A day at the Andy Warhol Museum

We were talking art, and the 20th Century, and someone in the family mentioned Picasso and Andy Warhol and I reflexively said, in high dudgeon, “Andy Warhol doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Picasso.” But then my middle daughter, the art history major, said that in the Academy those two fellas are very much in the same sentence, with Picasso the dominant figure of the first half of the 20th Century and Warhol towering over the second half. So I stood corrected — harrumphing a bit.

We had just visited the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. (At some point I’ll blog about Pittsburgh, and what a great weekend destination it is for those of us on the banks of the Potomac. Particularly if you’re a good eater.)

Question: Is there a figure in American arts and letters who has been honored with a finer museum than Warhol’s?*

It’s a seven-floor masterpiece. Take the elevator to the top and work your way down. The collection is terrific, a tour of one man’s astonishingly productive 58 years on the planet (starting out as Andrew Warhola of Pittsburgh, the son of Slovakian immigrants).

Everyone knows Andy Warhol, or we think we do. But at the museum, you learn a lot about his pre-fabulous years, and his hard labor in the trenches of commercial art and advertising in New York before he became a superstar. He earned his way. He certainly didn’t have Picasso-esque talent in the raw, but he was insanely productive and innovative, and also dependable — his clients could hand him an assignment and he’d be back the next day with a huge array of possible illustrations.

It’s hard to embrace him unreservedly. He cultivated an image. He was a dabbler, deciding at one point that he was done with painting and would work thereafter in film. He seemed to have the instinct to cash in on his fame at every turn, shamelessly, particularly in his later years when (painting again) he piled up commissions for portraits, $40,000 a pop. And he seemed a bit fixated on celebrity, don’t you think? One detects the faint breeze of superficia in the Warhol universe.

And yet you have to love a guy who creates his own reality. He invented himself and the scene around him. Though he sampled and lifted and aggregated up a storm, somehow it all came out looking original and, by the way, fun. A fun guy, by all appearances. Was there ever anyone in America so effortlessly cool? Did Warhol have, even for a passing second, an uncool moment?

*Expanding the definition of “museum,” a few other shrines come to mind, starting with Graceland. We also saw Fallingwater, which is virtually a Frank Lloyd Wright museum (and kind of falling down, by the way — worth a blog item at some point). What else is out there? I’ve been to the Hemingway house in Key West, with the 6-toed cats. What else is out there? Help me make a list. Creative people. With all due respect to Mr. Jefferson as a man of letters, we’d have to put Monticello in the same category as Mount Vernon, in the politics/history category and not in the arts&letters category.

My colleague Dave Beard has a few additions:

If going beyond U.S. borders, would suggest Pablo Neruda home (La Chascona) in Santiago, Chile.

Maybe Faulkner’s Rowan Oak in Oxford, Miss. (bonus: Oxford’s Square Books bookstore nearby, a little over an hour south of Graceland).

Also, the Walter Gropius home in Lincoln, Mass. (the best of the Bauhaus in one home – and table tennis on the patio).

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · July 24