Rearranging Warhol's Legacy ; Museum Shifts Focus to Show How Artist's Life and Work Were Entwined

By Gopnik, Blake | International New York Times, May 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

Rearranging Warhol's Legacy ; Museum Shifts Focus to Show How Artist's Life and Work Were Entwined


Gopnik, Blake, International New York Times


Curators at the museum in Pittsburgh set out to show how life and art were perhaps more closely entwined for Andy Warhol than for any other artist.

Andy Warhol was, chronologically and by his own description, a nose picker, a pimp and a water guzzler. He was also (or therefore) one of the most various, complex and impressive talents the art world has produced. All those claims, however unlikely, can be confirmed by a visit to the Andy Warhol Museum here in his hometown. In honor of its 20th anniversary, the museum has been rethought from top to bottom, and the results are now being revealed to the public. There may not be another museum that digs as deep into a single artist, and gets as much out of the excavation.

"We want people to know that there's much more to Andy Warhol than Campbell's soup cans and Marilyns," said Eric Shiner, who took over as director in 2011. He started his career as an intern at the museum in 1994, and sitting in his office one day in April -- the same space where he once sorted books -- he said of Warhol, "He changed just about everything."

Curators set out to show how life and art were perhaps more closely entwined for Warhol than for any other artist.

The museum used to mix works from various periods in an attractive scattershot, but now all seven of its floors have been reconceived as an orderly survey of just about everything that Warhol got up to, from the 1950s as a leading commercial artist to his work as an impresario with the Velvet Underground in the later '60s to his landmark films -- and the first video art -- right through to his place deep within MTV culture in the 1980s. Where other artists of his generation, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, used pop culture to feed their high art, Warhol plunged right in and became part of that culture.

"It really is a new Warhol; it's much more about him," Mr. Shiner said, noting especially the trove of archival documents and early art, much of it on loan from local relatives.

Forget Elizabeth Taylor and Brillo boxes and even Edie Sedgwick. To understand the true greatness of Andy Warhol (1928-87), we may want to start with two early images by and of him. The rethought galleries now feature a little-known student painting from 1948 in which Warhol uses the latest in expressionist brushwork to portray himself, nude, with a finger stuck up his nose, pushing past the limits of good taste and fine art even while still in college. Near that artwork hangs a rare family snapshot that includes a baby- bonneted Andy, maybe 2 years old, also with his finger in his nose. Could there be any other artist whose art so closely tracks his life?

We can make do knowing little about Giotto or Vermeer; we can manage without the details of Monet's life. But Warhol, by being who he was, as much as by making what he made, put himself "at the very heart of what we know as art in the 20th century," Mr. Shiner said. That art had often tried to bridge the gap between art and life; when Warhol came along, he backfilled the chasm. Figures such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have waltzed across after him.

Last year, a record 120,000 people visited the museum, helping boost its revenue. The budget for the anniversary rehang was $500,000 -- less than some museums spend on one show. A new lobby is lined in silver foil to echo Warhol's 1964 Factory on East 47th Street in Manhattan, and comes complete with a bar meant to get visitors hanging out and to make the important art-historical point that Warhol was as notable as a catalyst for new ways to hang out as he was a maker of precious objects.

The museum is asking a lot, however, if it wants us to imagine that what goes on in its lobby could have much of a link to Warhol's wild times. The fun that went on in his studio was so serious, it could almost be fatal.

Later, in America's disco days, Warhol's mere presence at Studio 54, as much as the portraits he did of his pals there, were what made him matter to our culture, as revealed in a show about Warhol and his designer friend Halston now filling special-exhibition spaces on the new second floor. …

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