Where did Picasso come from?
There’s no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh
If art is the tip of the iceberg
I’m the part sinking below
from Smalltown by John Cale and Lou Reed
It wasn’t for lack of trying, but it took until the last month of the 2018/2019 Carnegie International to make it to Pittsburgh. The return after five years was a cause to contemplate the city as an art center.
Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the International, to bolster the city’s standing in the art world and allow it to add “masters of tomorrow” to the collection. It’s the oldest North American exhibition of contemporary art from around the globe.
Today Pittsburgh is perhaps better known for being the birthplace of Andy Warhol and the home of his namesake museum than for the long-standing contemporary exhibition. The International does not have the same name recognition among my art friends in Dallas as say the Whitney Biennial.
That didn’t stop one of those friends from tagging along to Pittsburgh, but for a first-timer, no trip is complete without a visit to a magnet of New York 80s counter-culture on the steel city’s North Side. You just can’t go to Pittsburgh for art and not see the Warhol.
A few years after Warhol’s death in 1987, plans were in motion to establish his museum here. At the time, I could not fathom the logic. Sure, Warhol was from Pittsburgh, but he left. I doubted Andrew Warhola could have become Andy Warhol if he hadn’t relocated to New York.
Yet Pittsburgh was where Andy got his screen test, both as a student at Carnegie Tech and showing with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP), another long-standing Pittsburgh art institution. While other cities want for some of Pittsburgh’s strengths on the artistic front, it takes more to make a Warhol. Andy’s marketing genius certainly understood that art needs an accepting market- and connections to the international art world. New York also had magazines that gave Warhol his in.
Yet, for art lovers, something draws us back to Pittsburgh. Here we were, again in a city many artists left behind, ready to explore selections of contemporary art in a long-standing and boldly-named exhibition. And while we see plenty of Warhol’s works throughout the year, we were also facing another visit to the museum of the city’s most famous art son.
A single artist museum faces the danger of becoming a mausoleum for the work. But the patrons here are closer to the edge than typical art enthusiasts. There is an apparent cultural pull that keeps the museum, and Warhol, relevant to American culture. Perhaps it’s less about art than about celebrity, fashion and those fifteen minutes of fame.
The buzz around the Warhol might be trying to fill a hole. Sure, the gallery world still gravitates to New York, but the gritty art and music scene of the 1960s and 1970s that gave rise to Warhol and a bunch of others doesn’t exist today, at least not there. Pittsburgh could not give rise to Warhol in the era of his prime, but I’m not sure New York could fulfill the mission in the same way now.
We worked our way down from the seventh floor of the Warhol, through prints, drawings, taxidermied animals and the contents of boxes of random items Warhol collected. Admittedly, it had been a long day and with Warhol familiar, we moved rather quickly. We headed for a special exhibit on the second floor which featured a Pittsburgh-based artist and Carnegie Mellon professor Devan Simoyama. Daring and confident, could it be that Pittsburgh has what it takes to launch and maintain an artist’s career today? I couldn’t imagine a better launching pad for a long career than the Warhol.
Pittsburgh is a healthy town art-wise. Not only does it have long-standing institutions like the AAP, the Carnegie International and the Warhol to put it on the map, but it has what a real art city needs: working artists. Today Vanessa German and Simoyama and others have made it home. These may be isolated examples, or they may be parts of a larger movement that can only be seen in retrospect.
“I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with Pittsburgh,” said a friend I ran into outside the gift store. “But there’s a real sense that it’s is a place people want to be now.”
Business magazines relay stories about the tech companies moving in. The city was on the list for Amazon’s HQ2 search. Yet, if the Rosa Villa restaurant across from the Warhol was still boarded up, how much could things have really changed? I couldn’t completely erase my doubts.
But it wasn’t pristine neighborhoods that made art history in 1960s, 70s and 80s New York. The combination of interesting spaces and interested people willing to engage can make things happen.
It would seem Pittsburgh has that now, at least to some extent. Should it continue on what seems like a trajectory of creative energy, history may record what’s happening here today.
It’s always nice to learn about the artists who came from a place. Warhol, Mary Cassatt, Philip Pearlstein, Henry Ossawa Tanner are from Pittsburgh. Then there are the places artists go to. In the past, with a few exceptions, Pittsburgh has not been one of them.
In a 1971 Rolling Stone article, singer John Cale relayed how Warhol once gave an interview lying on the ground with his head supported by his forearm and elbow. When the interviewer asked him why, Warhol said it was so he could see the stars better.
Perhaps with the combination of the International and the Warhol and an increasing number of successful artists making Pittsburgh home, the artistic stars are aligning for Warhol’s home town.
Cover Image: Keith Haring work at the Carnegie Museum of Art