Andy Warhol wasn't very kind about his hometown. When people asked where he came from, he often told them, "Nowhere." But this "nowhere" town is looking pretty good these days when compared with Warhol's chosen city, New York--at least when it comes to art appreciation.
As everybody knows, the Big Apple's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, laid an egg in the art world by cutting off funding to the Brooklyn Museum. He believes an exhibit there is "sick." The main culprit, in his mind, is a painting by the British artist Chris Ofili called "The Holy Virgin Mary." It is a Madonna flecked with elephant dung.
If you wish to see this and other paintings in the museum's "Sensation" exhibit, www.davidbowie.com/sensation/main.html has a virtual tour complete with a "health warning" stating that the contents "may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety."
Various of those symptoms have been exhibited by at least a few folks in Pittsburgh over the years, when pondering the works of their native son Warhol. In many ways, Warhol was strikingly true throughout his life to his working-class, devout Catholic, immigrant-family background: He carried a rosary in the pocket of his black jeans, went to mass every day and hewed to a work ethic that was the marvel of his friends and colleagues.
The work that this ethic produced, however, is what some Pittsburghers have not so easily swallowed. Here is an artist known for gathering the rich and famous and beautiful in his Manhattan studio ("the Factory") and detachedly observing while they indulged in various excesses of behavior--with Warhol recording them in all their beauty and self-indulgence.
Warhol surrounded himself with the glamorous and the glitzy and that's what he painted as well: His jarringly loud-colored silk-screen portraits of Liz and Marilyn and Marlon and Elvis are not the most natural art choice for Pittsburgh's older, work-minded population. Ditto for another of Warhol's obsessions--car wrecks, electric chairs and other grisly scenes of tragedy.
Yet it is back here in his birthplace that Warhol's work has found its principal home--in a converted warehouse at the foot of the Seventh Street Bridge, across the Allegheny River from the Golden Triangle.
And, right now, displayed among the glittering portraits and the Elsie the Cow wallpaper, is a particularly challenging work strikingly reminiscent (in effect, if not appearance) of Ofili's Madonna. This work is called "Ten Punching Bags." It's a 1983 collaborative effort of Warhol and the even more un-Pittsburgh-like artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The bags bear images of Christ covered with foul language.
One recent evening, standing between "Ten Punching Bags" and a frieze called "Torsos," with its unmistakable references to homosexual sex, was an elderly museum guard, to whom I addressed this question:
"What do you think?"
"Oh, I'm not supposed to comment on that," he said, smiling shyly and looking sideways. But did he have feelings about it? "Anybody would," he said emphatically, eyes opening wide. And then he added: "He was a great artist, though. No question about that. And he was an entrepreneur, too."
On the wall by "Ten Punching Bags" the museum has placed a quote from the rector of the local Calvary Episcopal Church, calling the piece "provocative and disturbing and challenging."
If only Giuliani were so thoughtful.
With this mix of feelings--those voiced by the rector and by the museum guard, supplemented by the museum's director, who calls Warhol "the most incredible documenter and chronicler" of his times--Pittsburghers seem to have determined that their native son is worthy of their embrace.
What an interesting turn of events. It's not fair, of course, to blame New York for Giuliani's limited vision. But it's delicious at least to consider that Warhol would find his hometown less "nowhere" today--and that he'd be struck by how painfully provincial the jazzy metropolis he fled to could be.
Meanwhile, the Warhol Museum's more sober-sided sister, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, is preparing for its well-regarded triennial Carnegie International Exhibition, which opens next month.
And among the artists in the exhibit? Chris Ofili.