Meet Tom Sokolowski

The New Director of The Andy Warhol Museum talks about the artist, the museum and the future.

Thomas Sokolowski was named director of The Andy Warhol Museum in May, after a national search identified him as an excellent candidate for the directorship of the two-year old museum.

A lively and energetic art historian, Sokolowski has been arts correspondent for F/X Television since 1994, and since 1984 has been director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, where in 1989 the exhibition Success is a Job in New York...The Early Art and Business of Andy Warhol was organized. The exhibition was acclaimed nationally and internationally and came to Pittsburgh. A native of Chicago, Sokolowski received his B.A. from the University of Chicago, and earned his master's degree and did doctoral work in art history at New York University, where he specialized in late 17th- and early 18th-century Italian art. At the start of his administrative career he served at the Chrysler Museum as curator of European painting and sculpture, and then as chief curator (1983-84), and he has taught at a number of universities, including NYU. As a board member of Visual AIDS, and Artist & Homeless Collaborative, and as an editorial board member for Art + Text, he is active in the arts community, and has made a number of trips to Australia and New Zealand for projects assigned by their arts councils.

Ellsworth H. Brown, president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, noted that the "challenge was to find the individual who could capture Warhol's legacy of vitality and share that with our local community as well as with our national and international audiences," and that Sokolowski has demonstrated success in these areas.

Here the new director shares his thoughts on Andy Warhol, the museum and its collections, and future plans. His reflections are arranged by subject, and the questions which triggered his varied thoughts have been deleted.

On Warhol's Importance

There's a climate of immediacy in Warhol's images that contributes to his valuation as the most important artist of the second half of the century, bar none. Not only for America, but, I think, for the world. Much that Warhol foresaw about the future of American popular culture has come to pass. He was eminently quotable.

Warhol's message suggested the importance of the tawdry side of things-but as the saying goes, you can't blame the messenger for the message. I think Warhol uniquely understood all of that. When you look at the visual arts today, internationally as well as nationally, you see that the templates Warhol used are being used-not only his techniques such as the silk screen, but his selection of subjects as well. He used celebrities the way he did ordinary people, be they movie stars, American Jews, or Japanese businessmen. Those modalities are now coming out in the work of young artists, both in America and abroad. Details magazine and "Saturday Night Live" are part of the Warhol legacy, as is this fad of club- going. ...

In my opinion Warhol helped craft the way Americans perceive one another. When we look at well- known people, we create these profiles. "Marilyn Monroe" was not a flesh and blood person who lived, was a movie actress and then died, but a constructed image. After a certain point the real Marilyn began to act out and live her constructed image, which ultimately became her downfall. This lead to the notion of how we talk about our presidents, about their "handlers," and of how they need to play to this mediated image of themselves.

When I spoke recently at the museum about Warhol's portraits I related Warholian images to images from the history of art. I showed Warhol's Liz Taylor and juxtaposed it with that famous bust of Nefertiti, and then with the Mona Lisa. These comparisons help audiences discover his connections within the history of art. People aren't used to thinking of Warhol in this context. Many people have said to me that "we're going to go back and look again."

In one way, we're talking about the use of iconography in art. What Warhol did in his time, in his context, was not so different, formally, from the way Leonardo created memorable portraits in the Renaissance using tempera and oil glazes. People have gotten the misconception that because Warhol was an excellent self-publicist he was not really a serious artist. He was a serious artist and very aware of- increasingly aware of-the artist's role in the art world, especially when he made references to an image, like that of Marilyn Monroe. He knew what Leonardo had done, and wanted other people to be savvy enough about art to see his own references to it.

Making these connections is inevitable when you study art history. Early in my career I concentrated on 17th- and 18th-century art. Warhol was trained at Carnegie Tech, a serious place. He took art history courses, and had strong training in design. While his art looks terribly au courant, that doesn't mean he wasn't intensely connected to the entire history of art.

There are other connections here between the Warhol "Factory" and the workshops maintained by great artists. Rembrandt and Rubens had hundreds of people working under their direction. It took thousands of people to decorate the Palace at Versailles. In this sense Warhol was hyper-traditional.


I would love to consider a show in a couple of years' time that would explore the iconography of Pittsburgh in Warhol's art. He called his studio The Factory and covered everything with all that silver foil and everyone thought it was so chic. But if you went into an actual factory, what would you see? The silver backing of the insulation, perhaps, and the metal of the ductwork. In Warhol's early life in Pittsburgh, he saw men who worked not in an office, but in a factory. A show about Warhol's Pittsburgh iconography would not have to exhibit smokestacks, but more subtle things, like assembly lines-the notion that when you work you are part of an assembly line process whether you are a steelworker or a printmaker.

