Don't Go There!

By Tom Sokolowski

Everything about Andy Warhol seems to be so self-evident. Campbell's, Brillo, and S&H Green Stamps are three products whose names are synonymous with the images they conjure up: American icons all. And who doesn't know who Liz, Jackie, Marilyn, and Mao are? Their faces, like their personalities, are part of history. Yet, about the man himself so many visitors are quick to say, "Don't go there!" (American vernacular,  circa 1995 signifying "Do not continue to discuss this topic,  it is upsetting to me....").

        Let's not talk about the man who seemed so strange, so implausible, so different from you and me, the man who left the hills and rivers of Pittsburgh for the heights and canyons of Manhattan. In that leap of his from here to there, he seemed to have crossed a chasm into which many don't wish to go, a place that is both alien and frightening, but most of all unknown. It was exactly that unknown terrain that Andy Warhol most favored when he could become the first to scout it out, survey its turf, and map it out for others to follow in his pioneering footsteps. One of his early Pop paintings, Do It Yourself (1962), says it all. However, it is exactly this punctilious swagger combined with the way-cool-dude mode of the swinging 60s that makes Warhol so hip for some and, simultaneously, so unapproachable for others even today, 10 years after his death. For many people who contemplate a visit to The Andy Warhol Museum, a lingering disquiet often prevents them from raversing the front door on Sandusky Street. What will they find lurking around the corner, waiting to jump out and assault their sensitivities?

Andy Warhol wearing a startling wig
        Certainly, the Self-Portrait which looms through the glass front door 24 hours a day can be daunting, looking like some demonic creature who guards his domain striking terror into the hearts of the uninitiated. In Andy Warhol as a young manfact, this image of the 50-ish Andy, topped with his cheap fright wig, should best be seen as a symbol of the artist's insecurity and vulnerability: ashamed and disgusted with his bald pate, Warhol chose those outlandish wigs to cover up what he considered to be so undesirable. And, as some prescient shrink might well comment, the omnipresent rug made one focus on the costume, and not on its wearer. Who among us has not, at one time or another, wanted to blend into the background rather than stick out like the proverbial sore thumb? Then there are those lingering questions of "lifestyle," you know, that old rag about sex, drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll! While many in Andy's Factory circle chose to imbibe in all three, the artist himself, like some latter-day alumnus of the Betty Ford Clinic, stood back from all that, needing to have his astute wits about himself. The 60s was a time for extraordinary experimentation, the results of which changed the face of America and the world. For Andy Warhol, he saw these changes and created an art style which would mirror them. Among his portrait sitters alone, one finds the architects of the new cultural order: Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, and Truman Capote, just to name a few. For Warhol, subculture became supraculture as society's renegades became his superstars. Not surprisingly, today even more than during the 1960s, youthful interest in these now amazingly 60-ish former subcultural heroes is high. Parents may still be terrified, but the kids love it!
Warhol's Fairy with Wings
Sistine chapel
Warhol's "Fairy with Wings," ink on paper,  1950s and Michelangelo's male nudes in the Sistine Chapel - more plentiful than the nudes on display in the Andy Warhol Museum.
        Then there is the fig leaf factor. Isn't the museum replete with nudity? Well, as it happens, it isn't. As public a figure as he chose to be, his private world was just that; in this, he was quite the Victorian. Some Pittsburghers will recognize this trait. In fact, even Andy's closest friends were never invited to his home for dinner.  Save for some schematic black pen drawings from the 1950s showing male figures, Andy Warhol's visual output is almost remarkably chaste. There are more penises on the surface of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and in the halls of The British Museum (most of them three-dimensional, by the way!) than in the galleries of The Andy Warhol Museum. Seen against the backdrop of the history of art, Andy Warhol's depiction of nudes as well as of famous people and dramatic scenes (remember his Electric Chair paintings) or even of still life subjects-soup cans of course-become ever more traditional and understandable.
A visitor at the Warhol Museum
A museum visitor has fun hiding behind an Andy-style wig and sunglasses.
        Lastly, let's look at the biggest question of them all, namely, "Is he for real?" We Americans have a strong sense of personal propriety and hate to have something "put over" on us. We relish the tale of the emperor's new clothes and would hate to be the one found on the boulevard in our long johns. With Andy, it all seems too simple. Where is the craft? Is it all a great big joke staged at our expense? Thus, when asked the question, "What do you think of Andy Warhol's art?" it is all too easy to reply, "Don't go there."

        Well, if you literally don't go there, you and your children will never see all the things that bespeak postwar culture and that Andy Warhol expressed so vividly in his oh-so-American art. The Andy Warhol Museum may not be terra firma, but once you enter it, definitely it will not be terra incognita. What you will see in front of, around, and behind every pillar is a mirror of yourself and the world in which you live which, at base, was Andy's world. "Don't go there," as the street kids would say, "Not!"

Elvis (Eleven Times)
The 20th anniversary in 1997 of Elvis Presley's death triggered calls to The Andy Warhol Museum for comments and photographs of Warhol's images of the singer,  such as Elvis (Eleven Times)
 Thomos Sokolowski,  Director

Thomas Sokolowski is director of The Andy Warhol Museum.


The Meaning of Pop Symbols?

  Many journalists called The Andy Warhol Museum in 1997 and asked questions such as these. Warhol would have been 70 years old this year, but his ideas and work still reflect issues in today's news. His focus on celebrity faces, everyday objects and advertising keeps the museum connected to contemporary society. Just last year, Chanel, Inc., and Campbell's Soups collaborated with the museum to celebrate anniversaries-Chanel No. 5's 75th, and Campbell's Soup's 100th.

Reporters and the general public increasingly see the museum as a place to find out about the meaning of iconic images and the popular symbols of everyday life. Curators Mark Francis and Margery King and director Thomas Sokolowski are often asked for comments on Warhol's work in its relation to pop culture, and for images by Warhol to illustrate news stories. Thus the public's interest in knowing more about the symbols of daily life has made the museum into an accessible center for the study of popular culture.

Warhol rose from poverty by interpreting the ordinary details of life, from soup cans to telephones and shoes, for a mass audience. As a famous artist he created portraits of celebrities from Princess Diana to Chairman Mao and O.J. Simpson and Mick Jagger, turning them into icons for our time. His work marked him as the consummate artistic spin doctor and visual interpreter of the American Dream. Who better could chronicle the obvious, and understand its artistic potential for the mass market?

What does the pink flamingo signify after four decades of use as a lawn ornament? Why did the Volkswagon beetle become an icon of the popular imagination and then return to the market place? The art experts at the Warhol do not claim to know all the answers to the visual legacy of contemporary popular culture. But The Andy Warhol Museum with its emphasis on one artist's interpretations, and its resources for further study,  are increasingly seen by many people as one place to begin the search.

Campbell's picks "Art of Soup" Winner

Andy Warhol's paintings of Campbell's Soup cans propelled the artist's name into the national consciousnessness, and they helped make Campbell's the first name in soups. It was therefore fitting that when the soup company celebrated its centennial with an art contest last fall, it collaborated with The Andy Warhol Museum.

Thousands of professional and amateur artists and writers entered Campbell's "Art of Soup" contest, which the company dubbed "the search for the next Andy Warhol."

Campbell's announced the winner in October at the museum. Dino Sistilli, a 70-year-old retiree from New Jersey, received the grand prize for his sheet of commemorative postage stamps featuring Campbell's newest product-soup in glass jars. He received $10,000 and 100 shares of Campell's Soup stock. Sistilli's artwork, along with several other contest submissions, was displayed at the museum last fall.


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