“I can’t see how I was ever “underground,” since I’ve always wanted people to notice me.”
- Andy Warhol: In His Own Words
“ The pop idea was that anybody could do anything. So naturally, we’re all trying to do it all.”
In His Own Words
“ I really don’t care much about “beauties.” What I
really like are talkers.”
-Andy Warhol: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)
adding more andy
In an interpretive reinstallation, The Andy Warhol Museum puts more of Andy into his museum: more of the man behind the soup cans, and more of the pop sensibility that helped shape more than one generation.
Encased in glass, folded and lifeless under soft light, the clothes are still recognizable: a navy blue-and-white striped sailor shirt, a pair of black beetle boots, a scratchy and dyed wig. To many people, these artifacts—left on a street corner or in a thrift shop basket—would be as identifiable as a fingerprint. But here in The Andy Warhol Museum’s newly designed introductory gallery that’s all about Andy, there’s no question as to their pedigree, with Warhol observing from a nearby photo wearing these same threads.
The new “Warhol at a Glance” gallery doesn’t just tell visitors who he was, it shows them. Rather than saying that Warhol was unhappy with his appearance, it shows photographs he’s altered with a pencil to better his own profile. And there’s no need to explain Warhol’s lifelong obsession with celebrity when presented with images of his youthful scrapbooks of movie stars, and the real-life scrapbooks he created by surrounding himself with them.
“We’ve never offered docent-led tours to the public like many museums,” explains Rick Armstrong, The Warhol’s communication manager. “We never wanted to lead people too much. But we recognized that there needed to be something more.
“We’ve been discussing how to do an interpretative reinstallation for years,” he adds, “and through visitor feedback, we learned that what people really wanted was more biographical information about Andy Warhol.”
The addition of more about Andy is the most striking element of a subtle shift in the museum’s presentation. This, along with new, expanded labeling of many of Warhol’s major works, interpretations of those works by an interesting cross-section of outside voices, and a huge touch-screen version of the museum’s groundbreaking online “timeweb”—a cool, electronic tool that graphically explodes with information about Warhol’s life, overlapped and intersected with the cultural history that surrounded it and, in many ways, shaped it.
Where once the museum left the interpretation of Warhol largely up to the visitor, its recent reinstallation—from the creation of the new gallery right down to the addition of bright and flashy colors, peeled from Warhol’s very own palette, to the entryway of each of the museum’s seven floors—offers visitors more context for the artist, his life, and his work.
Not far from Warhol’s striped sailor’s shirt, two middle-aged men stand in the center of the introductory gallery, staring up at the word “Celebrity,” the headline that speaks to Warhol’s obsession with, and creation of, the red-carpet cult, because as Warhol famously said, “More than anything, people just want stars.” Meanwhile, tucked in a corner, a mother and daughter silently read about Warhol’s take on years in commercial artwork: “Success is a Job in New York.”
The “Celebrity” wall, dominated by a giant image of Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, towering like the king and queen over Manhattan, falls between Warhol “Social Commentator,” which features his Electric Chairs series, and Warhol the “Entrepreneur,” which highlights the artist’s business side. The labels headline the room’s five display walls, each representing a facet of Warhol’s persona—with “Pop Artist” and “Innovator” completing the square.
In each wall display, Warhol images, artwork, and quotes cohabitate the space and flesh out the subject. Brillo Boxes and Jackie Kennedy silk screens speak alternately to Warhol as “Pop Artist” and “Social Commentator,” and reflecting the artist’s spirit as “Innovator” are his words, “The pop idea was that anybody could do anything. So naturally, we’re all trying to do it all.” And from the look of this new gallery, the artist who worked in every medium available at the time certainly succeeded.
Short snippets of information about his life and career, written and compiled by museum staff provide additional insight into Warhol’s personas and range from Interview-magazine-style banner headlines to more subtle, museum-like language that both informs and leaves the artist’s work open to individual appraisal. “The social intent of his work,” one line reads, “may lie in its very ambiguity and flexibility for multiple interpretations.”
It’s a way of looking at Warhol that is both instructive and, perhaps most importantly, truly Warholian.
“A core part of our mission is that the museum is a forum,” says Jessica Gogan, the museum’s curator for special projects. “And one notion of this sort of ‘refresh’ of The Warhol is to present multiple points of view; multiple interpretations.”