Warhol is sometimes considered just a talented commercial illustrator rather than a serious artist, and I've been asked to compare his work to that of Norman Rockwell, who also worked in the iconographic vein, and produced stereotypes of Americana.

Rockwell, in his best moments, was a very interesting artist. I did an exhibition on the iconography of images of sailors during the World War II years, and stressed the idea that during that time when we had no heroes, the sailor became the hero in American pop culture. We had a wonderful Rockwell painting from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of a sailor getting a tattoo on his arm-the sailor has these women's names on his arm and each one is successively crossed out, and the name of his current "cutie" added. It was a picture whose meaning could be traced back to the Greek myth about the sailor Odysseus, who in his Odyssey also represented the way we were in some distant past.

But the problem with Rockwell isn't so much his sentimentality, although that sometimes gets to be a bit much, but rather that when he began doing really interesting things, the simple machinery of getting his Saturday Evening Post covers out, and the pressure on his illustrations to be ever more popular, led him ultimately to sell out. Rockwell's last images became really mawkish, but some of the early ones are really interesting.

Warhol, by contrast, kept exploring himself and evolving in his work. He started out learning all about commercial art and for the first 10 years he worked commercially in New York, as the exhibition Success is a Job in New York made so clear. He knew all the things a magazine illustrator had to know, but he chose to work for periodicals that were a bit more savvy than the Saturday Evening Post. He worked for fashion magazines and some more serious journals, and he was able to play around a bit, artistically. In the case of the I.Miller Shoe Company, he developed his incredible shoe advertisement, which ran for one year, every Thursday in the exact same place on the page, in The New York Times. One year his work won an award as the best advertising campaign of the year. He was very aware of what went into commercial success. He was also working for the fashion industry in post-World War II America, helping to sell products to a rich, prosperous and positive America. After the war people not only had money but wanted to have something new, to have their own house, their own products, and Warhol knew all about that. Today you can't understand the importance of Pop Art as a style until you appreciate that historical context. ...

In the 1950's in America we got that potent image of the artist as the bohemian who struggled to make art and challenged any naysayers. But that was not always the case with artists. Historically many artists worked for patrons, as Warhol did.

Some people have looked at the bizarreness of some of his milieux and labeled Warhol as a "voyeur." We now use "voyeur" in a Machiavellian sense, or in sexual references, meaning a dirty old man. For me Warhol was a voyeur or "onlooker" just as any artist is. He had the artistic interest and a vicarious pleasure in seeing something outside of himself. In his own strange way, in the middle part of his life, when Warhol was a star par excellence, I don't think he ever believed in his own fame.

When you look at his personal life, and his biographies, his diaries, he always is the little boy from Pittsburgh looking into the window where he can be surrounded by all these glamorous people who were princesses and debutantes, and trust funds babies. He never really believed in it all, and when you read the diaries, you find him talking and calling his friends late at night, and saying things like, "Can you believe what she did last night?" He saw things that he thought were totally rude and suggested ill manners and ill breeding. That was not the way he was brought up. The use of drugs and sexual profligacy-he didn't take part in either of those things. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but simply that he was always the interested observer and not necessarily a participant.


In the recent show that went to Japan there was one picture which I had not seen before, a self-portrait that he had done sometime after leaving Carnegie Tech, in the early 50s when he went to New York. It is a self-portrait of himself with his hands covering his face. One of the things that always struck me in the late self-portraits was the image of Warhol's face covered with camouflage, and the notion that Warhol never let things out, and deliberately stayed such a clam in a certain way. But here in the 50s we see him as a kid doing the same thing with his hands. He wasn't yet so clever to realize that with regular camouflage he could show his face, but in a sense say, "I'm wearing a mask. I'm not telling you." Early on, as a young kid, he knew exactly his own mind set.

His sunglasses were part of his concealment, sort of, "I want to look at you but I don't want you to see me." I would love to have someone do a thought-provoking essay on those wigs he wore. Why did he wear this hideous wig-so obviously phony, so obviously a wig that didn't fit well? It looked like something he bought in a department store for $19. We have a collection of them in the archive. (In fact, the actor David Bowie who plays Warhol in the upcoming film Basquiat actually wore wigs from the archive in his performance.) To me this seems another way in which he disguised himself.

Yet he was a magnet who drew people to him, like moths to a flame. He had the ability as an artist, as a publicist, to make people famous. Most of the people who surrounded him literally had their 15 minutes of fame, but did not became major figures in their own right. I mean people like Valerie Solanis, Joe Delassandro, Ultra Violet and Baby Jane Holzer.

