there will be fireworks, literally, over the Allegheny. Warhol, of course, is dead, which is what you must be to receive the highest recognition any artist can get in this country: a major contemporary museum of your own.

The buzz is audible even at LaGuardia, where every flight to Pittsburgh is over-booked. Dealers and gossip columnists are winking at one another on the plane: the art world’s going to Pittsburgh! You can tell the Warhol people from the “real” people right away. But is wasn’t so long ago that Warhol was one of the real people. In Pittsburgh, that’s the boy they remember. The one who is soon to become an idol for every young artist, and every young queer in town. The drag queens, we are told, are dressing for the occasion. This time, Warhol is reinventing Pittsburgh, rather than abandoning it. He’s back for the long haul.

The Andy Warhol Museum is exquisite, beyond expectations. Designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman, its a vast industrial warehouse that has been turned into a $12.3 million art palace. Inside, there are six expensive spaces; a film theater; an archive floor; an addition for offices; and storage space for the thousands of Warhols in the museum’s collection. As we gaze at Warhol’s soup cans, we can glance out large windows with views of the surrounding industry that once engulfed the artist. The place is perfect.

The important questions, difficult as they are to remember throughout three days of social climbing, tours of Andy’s Pittsburgh, and a family-oriented street fair, have to do with the creation of this museum. The art world is celebrating Wahrol’s ascendancy into the pantheon, but has the artist really been let through the pearly gates? Why does he need to be isolated in a museum of his own? Was Warhol a leper, or a genius?

Having a museum designed just for your own work must be every artist’s dream — that is, after your estate gets rejected by the Museum of Modern Art. One-person institutions are generally considered to be tacky vanity showcases: Norman Rockwell in the Berkshires. The problem with the solo museum is that the work is removed from any art-historical context, and the artist is isolated from his or her peers. The danger for Warhol is that he’ll be become singular, a potential aberration.

At first, the museum seems to lift Warhol’s reputation sky high, but there’s something bittersweet about the flight. The art is smartly installed in more or less chronological order, with a little piece of everything; the museum owns about 3000 works, and only around 500 are on display. One begins to wonder if this is the best of the lot. One also has to wonder why all these Warhols were up for grabs.

The Andy Warhol Museum is brought to us by the three cultural organizations: the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Dia Center for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. “No one is quite clear how this triumvirate is going to operate. It’s never been done before,” says Mark Francis, who four and a half ears ago began as the director of the project, until Tom Armstrong (ex-director of the Whitney) was given the title, brought in to raise the additional money. Francis was renamed curator. “It’s a better description or what I do,” the good sport says. Now’s he’s the resident Warhol expert.

I want to know who’s in control. “We’re one of the Carnegie’s constituent museums,” he explains, “but we’re administered independently.” In Pittsburgh, it would be impossible to create a major institution without the Carnegie’s blessing. (Warhol was shrewd enough to have painted the patriarch’s portrait.) “The people who had the collection needed the people who knew how to make a museum,” says the curator, as if it’s a ménage a trois made in heaven. “Having three boards is difficult,” he admits.

The art came from the Warhol estate (owned by the Foundation) and Dia, the only American institution that carefully and thoroughly collected Warhol in the ’70s. “There’s a low percentage of Warhol’s work in New York museums,” the curator asserts. “The Modern has the gold Marilyns, and private collectors own some major works, but the Europeans really collected him early on. Warhol’s been considered a serious artist in Europe for the past 25 years,” says Francis, who is English. Here, Warhol’s reputation remains shaky in an art world that currently thinks everything after Abstract Expressionism is controversial.

Now that Clement Greenberg’s dead, certain critics and curators will try to reinvent formalism. (Talk about “boring,” to cite Andy.) One might easily argue that Warhol needs a museum of his own to secure his position in the history of art — not an easy task. The Pop movement has been largely disowned. “Pop’s a loaded term,” says Francis. “It’s reducible to something ephemeral, as if people can’t distinguish between a can and a painting,” he adds, with disgust. “Pop is about the transformation of these sources into art.”

One of the most fascinating parts of the museum’s collection is a trove of Warhol’s source material, on display in glass cases on every floor. (The archive also contains the artist’s “time capsules,” cardboard boxes of things he collected, which were dated and stored.) In proximity to the Mao paintings, one of which is a monumental 15 feet tall, we see a tiny photo of the chairman clipped form one of his books; it looks like a Warhol! Warhol’s graphic skills are lauded in his museum, not buried like a dirty secret. To understand the art, one must first appreciate Warhol’s facility to reproduce what he saw and then move further into the imagery. Mao wallpaper is a far cry form the chairman’s portrait on the cover of his little red book.

This retrospective offers a definitive look at Warhol, despite complaints from the crowd that some of his greatest hits are missing. It doesn’t matter. There’s more than enough to see and lots of years for the museum to keep collecting. (“The Norton Simon has 200 Brillo boxes in its base­ment,” says Francis with envy.) There are revelations in this show, especially on the sixth floor, which alone makes an unexpect­ed argument for the importance of the art­ist. We begin with a room full of early draw­ings, sketches, and illustrations, mostly from the ’50s, that I suspect few people have seen. We meet the private Warhol and the commercial Warhol, when his talent was just beginning to be put down on pa­per. If anyone has any doubt (not to men­tion qualms) that Warhol was gay, here’s the evidence. I’m not talking about a style or sensibility, I’m talking about erotic and romantic images of men: in one particularly tender drawing, he decorated an erect penis with flowers, wrapping the gift with a rib­bon around its middle.

