Saving Time: the Archives of The Andy Warhol Museum

By John W. Smith

The archives of The Andy Warhol Museum are the most extensive and significant documentation of any American artist's life and times. Accumulated and collected by Warhol throughout his life, the material in the archives ranges from photographs and memorabilia collected during his childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the books he had beside his bed at New York Hospital when he died in February 1987 at the age of 59. The collection is available to researchers at the museum's Archive Study Center, and it allows for new and powerful insights into Warhol's art, and the important social and cultural changes that occurred during his lifetime.

Warhol was an avid and knowledgeable collector of fine art, furniture, jewelry and decorative objects. Buying expeditions to antique shops, auction houses, flea markets and junk shops were a daily ritual for many years. In his own words, Warhol was "always looking for that five-dollar object that's really worth millions."

Over time, his 27-room Manhattan townhouse was filled to overflowing with the fruits of his obsessions. Exquisite Art Deco furniture and American folk art vied for space with Navajo Indian blankets and Empire sofas. After Warhol's death, Sotheby's auction house was given the daunting task of inventorying the contents of the townhouse and selling them at what has become a series of legendary auctions, which Time magazine characterized as "the most extensive estate sale in history, and the glitziest." Fueled by the power of Warhol's celebrity, buyers at the sale paid record-high prices for a piece of the artist's legacy. The public frenzy generated by these sales was the ultimate confirmation that Andy Warhol had entered the pantheon of Pop culture icons.

Following the Sotheby's auction, as archivists and curators began to make their way through the remaining contents of his home and his studio on East 33rd Street, it became clear that his collecting extended far beyond art and antiques, cookie jars and costume jewelry. A staggering accumulation of boxes, shopping bags, trunks and filing cabinets showed that collecting had permeated every aspect of Warhol's life, and these materials now represent the core of the Warhol Museum's archives.

The archival collection currently consists of more than 8,000 cubic feet of material, including 42 scrapbooks of press clippings related to Warhol's work and his private and public lives; his art supplies and materials; posters publicizing his exhibitions and films; more than 3,000 audio tapes of interviews and conversations between Warhol and his friends and associates; thousands of documentary photographs; an entire run of Interview magazine, which Warhol founded in 1969; his extensive library of books and periodicals; and many personal items such as clothing and 30-plus silver-white wigs that became one of Warhol's defining features.

At the heart of this vast collection are the "Time Capsule" boxes. Their contents, like Warhol's artwork, are both illuminating and enigmatic. Originally, these boxes were used to simplify a move from Warhol's studio at 33 Union Square West to a new location at 860 Broadway. Afterward, Warhol began to use these moving boxes to store the bewildering quantity of material that routinely passed through his hands. Ironically, he referred to these boxes as "time capsules." Normally, time capsules commemorate events of special significance. By placing a few carefully selected objects into a container, sealing it, and specifying a date when it should be opened, a time capsule is meant to capture a sense of the current Zeitgeist for future generations. For Warhol, however, his Time Capsules functioned not only in the traditional way, but also as a memento hominem, a register of his everyday life. In documenting the most insignificant details of his existence, Warhol created a complete, though often cryptic, diary of his life and the world in which he moved.

Photographs, newspapers and magazines, fan letters, business and personal correspondence, source images for art work, books, exhibition catalogues and telephone messages, along with objects and countless examples of ephemera--such as announcements for poetry readings and dinner invitations--were placed on an almost daily basis into a box kept conveniently next to his desk. Time Capsule #3, for example, contains a 17th-century German book on wrestling. Letters received by Warhol while he was hospitalized following a 1968 assassination attempt are found in Time Capsule #4. Other unusual items include a mummified foot, silverware he kept from a flight on Air France, a large banner created for a Rolling Stones tour, and a pair of white leather cowboy boots. When he died, Warhol had created over 600 Time Capsules.

For scholars of Warhol and postwar American popular culture, the Time Capsules are a treasure trove of new and important information. Through invoices, bank statements and other financial information, researchers are beginning to unravel the complexities of Warhol's business practices. Scripts, cast lists and reels of previously undocumented motion picture film have provided historians studying Warhol's film work with a wealth of new detail. Rare exhibition catalogues and announcements, press releases, correspondence and installation photographs have allowed art historians to study more thoroughly the critical and public reactions to Warhol's art, and to sort out the difficult questions of exhibition history and provenance. Visitors to the Warhol Museum discover that the archival material is fully integrated with the art collections to provide a broad social and historical context for understanding Warhol's work.

Warhol's Time Capsules also occupy a significant place in his total artistic production. Warhol labored continuously to document everything he could. Like his films and audio tape recordings, the Time Capsules are a further attempt to capture time and human experience in an indiscriminate way. The films and audiotapes elevate the most mundane action or conversation to the level of art, and a similar status is conferred on the material in the Time Capsules. The Time Capsules are also linked to works by other artists. Both Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, artists whom Warhol knew and admired, created box-like objects that, like the Time Capsules, can be read as a form of autobiography. The Time Capsules share a kinship with the German Wunderkammer. Popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, these cabinets of curiosities were created by collectors to exhibit their treasures. They often contained a highly eclectic assortment of objects--architectural fragments, travel souvenirs, scientific instruments, engravings and oddities of nature. Though rarely of great value, they often revealed a great deal about the tastes and interests of their owners.

As The Andy Warhol Museum proceeds to inventory and catalog the Time Capsules, and scholars study their contents, our understanding of Andy Warhol and his place in 20th-century culture will continue to evolve.

John W. Smith is archivist and interim manager of The Andy Warhol Museum