From the Archives: Andy Warhol was a guy who drew some stuff here

Author's Note: A PDF of the short story I mention is linked in the online version of this article

Over break, I saw The Collaboration on Broadway, a play about the complicated relationship between the artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Starring Paul Bettany as Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Basquiat (and featuring Carnegie Mellon Drama school alum Eric Jensen), the play is carried by the strength of its cast who all deliver extremely compelling performances in a production that is otherwise relatively low on spectacle. However, this isn't a review of that play (recently extended through February 11th! Go see it!).

Admittedly, I knew so little about Warhol that I spent about 20 minutes before the show reading his Wikipedia page, from which I learned that Warhol attended a small Pittsburgh school called the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Not only that, but it's believed that his first two pieces of published artwork appeared in the student art newspaper, Cano (which only ran for eight issues in the late 40s). When I got back to campus, I wasted no time contacting the University Archives to see if I could actually look at these seminal pieces of modern art history.

I was guided by a blog post by Blake Gopnik, an art critic and Warhol biographer, who meticulously searched every page of every Cano issue in search of any previously unknown Warhol pieces. And on issue eight, he finds an illustration that — for various art reasons I don't understand — he assures us is a Warhol. Seeing as someone else had already done the heavy lifting of finding this piece, it was relatively easy for me to get a hold of it.

Still going by Andrew Warhola (before he dropped the "-a" to make his name less slavic), the piece depicts a man and woman whose faces are covered in spiraled blotches. Warhol utilizes his signature "blotted-line" technique, something which highly educated art-knowing types get very excited about (read Gopnik's blog if that stuff interests you). It accompanies an extraordinarily depressing short story titled "Only This Hour," written by Jane E. Harris, a sophomore drama student. She writes a story about a young Austrian married couple who are reunited after years of separation due to the war. It's told from the perspective of the husband, Kurt, who finds that the brutal conditions of the work camps have made his wife ugly. He's filled with disgust — and while in a drunken stupor, he realizes that he too has become ugly. Overcome with guilt for the way he has treated his wife, he abandons her. I was kindly sent a scan of this story by the University Archives, so if you have 10 minutes to spare, it's honestly a very good read.

He then graduated from CIT, moved to New York, and became one of the most famous artists in the world. Andy Warhol has possibly one of the most well-documented lives of any historical figure. He created over 600 "time capsules" — boxes of stuff he made so that future historians would have an ocean of ephemera to wade through when studying his life. He obsessively recorded things on his video camera, and left behind over 50,000 polaroid photos. It's going to be hard to compress his life into an appropriately short two-page Pillbox spread — Gopnik's biography was nearly 1,000 pages, so I'm going to have to triage the important details.

In short, Warhol was a massively influential modern artists and social critic, whose works comment on the relationship between consumerism, art, and business in a way that is often buried under so many layers of meta-self-awareness that you get a headache trying to understand which level of irony he's operating on. His work can be controversial because it straddles the line between art and a mass-produced commodity, which I'm sure is intended to make some point about the blurry line between art and business (something something capitalism, brands, images, and so forth). I'm endlessly fascinated by "Andy Warhol Performing Eating a Hamburger, 1982," a video in which he eats a hamburger, and then tells us that he has eaten a hamburger. Is it genius? Is he absolutely full of himself? Is the fact that I'm confused (and thus talking about it and perpetuating his art) the point? Probably that.

There are, however, some more controversial elements of his life that feel important to mention. His studio, nicknamed "The Factory," is where workers would mass-produce his pieces and Warhol would direct short (often sexually explicit) films. He brought in artists, aspiring performers, drag queens, musicians, and other creatives, making it the epicenter of the pop-art counterculture movement. However, it was far from the decentralized anarchist artistic collective one might hope for — it was still Warhol's place, and he was in charge. He often expected his workers at the factory to work for free, even though these people physically produced his works that sold for millions. It also seems Warhol fostered a callous, manipulative work culture. Edie Sedgwick was one of Warhol's "superstars" — she had a falling out with Warhol due to a filming scene which she felt was exploitative and abusive. After their relationship soured, Warhol is said to have remarked "I wonder when Edie will commit suicide. I hope she lets us know so we could film it.” Sedgwick died of a drug overdose at age 28. Andrea Feldman was another actress in Warhol's inner circle, who also struggled with substance abuse (something fostered by the culture at the Factory),and committed suicide at age 24.

This is all to say that Andrew Warhol is an extremely complicated person, which can be explored thanks to the almost unimaginable amount of biographical material that exists about him. Maybe that's why we keep making documentaries and plays about him. I won't make any strong conclusions about the man — I only researched him for about a week. But I think his drawings are pretty neat.