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Cover Story: Warhol's House of Stuff

From flea-market cookie jars to American Indian artifacts, 'Possession Obsession' reveals Andy as collector and bargain hunter

Friday, March 01, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

The tantalizingly titled exhibition "Possession Obsession: Objects from Andy Warhol's Personal Collection" -- which debuts tomorrow with an equally titillatingly appointed party that invites guests to "put [their] obsessions on display" -- delivers, but not always in the way you might expect.

Warhol's cookie jar collection, gathered from flea markets and auction box lots, represents his fascination with objects of Pop(ular) culture. At the Sotheby's auction of his estate, businessman Gedalio Grinberg paid $198,605 for 136 of them, their elevated value the result of the Warhol mystique. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Walk off the elevator and turn the corner to a fanciful wall of more than 100 of Warhol's famed cookie jars -- including in their variety the plump standing piggies of every mid-20th-century Pittsburgh home, clowns, a puppy, lamb, fairy tale moon, Disney characters and a Dutchman (all from one collector, a businessman who bought 136 of them for $198,605).

Turn another corner, past colorful shelves of Fiesta Ware or Russel Wright dinner ware, and you're in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, or so it seems, amidst 19th-century American furniture and folk art paintings.

One vision is predictably Warhol; the other unexpected. Both, however, are components of the famous artist's persona, and they -- the public and the private Andy -- meet in this show, adding dimension to a personality too often known only from caricature.

 
 
'Possession Obsession:
Objects From Andy Warhol's Personal Collection'

WHERE: The Andy Warhol Museum, North Side.

WHEN: Opening party 9 p.m. tomorrow 3/2 (till 1 a.m. Sunday) includes drinks, "bites," Bingo-Karaoke with Mama Spell, "obsession" games and dancing to sounds of West End Records diva Linda Clifford and DJ David DePino of the New York City disco Paradise Garage. (Tickets, $75, must be purchased in advance.) The exhibition runs SundayMarch 3 through May 19.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and until 10 p.m. Friday.

ADMISSION: $8, seniors $7, children/students $4, members and 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays free.

INFORMATION: 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org.

PROGRAMS:

March 22, 7 p.m. -- Talk by exhibition catalog essayist Allen Kurzweil, whose latest book, "The Grand Complication," was one of The New York Times' "Notable Books of 2001." (Free.)

March 29-30, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. -- Pop Swap: Regional memorabilia collectors and dealers displaying and selling pop culture items from Warhol's era. (Free admission.)

April 12, 7 p.m. -- "Artists as Collectors" Forum: New York artists Andres Serrano and Arne Svenson and Pittsburgh artist Biko discuss the role that collecting plays in their work. Their interests are, respectively, religious artifacts, natural history-type dioramas and African-American cultural artifacts. (Free.)

May 3, 7 p.m. -- Ralph and Terry Kovel, authors of 85 antique and collectible books and price guides and hosts of the HGTV show "Flea Market Finds with the Kovels." ($15.)

Other events are planned. Ongoing activities include 3 p.m. Saturday staff-conducted discussions and opportunity to pose for a screen test and make a Warhol trading card.

   
 

Warhol began collecting seriously in the mid-1950s, and his tastes and subjects evolved with his income and the celebrity/art world/socially elite sets he moved within.

He grew so avid that stopping by his favorite shops became a part of his daily routine, and weekends incorporated trips to flea markets. Anecdotes about his shopping habits, the way he solicited information rather than researched it, his gleeful pursuit of a bargain, are abundant, and he was well known at city auction houses and by dealers. He's credited with being ahead of the crowd in identifying desirable objects while they were still affordable, and also with inspiring trends that eventually drove prices up.

At the time of his unexpected death, following gall bladder surgery in 1987, Warhol left behind a 30-room townhouse on New York's East 66th Street that was "stuffed to the rafters with objects," says exhibition curator and Warhol archivist John W. Smith. "He was living in two rooms -- the collection had taken over everything else. After a while -- especially near the end -- he was feeling extremely overwhelmed by all the stuff he had."

Warhol rarely entertained in his home, and the news of the Pop master's staggering accumulation grabbed headlines. An auction at Sotheby's in 1988 drew the committed and the curious to view and bid on more than 10,000 items ranging from a Fred Flintstone watch to a Roy Lichtenstein painting. The sale took 10 days and earned nearly $30 million.