The Collection and the Future

With the museum's collection we have a unique opportunity to present retrospectives of Warhol's work in a way which no other museum can. Even though the quintessential all-inclusive retrospective couldn't be done solely through our collections because we have gaps in certain areas, we still have the ability to give the public a far richer view of Warhol than anyone else could.

A lot of things that the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has put on loan to us, and which will eventually come to us in a few years as a gift, were things that Warhol kept back for one reason or another, and that had perhaps sentimental or intellectual importance for him. Or, to be perfectly honest, some works weren't as salable as the quintessential Pop pictures. They were oddities, but some of those oddities tell you amazing things.

At the Warhol Museum, you can see almost everything about one man's life, and because of the richness, particularly of our archives, you can not only walk through the building and look at everything that's up on the wall and sit through some of the films that are being shown that day, but you can also go into the archives and look through some of the materials on the shelves. And if you make an appointment you can go into greater depth through some of the material that's already been catalogued. So in either one visit or repeated visits, it's not as if once you've seen it, you've seen it.


In late May of this year our curatorial team of Mark Francis and Margery King traveled to Brazil as guests of the United States Information Agency to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil, because there has been some interest there in doing a Warhol exhibition. One thing that we will do this fall for the latest biennial exhibition in Sao Paulo, is bring together a small Warhol show at their request called Public Faces, Private Parts: Andy Warhol's Portraits and Torsos. There is the possibility of another retrospective chosen especially for a South American audience that would open up in two years' time. We'll see what Sao Paulo brings forth.

Whenever we mount an exhibition abroad one has to be aware of the context. I would like to see each one of these shows focus upon the context of that region of the world. What you say about Warhol in Japan might be different than what you want to say about Warhol in South America. The condition of exhibition spaces around the world is also a concern. The Japanese museums are incredibly up-to-snuff in terms of climate control and art handling and insurance. They may not have the same conditions in South America. You don't expect less of them, but you do have to plan carefully. Certain works are more fragile and we might not want them to go. But that remains to be seen. We must use the resources of our museum in a way in which we can help other places around the world better understand Warhol.


We will certainly be making changes in the permanent collection on display at the museum at least twice a year, not only to juice up the visitor's experience with new juxtapositions and to give the public new perspectives, but also because certain works on paper have to be rotated because of potential damage from light levels. When someone comes to the museum two or three times a year they will see different art from the permanent collection in addition to the temporary exhibitions that will be going up.

Although we are a one-artist institution, our programming will transcend that. For example, in the show that we opened in May on the Velvet Underground there were images not by Warhol, but that connected to the Warhol ethos, and the Warhol myth, and the Warhol history. Our museum is not just going to be a mausoleum. I am very concerned that it not be that.

The museum has a particular appeal to youth. In May of 1996 we celebrated the museum's second birthday with a party. We began the evening with a traditional cocktail party, but before it was over we had 600 people-three times the number of people we were expecting. That was very exciting.

But, almost more important than that, was that afterwards from 9 until 2 in the morning, we had an outdoor party, and we had 1,500 people-mostly younger people. We had music outside and projected some of the Warhol films in the building, and kids were just streaming through.


When I was being interviewed for this position I was asked what was the first thing I would do. And I said that certainly, a high priority is to raise money. But on another level I think an immediate job in my first year is in public relations. One needs to make the point of why the Warhol Museum is worth having in this city. Why it is valuable for the community? If you are going to ask people to make a donation, whether it's $50 or $50,000, there has to be something that they think is worthwhile. Any institution, whether it's the Carnegie or a hospital, or a university, or a methadone clinic, has to be seen to be serving some part of the populace to deserve support.

The Andy Warhol Museum needs, as does any other institution, to have a group of people who are very much committed to helping us do what we have to do. To raise funds, and to connect with people in the local community or the national community or perhaps, international community.

The museum passed an important milestone at its second anniversary this year. I've met with Andy's brothers, John and Paul, and found them very interesting. In fact about 35 of Andy's relatives attended the anniversary party, and they were quiet and unassuming-family traits that you can see in Andy, too. While the other people at the party had professional reasons for attending, Andy's family-his brothers, nieces and nephews, and his aunt-really seemed to be there to recognize the honor being heaped upon this artist in their family. This struck me, in a way, as profound, and without any relation to the world of art criticism and the debates that surround Warhol's reputation and Pop Art. It seemed to me very much another way in which Andy Warhol belongs to Pittsburgh.

R. Jay Gangewere is the editor of Carnegie Magazine