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Why did Andy Warhol not play up the fact that he was from Pittsburgh?

Question submitted by: Dana Hoover, Hastings, Pa.

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Your question reminds me of a bit of dialogue from the 1958 film Auntie Mame. Nephew Patrick asks his sardonic society-dame aunt about her "English lady" friend, to which Mame replies, "She's not English, darling; she's from Pittsburgh."

 

 

"She sounded English," Patrick presses.

 

"Well, when you're from Pittsburgh," Mame replies, "you have to do something."

 

Such was the challenge for a young Andy Warhol, who grew up in working-class Pittsburgh but left as quickly as he could for New York City. "Pittsburgh was not -- I'm trying to be politic here -- the glowing city that it is today," says Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum. Once Warhol finished studying at the Carnegie Institute, he only returned to Pittsburgh a couple times in his life. He didn't even attend his mother's funeral here -- though this, Sokolowski surmises, had more to do with Warhol's phobias about death.

 

In the meantime, Warhol worked as hard to mislead people about his origins as Auntie Mame's "English" friend. "I come from nowhere," Warhol once professed -- which was, at worst, only half true. At various other times, Warhol claimed to be from Philadelphia, Hawaii and even McKeesport. "When I think of my high school days, all I can remember, really, are the long walks to school through the Czech ghetto ...in McKeesport, Pennsylvania," he said in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. He recalled passing a bridge every day "and underneath were used prophylactics. I'd always wonder out loud ... what they were, and they'd laugh."

 

Why did Warhol seek to erase his past? For one thing, it was part of his insistence that he was nothing more than what lay on the canvas. "If you want to know everything about me," he once famously advised, "just look at the surface of my painting." Any biographical information -- including where he grew up -- was beside the point, as was any attempt to discern any biographical influence on his paintings.

 

Warhol frequently asserted his desire to paint "like a machine" -- and machines don't have pasts. Then again, they also don't hang out at Studio 54, so it's hard to say how serious Warhol was with any of this. But again, Warhol wasn't trying to explain so much as defeat the purpose of explanation. Hence his cryptic, often circular utterances like "Whatever I do, and do machine-like, is because it is what I want to do."

 

Of course, it's worth asking: Would Warhol have denied his own autobiography if he'd come from someplace other than Pittsburgh? If he'd had a happier childhood, would he have claimed it didn't matter where he grew up? Sokolowski notes that Warhol "was often ill. He was frail, and while I don't know if he knew he was gay then, he was different. He was weak and this was a physical, blue-collar town." According to Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, by Steven Wilson, Warhol suffered from skin problems among other things: "[A]t eight he lost pigment, the other children called him 'Spot.'" Not surprisingly, he grew increasingly unenthusiastic about school. In later years, Warhol seemed alienated from his own alienation: "[W]hen I would see the kids telling one another their problems, I felt left out. Now one confided in me. I wasn't the type they wanted to confide in, I guess."

 

Still, while Pittsburgh's blue-collar ethos may have rejected him, he never rejected it. For starters, Carnegie Tech emphasized commercial illustration rather than fine art, which helped him find work as an illustrator and gave him special training when it came time to paint the soup cans and shipping crates of ketchup. More importantly, Warhol's desire to paint like a machine echoes a blue-collar pride in being able to work like a machine.

 

Warhol's choice of imagery was no doubt informed by his upbringing as well. Ask Sokolowski whether Warhol's museum should be in a city the artist himself couldn't escape from fast enough, and he says, "Pittsburgh has always been defined by the working class, and that's what Warhol's work is all about. The movie stars he paints are who the working class idealizes, and Campbell's Soup is what they eat."

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