Warhol wasn’t exactly in the closet (where many of his contemporaries still re­side), but he never made his personal sexuality public. “Drella,” as some called him, was never embraced as a homosexual artist. Gayness, at least when it’s upfront, can still be a disadvantage for male artists; for lesbi­ans it’s virtually fatal. Warhol seemed to play, quite happily, the role of the asexual. He was a man with no country and no sexuality. It was an act that obviously worked — while he was alive. But one won­ders, now that he’s gone, if it’s possible to speak openly about the artist’s sexuality. Mark Francis doesn’t want to. “I’m not into agendas,” he says.

Let’s go back to the imagery on the sixth floor, where an early-’60s room of soup-can paintings, Coca-Cola canvases, telephones, and factory-box sculptures takes us right to the core of Warhol’s radical intervention into art history. There’s a story, one of countless, that goes like this: Warhol initial­ly painted two versions of his world famous Coke bottle. One was drippy and moody, while the other was flat and clear. He took them both to his friend, documentary film­maker Emile de Antonio (who credits himself with the discovery of artist Frank Stel­la) and asked him which he liked better. “D” went with the flat version, which is in the museum — and the rest is history (no one knows where the other one is). A few early soup-can paintings, however, are quite evocative; one shows a squeezed Camp­bell’s can spurting up a phallic stream of soup. A group of Warhol’s later “Oxida­tion” canvases, made with a combination of paint and urine, are oxidizing on the top floor of the museum.

We’re supposed to take the elevator to the seventh floor and walk down the stairs, just like Barneys or the Guggenheim. One of the museum’s coups is an installation of Shadows (on loan from Dia), which has been shown only once, in 1978, the year it was made. Fifty-five glossy canvases, from a series of 102, wrap around the room like painting-wallpaper, creating an arena for viewers in the middle. The image (a detail of a photograph taken in Warhol’s studio), repeated throughout in different color combinations, is entirely abstract, which is what makes the series an unusual event in War­hol’s career. Shadows is dramatic, but it’s one of the artist’s least moving and most schematic works.

The amazing discoveries to be made about Warhol are in the varieties of his serial “reproductions,” many of which, of course, were not mechanical reproductions at all. We can scrutinize the works, distin­guishing silkscreen images from hand-paint­ed stencils from paintings that look like silkscreens. The confusion is brilliant. It’s like any confusion between life and art, or between what is genuine and what is not. Warhol was the first painter to play with these issues. Today, we all assume that nothing’s real and everything is, potentially, art.

Warhol’s particular genius lay in his abili­ty to select what is ordinary to everyone, everyone except the factory laborer who actually makes the item, and turn it into art. He had the Midas touch. Yes, as a person he was obsessed with the rich and famous (not unlike the rest of the world), but his aesthetic was entirely democratic. “A Coke is a Coke,” Warhol once said, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” A small painting of a sheet of S&H green stamps looks, at first glance, as unremarkable as the real thing. But it’s a noteworthy, beautiful, painstakingly de­tailed homage.

What makes Warhol’s endeavor so com­plex is that any work can be read at least two ways. Is his well-known series of Elec­tric Chairs pro or con capital punishment? Should we celebrate the company that brings us Brillo, or the proles stuck using those brutal scrub pads? Warhol came from the latter group and spent his life trying to move up and away; the museum is trying to celebrate both ends of his life — in the War­hol tradition. At one dinner, each table has a bouquet of products from Heinz, Brillo, etc., as if this were a corporate convention.

It is Warhol’s range of works — not the fanfare — that fills the museum with electric­ity. Here’s an artist who didn’t do the same thing all his life, who allowed his obsessions to blossom. A room with silver helium-filled balloons takes us back instantly to the ’60s, when art could be just plain fun; you can enter this installation and have a pillow fight with perfect strangers. A complete col­lection of Interview — Warhol’s vehicle to the stars — is on display, and his movies, a critical part of his enterprise, are well-inte­grated into the retrospective. Many people first entered Andyland through his experi­mental movies. On the first floor, there’s a comfortable screening room (which showed films continually all weekend) and upstairs Kiss plays, endlessly, in a dark side room, as if it were a moving image — precisely what it is — hanging on a wall. It may be the most successful integration of film into a gallery experience, ever. Walking down, floor by floor, we meet Elvis, Jackie, Ethel, a room full of skulls that, much to my amazement, do not seem the least bit cliché. His collaborations with Basquiat, including a series of painted, ready-made punching bags, are his least in­teresting objects, but their existence feels poignant: there’s a connection between the artists that has less to do with their tragic deaths than how they each lived their art. The ground floor, which shows the late portraits and self-portraits, is the weakest section. Not that I wouldn’t take any one of these paintings home, it’s just that they don’t reveal much about the artist, or his subjects. (Picasso made a lot of bad work, too, and he’s got his own museum.)

Warhol has never looked so good, or so significant, which is exactly what a retro­spective exhibition should demonstrate. When we see more, rather than less, the body of work must get richer, more compel­ling. Scholars will feast on this museum. Just the glass boxes holding innumerable things, such as party invitations, auto­graphs, rock ‘n’ roll albums, tape recorders, and a personal letter from president-elect Richard Nixon inviting Warhol to make rec­ommendations to his cabinet, offer a de­tailed picture of the artist and his milieu. Warhol not only looks original, but surpris­ingly contemporary, like the most influen­tial artist of the last few decades. He looks like he deserves his own museum. The im­pact of Warhol’s work on American culture was hard and fast, but this museum is going to slowly carry this work into the future, for posterity. The gatekeepers, in the end, have no choice. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 16, 2020