Andy Warhol—A Pittsburgher at the Core

Andy Warhol was an artist, a celebrity, a cultural icon, an eccentric, and at heart, a Pittsburgher.  While many people associate Warhol with the jet set and locations like New York City and Hollywood, most fail to realize how much of a Pittsburgher Warhol was.

Andy Warhola (he began to drop the “a” from his last name while in college) was born on August 6, 1928, to Julia and Andrej Warhola, who were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, arriving from an area of today’s eastern Slovakia.  His father came to the U.S. in 1914 and his mother joined her husband in 1921 after the death of Andy’s grandparents.  Warhol was their fourth son.  The eldest son died while they were still in Europe.  Older brothers Paul and John were born in 1922 and 1925 respectively.  Andrej was a laborer, while Julia supplemented the family income as an embroiderer.  The family settled in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood and were devout Byzantine Catholics who attended mass regularly at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

At a very young age, Warhol showed artistic talent, and when he was six, he contracted Syndenham’s chorea, also known as St. Vitus Dance.  The neurological disorder primarily afflicts children and causes rapid, irregular, involuntary movements of the body.  He was bedridden for several months with the illness, and to occupy his time, his mother and brothers entertained him by showing him how to draw and trace images.  At nine, his family bought him a camera so that he could delve into photography.  In addition, as a child, he attended the free art classes at Carnegie Institute, which is now the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Warhol attended Holmes Elementary School and Schenley High School, graduating in 1945 at the age of 16, finishing 51 out of 278 graduates.  Sadly, Warhol’s father died in 1942, but it was his father’s wish that his son go to college and develop his artistic talent.  Fulfilling his father’s dream, Andy was accepted at Carnegie Institute of Technology, which is now Carnegie Mellon University, and graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Pictorial Design.  While in college, he worked in the display department at Horne’s department store.

After graduation, Warhol moved to New York City to pursue a career as a commercial artist.  In 1949, his work appeared in Glamour magazine, and he soon became known as one of the most gifted illustrators of the 1950s.  In 1952, his mother moved to live with him in New York and remained with him for nearly 20 years until her death in Pittsburgh in 1972.

During the 1960s, Warhol turned to painting, creating his first Pop art works in 1961, which were based on ads and comics.  The next year, he unveiled his Campbell’s Soup Can series, which caused a sensation in the art world and made him a celebrity.  After that, he did a series of movie star portraits depicting luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor.  Warhol had always been fascinated by fame and celebrity and as young as nine, he became a fan of the movies.  It was at an exhibit in Stockholm in February 1968, that Warhol uttered his most famous quote:  “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Also during that time, he began to explore film and sculpture, creating and showing his Pittsburgh roots with his work Heinz Boxes.  He exhibited these sculptures in his studio, which came to be known as “The Factory.”  The Factory soon became the in-place to be and attracted artists and celebrities.  He frequently was featured in gossip columns, magazines, and on television.  It was also during the 1960s that he delved into performance art, creating a traveling multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the rock band The Velvet Underground.

On June 3, 1968, radical feminist Valerie Solanas, a member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), shot Warhol at his studio.  He was initially pronounced dead, but he was resuscitated and required a two-month recovery in the hospital. Warhol was rattled by Solanas’ murder attempt and began to send doubles to public events in his place.

In the 1970s, he self-published several art books and co-founded Interview magazine, a periodical that explored popular culture.  He often socialized with the “beautiful people” like Halston, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, and Liza Minnelli, frequenting such hot spots as Studio 54.  He became a highly sought-after celebrity portrait artist, generating considerable income from this work.

While Warhol predicted everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, Warhol was not an everybody and his fame endured for decades and opened doors for him—some rather unusual ones.  In the 1980s, he had two television shows:  Andy Warhol’s T.V. and Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, which were broadcast on cable in New York and nationally on MTV.  He created work for Saturday Night Live and produced music videos for rock groups like The Cars.  He also appeared on an episode of The Love Boat and modeled in fashion shows.

On February 22, 1987, he died from a complication of gallbladder surgery.  Warhol was homosexual, yet claimed that he was a virgin.  He wore silver wigs and described himself this way:  “I am a deeply superficial person.”

On the surface Warhol did appear to be a bit of a creation like a 3-D celebrity portrait, yet it seems that at his core he was still the Andy Warhola of Pittsburgh.  During his memorial service in New York City after his burial in Pittsburgh, it was revealed that Warhol retained many of the values so associated with Pittsburghers—love of family and faith.  John Richardson revealed this about Warhol in his eulogy.

Although Andy was perceived—with some justice—as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing his nephew’s studies for the priesthood. And he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities in the dark. The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he could be cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value.

In accordance with Warhol’s will, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was established in 1987 to advance the visual arts.  Two years after the establishment of the foundation, it was announced that Pittsburgh would be the home for The Andy Warhol Museum.  The museum opened in May 1994 and is one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh never forgot that Warhol was a native son.  The city remembered him by renaming the Seventh Street Bridge the Andy Warhol Bridge in celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary.

Warhol on the surface may have appeared to be glitzy and glamorous, but beneath the persona were some deep Pittsburgh values.

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