Andy Warhol, the high priest of pop art, is one of the few artists to have a museum devoted to him. Set in Pittsburgh, Warhol’s hometown, it’s also the largest devoted to a single artist, presenting a hefty collection of his influential work within the context of wildly changing times.
The thousands of contents are contained in a white terra-cotta corner building, where twin pink banners proclaim the museum’s name. The building is blocks from PNC Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It’s on the seventh and top floor where the story of Andrew Warhola, b. Aug. 6, 1928, begins, with text panels and artifacts depicting various periods of his life. It’s where one is also immediately introduced to the early painting, “Nosepicker I: Why Pick on Me,” when Warhol was 19.
Born to Eastern European immigrants, readers learn Warhol was a sickly child prone to bouts of a nervous disorder. Often kept home from school, he would read comics, create scrapbooks of Hollywood movie stars and watch lots of movies and cartoons.
Warhol would graduate Carnegie Tech with a degree in pictorial design, move to New York City and rapidly establish himself as one of the most successful commercial illustrators in the city. Lots of early drawings are a testament to his budding talent.
Other exhibits trace the development of what would become trademarks of his art, including the blotted line technique, in which Warhol would combine drawing with basic printmaking to repeat an image and create multiple illustrations along a similar theme. Sometimes that would include adding water-soluble dyes and applied gold leaf, with a step-by-step video showing how the process was done.
By the end of the 1950s, Warhol was becoming interested in the Pop Art movement, which took its inspiration from pop culture. He would often enlarge images found in advertising and comics with the help of a projector and then hand-paint the projections on canvas. Examples on the walls include his “S&H Green Stamps” and “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings.
“Three Coke Bottles,” done in 1962, is one of Warhol’s most known photographic silk screen prints, which replicated the look of commercial advertising. As a text panel makes clear, Warhol extolled the virtues of Coca-Cola as a product rich and poor could equally enjoy.
On another wall is the monumental silk screen canvas “Elvis 11 Times,” made with ink and silver paint. The repetitive artwork was created in 1963 from publicity stills for the Elvis Presley film “Flaming Star,” part of Warhol’s “Elvis and Liz” series.
Warhol’s cultural influence through music, live performance, film, photography and magazines are also recounted.
One room, with soft cushions, projects stills and film on all four walls, recalling the cinematic and multimedia “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happenings that Warhol would stage. Included are images and live recordings of the Velvet Underground, the influential rock band Warhol managed early on, designed the debut album’s cover art for and even got a musical production credit.
The Velvet Underground, featuring Lou Reed and the occasional Nico, was a fixture at Warhol’s Factory, the name given to his Manhattan studio that attracted intellectuals, bohemians, drag queens, Hollywood celebrities and wealthy patrons.
Warhol made dozens of experimental films, many of them cinema verite, between 1963 and 1968, using a cast of regulars that included Edie Sedgwick, Ultra Violet, Brigid Polk and Candy Darling. Some of the films – including the most commercially successful, three-hour-long “The Chelsea Girls” – can be seen at viewing stations.
Warhol also did around 500 filmed portraits at the Factory he called “Screen Tests.” On display is a clip of Marcel Duchamp, whose invention of the “readymade” – a found object presented as art – was an important influence on Warhol.
In one of the museum’s coolest interactive experiences, visitors can take their own filmed screen test – and get their “15 minutes of fame” – by sitting in front of a specially modified vintage camera and twin studio lights in a room reminiscent of Warhol’s Silver Factory studio. A computer touch screen transforms the digital images from real time to slow motion, and upon completion is sent to the visitor’s email.
Warhol, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1968, turned largely to celebrity portraits in the 1970s, especially celebrities and socialites. He also collaborated with younger artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, and examples of both can be seen. Warhol died in 1987.
The museum is an informative and lively look at Warhol’s life, and the indelible mark he left on popular culture. The exhibits may offend some for the sexual boundaries crossed, but that, too, was part of the subculture Warhol stood at the center of.
If you go
Driving: Take 90 West to Anderson Street in Pittsburgh, and then Isabella Street to 117 Sandusky St. The trip takes about 3 hours and 20-minutes.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays. Closed Mondays.
Admission: $20, $10 ages 3 to 18, students.