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?
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 fact,
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!
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.
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.
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."
A museum visitor has fun hiding behind an Andy-style wig and sunglasses.
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!"
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).
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.
How does the death of Princess Diana connect with Andy Warhol's work?
1997 was the 40th anniversary of pink flamingos...what are your thoughts
on high art, low art and lawn art?
A redesign of the Volkswagon beetle will be released in 1998...what do
you think about everyday objects becoming icons of design like the VW?
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
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.
Copyright 1998 Carnegie Magazine
All rights reserved.