Leading—the Warhol Way
In planning for the reinstallation, The Warhol’s staff gleaned from years of interacting with the public in the museum’s galleries and extensive visitor evaluations. Using visitors’ most frequently asked questions as a guide, staff constructed content about Warhol’s sexuality and relationships, health and wealth, drug use and social life, all of which became the thread for a chronological biography of Warhol’s life that winds likes a ribbon around the bottom of the introductory gallery.
The museum had, until now, chosen not to declare to its visitors Warhol as “Entrepreneur” or “Social Commentator.” Rather, his work stood on its own. The thinking: Could a visitor really look at Warhol’s Electric Chair series and not see Warhol the Social Commentator?
“In many art museums there is often a fear of overly inscribing art objects,” notes Gogan, who played a lead role in the reinstallation. “Here, many prefer to see the optimal viewing experience as one of unfettered looking, an unmediated dialogue between artwork and viewer. But, so-called non-mediation is also a form of mediation and often this approach limits rather than opens interpretation by suggesting that art speaks without any. As a museum, we do have an obligation to speak with clarity, complexity, and relevancy about the objects in our care.
“That’s what we’ve attempted to do more overtly in our new introductory space,” Gogan continues, “in our art labeling, and in the main halls of our exhibition floors.”
It’s All About Not Knowing
A Warhol persona not explicitly stated in the reinstallation is “Enigma.” The artist once famously told interviewer Gretchen Berg, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.” But, as the museum is quick to point out in the introductory space, those are surfaces upon which many different meanings can be projected.
“When I think of the ‘surface’ quote, I often think of Warhol smiling bemusedly,” says Gogan.
She points to another quote, from art critic Charles Stuckey, that helps explains this surface that Warhol spoke about: “Warhol’s art is charged with incongruity and paradox, he contends that ‘the less something has to say, the more perfect it is.’ Despite this preference, his own art has boundless scope, for whatever it has to say, it always says the reverse as well … [it] is both naïve and sophisticated, deadpan and slapstick, both clumsy and lyrical, garish and ravishing, boring and provocative, trivial and profound.”
With “Points of View” labels complementing many major works in the museum, The Warhol presents multiple views—such as Stuckey’s—alongside the curatorial label. The result, in the case of a work such as Elvis 11 Times, shows Warhol to be an artist of, indeed, “boundless scope.”
On a label crafted by Christiane Leach, a poet and musician with Pittsburgh’s lauded band Soma Mestizo, Leach points to the irony of Warhol appropriating Elvis’ image, itself an appropriation: “In some communities, Elvis is considered a thief of black music and expression … is appropriation, if well executed, still a form of economic exploitation? Or is it a new life form created from the mutation of two cultures?”
Focusing on the repetition so universally associated with Warhol’s work, local Rabbi Mark N. Staitman sees and writes about similarities to the “turning and turning” of the Torah by its students: “The task of the student of the Torah is to find the distinct meaning in each variation of the text.”
Another avenue for offering fresh points of view is through new art installations by current artists that interpret and add a contemporary spin to Warhol, such as the museum’s recent site-specific installation, Postnatal Pile by Houston-based artist Kelly Klaasmeyer. In her work—consisting of a pile of baby-related consumer products, including large diaper boxes—Klaasmeyer approaches the concept of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes from their original context: that of a common product.
“The Brillo steel wool pads that Warhol was mimicking were already obsolete by the time I was old enough to scrub pots,” writes Klaasmeyer in a label describing her project. “So the Brillo Box was always an artwork, never a consumer product for me.
“But because of Warhol and the Brillo Box, it’s easy for me and my generation to see consumer products as art objects. …Warhol’s Brillo Box has become an icon of 20th century art,” she continues. “It is an irreverent work that has become an object of reverence because of Warhol’s and the object’s place in art history. Museums can be very serious places but artists’ studios rarely are.”
It’s this kind of thinking that The Warhol hopes to inspire, not just among its diverse critics, artists, and aficionados, but among everyday visitors, too.
“By offering different points of view, we’re emphasizing the diverse and varied nature of the response to art,” explains Gogan. “This, in turn, encourages visitors to consider their own point of view.”
“One of the challenges with contemporary art is the sense that there is something to ‘get’—when, in many ways, art exists in the realm of ambiguity, of the not knowing,” she adds. “Part of the delicate balance of interpretation is to be expansive rather than reductive, and to give people tools to engage themselves. It’s through diversity that you communicate openness.”