Getting to Know Andy Warhol

The Andy Warhol Museum, front facade, 1994, photo by Paul Rocheleau

On Saturday, after I spent the morning at Fallingwater, I went to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Here are my thoughts on the experience:

To a certain extent, I feel like I’ve grown up in a time heavily influenced by Andy Warhol. My world view had been undeniably filtered by the celebrity-drenched culture that he explored, documented and, dare I say, championed. I’ve lived my fifteen minutes of fame on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and now this blog. When I visit almost any major art gallery in a foreign city (or, for that matter, in my hometown of Toronto), I inevitably find one or more of Warhol’s most iconic silk screens — the soup cans, the Marilyn Monroes, the Liz Taylors, the Maos, the Evlises, the Jackie Kennedys. But even if I don’t see one of his pieces directly, I am bound to see something by one of the legions of artists that he either directly mentored or inspired (Basquiat, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and so on).

Yet, for some reason, if someone asked me what I thought of Andy Warhol’s work, or about him as an artist, I would have to say I don’t know enough about him or his oeuvre. Yes, I’ve watched Factory Girl (though really, is that true to life?), taken art history classes and seen at least one major retrospective (I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 2006 Stars, Deaths and Disaster show—curated by David Cronenberg—twice because I was so intrigued). But beyond the highly seductive images (spectacularly colourful with a strong graphic sensibility), there is something so vague and shifting in the apparent meaning of his prints and sculptures that I just don’t seem to be able to process them very much at all, either on an emotional or intellectual level. Are they meant to be seen as political, or anthropological, or psychological, or satirical, or critical, or celebratory? Are they a cynical attempt to cash in on what sells (be it celebrity or consumables or fear), or more so a mirror to our cynical consumer culture? Or both? Or are they just really pretty to look at?

I thought that I would learn more at the museum.

I did absorb some interesting things about Warhol’s incredible ambition (I knew he was involved with film, with Interview magazine and with the Velvet Underground, but seeing the extent of his entrepreneurial enterprises all together was pretty breathtaking), the various types of works he produced (a sheet of metal eroded by urine, a sculpture made of punching bags covered in religious iconography, a mound of slashed up canvases), and his professional beginnings on Madison Avenue (I love his early commercial pieces—so whimsical). But I’m not sure I garnered that much more about who he was as a person or what his intent was.

I know he was a celebrity and had a lot of celebrity friends and was interested in making celebrities out of people he knew (though I’m not sure why he wanted to other than maybe to see if he could). He was very open-minded about a lot of things and was a Catholic and at least early on in life had affairs with other men (so he wasn’t a stranger to inner contradictions). He was both outgoing and very soft spoken. He liked being out on the town, but also shared a place with his mother for a large part of his adult life. He was to a large degree inscrutable, and as much as he was a fierce self-promoter, he was also extremely private and very good at masking his inner thoughts and emotions (often deflecting things with a witty remark).  Does his art similarly deflect with its own inherent wit? With its own steely-but-inviting-but-vacant-but-manipulative-but-pleasing aesthetic?

My favourite piece that I saw (other than his early hand-drawn sketches and his advertising work) was the room full of silver helium balloons. The rectangle pockets float gently about, softly colliding into one another. They’re charming in their own right. Easy to enjoy at face value. But also, in my opinion, speak to vanity (you can see yourself from so many different angles with mirrors floating around you) and death (balloons are highly ephemeral). And yet they really give nothing away, beyond their own bright sheen. There was a quote on one of the museum’s walls that said something about how the less something says, the more perfect it is. Was he being a perfectionist all the time?

All of that said, I highly recommend a visit to the museum, and will, of course, seek out more Warhol exposure in the future.

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