Andy Warhol's possession obsession

Andy Warhol – artist, collector of oddities, and symbol of all things pop – still fascinates us.

He died 15 years ago, but the man who promised everyone 15 minutes of fame is far from running down the clock on his own.

In fact, with an entire museum in Pittsburgh devoted to his work, plus exhibitions traveling worldwide, jaw-dropping sale prices for his artworks, and even an upcoming United States postage stamp, Andy Warhol – artist, collector, and the original king of all media, aka the "pope of pop" art and culture – is more famous than ever.

Two big Warhol events happened this month alone: The Andy Warhol Museum opened a major exhibition titled "Possession Obsession: Objects from Andy Warhol's Personal Collection." And Phaidon Press released the first hefty volume of a six-volume, $250-per-copy "Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne" that scrutinizes his entire output (Vol. 1 covers only paintings and sculpture from 1961 to '63). Next month, the "Possession Obsession" exhibition book will be published.

London's Tate Modern museum is featuring a large Warhol retrospective that originated at the New National Gallery in Berlin. It will travel to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in May. Last year alone, the Warhol museum handled 39 traveling exhibitions and loans. And it has licensed numerous products like dishes, sheets, and wallpaper featuring the kitsch king's white-wigged image. The museum's own shop also offers hundreds of objects that celebrate his life and creativity. (The most popular item: a fridge magnet with his face and the words "Your 15 minutes are up.")

His art still sells for record amounts. Last June, Sotheby's auction house moved an acrylic and silkscreen print, "Little Electric Chair," for $2.3 million – four times its estimated value.

Bob Dylan must have kicked himself a few times over his decision in the '60s to trade Warhol's gift to him of a huge double Elvis image for a couch. At the time, of course, neither Dylan nor Warhol had an inkling that they'd both become enduring pop-culture icons.

The reason Warhol is still important, says Andy Warhol Museum director Tom Sokolowski, "is that he was a pretty good artist. But his greatness was in knowing which way the world was spinning and its trajectory.... He was an incredible barometer of where the world stood."

Adds Andy Warhol Foundation agent Vincent Fremont, "He was this visionary, the most intuitive person that I have ever made contact with.... He understood contemporary media. He saw the future, which a lot of people didn't...."

As a prognosticator of all things cultural – both pop and haute – Warhol was never wrong, Mr. Sokolowski claims. Reverberations from Warhol's work now permeate not only the art world, but advertising, publishing, and filmmaking as well. Half of the artists in the biennial exhibition now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, one of the world's most prestigious modern art exhibitions, "would not be making the art they do if not for Andy," Mr. Sokolowski says. (For a review of the Whitney exhibition, see page 20.)

Sokolowski also claims that Warhol's celebrity-fixated Interview magazine, which kept stories short and emphasized photos (because Warhol himself was dyslexic) begat People and Us magazines, and even the newspaper USA Today.

Warhol also was involved with rock music (he sponsored the influential '60s New York band The Velvet Underground), and was a photographer, filmmaker, author, model, TV personality (on MTV's "Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes"), social magnet (at his famed studio The Factory), socialite (he was a Studio 54 regular), and cultural voyeur.

"He was intrigued with power, money; he was intrigued with people," Mr. Fremont of the Warhol foundation says. "He remains current. His images don't seem to date." Americans are still fascinated by the subjects of his portraits, which include Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, and Mick Jagger.

Warhol also understood consumerism, which his art appeared to reflect as both ironic and glorious – though Fremont points out that his art wasn't sarcastic, but "an appreciation of American culture." And he was as much consumer as commentator. "Possession Obsession" features about 300 of the more than 10,000 items clogging Warhol's house when he died.

Even more bizarre than his collecting fetish was Warhol's habit of saving everyday objects, which he packed into 608 cardboard-box "time capsules."(See story below.)

Sokolowski attributes those habits to his Depression-era, "wrong side of the tracks" upbringing in Pittsburgh. Advertising and marketing were about consumption, but the Depression and, subsequently, World War II taught people to save.

Warhol museum archivist John Smith, who was curator for "Possession Obsession," says Warhol loved being a consumer, but could not let go of his acquisitions.

Warhol himself never mentioned the idea of creating a museum for his works or his collections. That idea was a collaboration of the New York-based Dia Foundation (now the Dia Center for the Arts), the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Institute. To form the museum, the Dia and Warhol Foundations provided the art, and the Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided most of the cash.

When it opened in 1994 in Pittsburgh, instead of New York, the museum caused some art-world consternation, because Warhol had never looked back after leaving his hometown.

But "I really feel that ... until you've gotten a sense of this place, you don't understand why he left it and how much it touched his art," museum director Sokolowski says.

He suggests the museum could be subtitled "the Museum of the American Dream." He reasons that if a child of the Depression, from an old-world, blue-collar culture, could reinvent himself and become what Sokolowski calls "the single most important cultural figure in the second part of the 20th century," isn't that the embodiment of the American dream?

A Jean Harlow dress, world's fair souvenirs, and a pizza

There are people who think they're pack rats. And then there's Andy Warhol.

The man apparently couldn't throw away a gum wrapper. Warhol saved everything: Not just letters, doodlings, and tchotchkes, but unopened bills and even a pizza. He also collected native-American art, Man Ray photographs, art-deco furniture, fancy jewelry, cookie jars, and tacky world's fair souvenirs.

About 300 of these pieces are on display in an exhibit called "Possession Obsession: Objects from Andy Warhol's Personal Collection" that just opened at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

The museum also holds his 608 cardboard-box "time capsules," into which he pitched all the ephemera of his life. The boxes are slowly being opened by museum archivists, who, like archaeologists, must laboriously catalog every item.

Among the surprises discovered so far were a piece of Caroline Kennedy's wedding cake, a dress that probably belonged to Jean Harlow, $14,000, and the pizza.

Assistant archivist Matthew Wrbican insists, "The weirdest thing in the time capsules has got to be a mummified foot."

Regardless of the oddities or inanities within, the boxes are regarded as invaluable windows into Warhol's life and times. Despite his reputation for kitsch, Warhol was considered a canny collector whose attraction to something like Fiestaware actually drove up the market and inspired its maker to begin production again.

"He really had an eccentric, really interesting eye," says exhibit curator John Smith. Mr. Smith wants this exhibition to break down misperceptions that Warhol was dispassionate about what he collected.

Warhol's five-story house in New York City was packed so full of objects large and small that he wound up living in two rooms. Friends were never entertained there, and when estate executors entered the place after his death in 1987, they found indescribable clutter.

Almost priceless or nearly worthless, the objects were all treated the same – just like the subjects of his singular art.

• 'Possession Obsession: Objects from Andy Warhol's Personal Collection' runs through May 19. For more information, call (412) 237-8300 or visit www.warhol.org.

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