‘Up­stairs, I am greeted by Warhol as a boy of eight’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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