A local artist-educator discovers that she’s not alone in her quest to channel her inner Andy Warhol.
By Julie Hannon
Madelyn Roehrig visits Andy Warhol’s gravesite every day—for a year and counting.
Ever wonder what outrageous ideas Andy Warhol would dream up in this digital age of push-button publishing, instant status updates, and 24-hour news? Now you can ask him.
Asking Andy anything is the idea behind Madelyn Roehrig’s ongoing art project, Figments: Conversations with Andy, in which the artist-educator is documenting who visits the late artist’s grave and, more interestingly, why.
Last February, Roehrig left a notebook at Warhol’s hillside gravesite in Bethel Park, about 10 miles south of Pittsburgh, encouraging visitors to ask Andy a question or leave a comment. Since then, she’s collected 230 handwritten messages—along with a white wig, a plastic penis, a rosary, paint brushes, crystals, Gas-X pills, a Celebrity tomato plant, numerous Coca-Cola bottles, and a plethora of Campbell’s soup cans—all left for the king of Pop Art.
A photographer inquired, “Dear Andy, How do you put models at ease?” A designer traveling all the way from Mexico confessed, “I’m your #1 fan and you are my inspiration.” Another visitor confided, “Sorry you can’t be friends on Facebook and Twitter. You would have loved that.”
“My husband Matthew and I drove all the way from Miami, Florida, just to be here with you,” wrote Julie R. “You were an amazing artist and a truly weird person. Hope all is well down there, the world up here misses you.”
Most only leave their first names. Some live within walking distance but others have come from as far away as the Czech Republic. And they’re an eclectic bunch, including one of Warhol’s classmates (a 90-year-old Bethel Park man who now lives within eyeshot of Andy), belly dancers, budding artists, adoring fans and haters alike, tourists, grade-schoolers, and entire families on a pilgrimage to visit someone they talk to like an old friend.
“Hi Andy, I brought my two small daughters with me today to see where you were buried because we’ve been discussing your art and they think it’s cool. My oldest—age 8—has been arranging soup cans all around the house. Hope you are doing well in the creative afterlife,” signed anonymous.
“Today is my 18th birthday … I’m going to college to be a painter,” wrote Samantha Jo. “It’s the greatest feeling, right? Makes me feel so alive. Thanks for the inspiration.”
And if writing Andy a message by hand is too 20th century for some gravesite guests, Roehrig also mans Figments: Conversations with Andy on Facebook and the Andy Warhol Hotline at412.508.9245. So far, Andy has received 22 calls.
“I was just going to take a picture here every day,” she explains, motioning toward Andy’s tombstone, tucked away in the non-descript St. John Byzantine Catholic Cemetery at the corner of Route 88 and Connor Road, where Warhol was buried with his parents. “But as I did, I started noticing things showing up, gifts for Andy, and I realized other people came, too. And I wondered why. I wanted to know what they were thinking and what they were asking—what they wanted from Andy. I also wanted to capture it all without being invasive, but I didn’t know what to do. So I asked Andy.”
Roehrig does a lot of that—asking Andy. Living only three miles from the gravesite, she’s been visiting Warhol infrequently since 2006, and now, for this project, every day for more than a year. She says she talks to him “Whenever I have a situation.” These “situations” are almost always of the creative kind, and Andy almost always delivers. “I believe Andy is listening,” says Roehrig, “that’s why it works. He helps me stretch my imagination.”
It all started when Roehrig, an education specialist at Carnegie Museum of Art, was stalled on an art installation she was developing for an exhibition at Seton Hill University. Upon the anniversary of September 11, she started exploring terroristic images that enter people’s homes by way of their television sets. This conjured up Warhol’s famous Death and Disaster paintings, and off she went to sit and talk with Andy. Roehrig acknowledges that while this might seem odd to some, this kind of stream-of-consciousness thinking and quiet time at a cemetery isn’t so unusual for her, as she regularly visits and talks to her deceased parents and grandparents.
Not long after talking it through with Andy, she decided that the best way to display the violent images she had captured from her television was to make time-based videos using the black-and-white images as a montage.
It’s a ritual that’s become a part of her artistic process, and her life. A private part of her life until her classmates at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she completed her master’s degree last year, pointed out the fact that her connection to Andy is her artwork. So the documenting began: recording the handwritten notes and eventually videotaping willing visitors. (Beginning April 11, Roehrig will videotape gravesite visitors from noon-2 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month). And as her final graduate course project, Roehrig mounted an installation that included the notes, gifts, video, and a transportable tombstone marked “Figment.”
Warhol died in 1987 at age 58 due to complications following gallbladder surgery. In America, his 1985 book of photographs, he said he wanted the word figment, not his name, on his tombstone. (He didn’t get his wish.)
And now, in year two of Conversations with Andy, Roehrig plans to take it all on the road to the place Warhol really considered home, New York City. With the help of Eric Shiner, The Warhol’s Milton Fine Curator of Art, she’s hoping to mount her installation in Union Square and a nearby gallery, allowing New Yorkers to talk to Andy at the mobile tombstone and read the messages left from admirers the world over. After all, one of Warhol’s studios, The Factory, once neighbored Union Square.
What would Andy think about all this?
“Andy completely loved attention, so I think this would make him quite happy,” says Shiner. “Andy still has a very strong influence on society and the fact that people, one way or the other, still want to communicate with him is really fantastic.”