Smith feels Warhol's collecting habits haven't been given sufficient scholarly attention. "In the past," he says, "Warhol's collecting was dismissed as this empty need for accumulating. People didn't look into the aesthetic and emotional choices that went into building the collection that he created.

"Collecting itself was a form of artistic practice for Warhol."

The approximately 300 objects in the exhibition are representational works drawn from several of Warhol's major collecting areas: 19th-century American, art deco, American Indian, jewelry and sculpture, in addition to flea market collectibles represented by the kitchen ware displayed.

While some of the fabulous objects shown in 1980s photographs of Warhol's house are noticeably absent -- not every item from the auction could be located, nor were some owners willing to loan -- Smith has secured some choice works.

Highlights include an exceptional mahogany Empire sideboard with brass mounts by noted Irish-born, Philadelphia cabinet maker Joseph Barry, now in the collection of the Winterthur Museum. Also, a menacingly expressive late 19th-century pine Punch cigar-store figure and an outstanding primitive painting of "Two Children" in red dress by Joseph Whiting Stock that hung over the mantel in Warhol's bedroom.

Warhol's admiration for art deco is said to have sprung from the elaborate sets he saw in the movies he escaped to as the child of an Eastern European immigrant coal miner living in Depression-era Pittsburgh. Stand-outs in this section are a desk and vase with unusual eggshell lacquer overlay by Jean Dunand, the lacquer master for the "Chariot of Aurora" panels from the Normandie liner now installed at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and several pieces by Parisian silversmith Jean Puiforcat that Warhol and companion Fred Hughes picked up for a song on a trip to France.

Also of interest are a number of works by Man Ray, including a painting on loan from artist Julian Schnabel. Smith says he's the only 20th-century artist Warhol, who identified with the expatriate's use of multiple mediums, collected in depth.

Among the more surprising objects found behind the doors of Warhol's rarely-visited East Side townhouse were 19th-century American furniture and folk art. The mahogany Empire sideboard by noted cabinet maker Joseph Barry is now in the collection of Winterthur Museum. On the back wall is an exceptional primitive painting of "Two Children" by Joseph Whiting Stock that once hung in Warhol's bedroom. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Several of Warhol's silkscreens from the museum's collection are included, "not to say the work is influenced by the collection," Smith says, "but that there's a spirit that some of the artwork he did and some of the objects he collected share."

Especially right is the inclusion of six images from Warhol's "Cowboys and Indians" series, including "Northwest Coast Mask," "Kachina Dolls" and "Plains Indian Shield," images representative of the American Indian groups whose artifacts are displayed in the exhibition. Foremost among the latter are a rare and superior late 19th-century Tlingit ceremonial dance blanket and an unusual group of Hopi masks.

Also displayed are a number of photogravures by Edward Curtis, noted for his documentation (if sometimes questionable, for instance the "noble savage" in unlikely pose on a boulder) of American Indians in the early 20th century.

A separate gallery, fronted by a portrait of Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan movie and swimming fame, houses a number of classic busts -- including one of Napoleon by Antonio Canova, a selection of jewelry, the late Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of Warhol's house interior and several prints from Warhol's "Gem" series.

This smart piggie couple are part of Warhol's large, legendary cookie jar collection. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Throughout, the breadth of taste is evident, which seems in keeping with the man who would blur the lines between mass-produced and precious.

For instance, while the fastidious carving on Gothic side chairs with their original upholstery, circa 1840, from Warhol's bedroom, seems incompatible with the sleek lines of a trim silver-plated centerpiece by Jean Despres, circa 1930, they're all part of Warhol's eclecticism, which some critics celebrated and others saw as evidence of unschooled compulsion.

Others, like Matthew Tinkcom, writing in the exhibition catalog, see the potential for discovering new visual culture meaning in the juxtaposed objects. Or find a metaphor for the "glut of the marketplace" in the vast size of the collection, as does essayist Pamela Allara. (The catalog, held up for photographs of the gallery installations, will be available before the show moves, in abbreviated form, to the Rhode Island School of Design.)

For his part, Smith hopes the show will "open up a whole new way of looking at Warhol's artwork. The emotional and intellectual quality of what he bought had a really profound effect on him."

Certainly this exhibition -- like the estate auction, a mix of glitz and connoisseurship, low and high culture -- will appeal equally to collectors, Andy fans and the generally curious.

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