‘Upstairs, I am greeted by Warhol as a boy of eight’
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 Allegheny river two blocks to the south, their laughter cascading after them.
It seems a pertinent representation of Warhol’s relationship with his “home” city, made that bit more accessible from next April when British Airways launches direct flights from London. 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 Aug 6 1928 – boasts no such flecks of silver. Hemmed into south-west Pennsylvania – at the spot where 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 a bluecollar behemoth brought low. It is the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins, depending on the sporting season. It is Debbie Harry in turquoise eyeshadow. 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 blond 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-andwhite 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 filmreel 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 – 41-minute silent movie Blow Job (1964), where the title teases outrage but the content is playfully vague, with 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