Andy Warhol: a master of pop art. And, just maybe, an even greater master of controversy.
The artist pushed buttons with visualizations of American consumerism (Campbell’s Soup, anyone?), celebrity and popular culture throughout a career that reveled in making upholders of the status quo uncomfortable.
With the help of bold colors and bolder statements, he challenged the gatekeepers and critics of the creative world; he was open about his sexuality when homophobic attitudes were still the cultural norm; and his shrewd business practices were unprecedented in a self-made artist.
In essence, Warhol was always getting under someone’s skin .
But how much of his intrepid public persona was a mirage?
Donald Warhola is more entitled to an opinion on the subject than most.
Warhola, the son of Andy’s middle brother (the late John Warhola), spent many hours with the artist during his childhood and early youth — and he came to know a side of Warhol that would have confounded the public’s perception of the man.
Warhola is now the vice president of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in Pittsburgh, where he also works at the Andy Warhol Museum as a resident family historian. He has become something of a walking, talking biography on the enigmatic artist, whom he refers to affectionately as Uncle Andy.
On an invitation from the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Warhola will visit Bradenton this week to make two presentations about his uncle at Manatee Performing Arts Center. The first, a free presentation for students at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, will examine the challenges that Warhol overcame in his life and career. A second presentation at 3 p.m. Friday is open to public and will explore the public versus the private side of Andy Warhol.
Here’s what he had to say ahead of his visit.
How do you present on someone as vast as Andy Warhol?
Really what I do is talk a lot about the human side of Andy Warhol. Since he was my uncle and I was 24 when he died, I got to know him really well. We would make regular visits up to New York to visit him and my grandmother when she lived with my uncle, prior to her death in 1972.
People get really intrigued. There’s this persona of Andy Warhol out there. Aloof. Eccentric. Crazy. You can go right down the list. It’s not that the persona did not exist. But there was another side of Uncle Andy as well, and that’s the side that I got to know really well. Kind of what I call the human side.
On another level, I have a lot of family information and family stories from when Andy was a child. The challenges that he faced growing up very poor and the son of immigrant parents. They were part of that big wave of Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.
I go through the whole ethnic heritage of my uncle. The paternal side of my family is from the Carpathian Mountains. A very rural area in present day Slovakia. They came to America pursing the American dream and passed that on to Uncle Andy. I find it motivational myself, and I think others do too.
He didn’t come from a wealthy family. He really picked himself up and worked really hard; faced a lot of challenges and faced them head-on and overcame those to achieve the success that he did.
It’s really a fascinating story. This poor kid, stigmatized for having parents that immigrated to this country and then moving on from that to achieve something.
My grandfather also died when my uncle was 13. So that was another barrier to overcome on top of everything else.
The message there is to have your dream and to hold onto your dream. And even though you will face challenges, as Warhol did, keep fighting and keep persevering. Try to have that same resiliency that Andy Warhol did, and good things could happen.
So would you say that Andy Warhol’s story is entwined with the story of immigration?
That’s part of the message too. To reframe that narrative that some see in immigration. There’s so much negative stigma attached to it. There’s a workshop that I’m working on redeveloping with the education department here, and that’s what it questions: What do you know about immigration? What have you heard about immigration? And now let’s look at an immigration story: Andy Warhol and what he was able to contribute to our society.
He was able to critique, follow and pursue the American dream at the same time. There’s so much to unpack there. It’s almost like you couldn’t write the story any better.
What will your presentation for students focus on?
My background is in cognitive behavioral therapy. So I was always working with kids and trying to develop resiliency in them. I would resort to stories of famous people who demonstrated resiliency and overcame challenges. Warhol is one of them.
So I’ll present that, along with a summary of my uncle’s art and his career milestones.
And the second presentation?
The other presentation is more geared to the adults. It traces through what we know about Warhol and the image that he presented versus the true person. I have a theory — and it is a theory— that he kept his private life private because he found it to be uninteresting and not something that people would latch on to. If they knew Andy Warhol was this kind, generous person who went to church regularly and supported a lot of venerable causes — I believe he felt that would be kind of boring.
But if you make yourself more controversial — voilà.
One of his quotes was, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
So even if it’s all bad it’s good.
And I can see how that concept has evolved in society too. Growing up, you wanted to be kind of a straight-laced, straight shooter positive role model. And now it’s the contrary, where anything goes.
So that’s one of the ways that you could say Warhol has influenced a lot of modern artists.
We had a performer come through yesterday — Tyler the Creator. Tyler was truly interesting because when he was (at the museum) he was so quiet. He was just processing everything. You could just see the wheels turning as he walked through and explored a little bit on his own and as they were narrating for him.
And then he gets on stage and puts on a great show — and I’m like, where’s the quiet, intellectual guy who was at the museum? He’s very controversial with his language and everything.
He even has kind of a Warhol look to him with the wig. I found it fascinating. And I was able to connect the dots on why he really wanted to come to the Warhol.
To me, people like that are kind of students of Warhol. I think early on, Madonna was one, in that she saw that controversy sells.
She was super talented, right, but still needed to be edgy as well. I think with Uncle Andy, it was not so much talent — the talent was there, but there are a lot of talented artists. But he had to find his niche, and he found that through being controversial.
Would you say that Warhol used all that controversy as a means to support causes he believed in?
Yeah. And a lot of times what gets lost in the whole story was that he was a fighter for the underdog.
One example of that was the “Ladies and Gentlemen” prints that he did. In the early ‘70s he was commissioned to do a series of portraits of drag queens. And the person who commissioned him encouraged him to go out and find one with a stubble beard — to kind of make fun of them. And instead, Uncle Andy went out and found drag queens and really made them into celebrities. He used the same techniques for the series that he used for celebrity commissioned portraits. It really turned the narrative around. Instead of mocking these individuals, he sort of championed them and said let’s create a dialogue.
It said, society may tell you that these people are marginalized and different and weird, but that isn’t how I see them. And then he presented a different view of them that produced dialogue and conversation.
He knew what it was like to be the other; to be stigmatized for many reasons. Throughout college, he was kind of unwanted, and people tried to push him aside. And in his early career, the same. They said: you’re not a real artist; you’re a commercial artist.
So he faced that criticism throughout his career, even later on. I have an article from a Pittsburgh newspaper in the ‘70s. They commented on the fact that Uncle Andy had said he wanted to be as genuine as a fingerprint. The column said something like, “How ironic from the most ingenuine artist that we have.” Growing up, it was always negative articles that were written about my uncle.
It wasn’t until the latter years that it started to change.
So that’s what I try to bring across in my presentations — the human side, the real Andy Warhol versus that perception that was created.
There’s definitely something intriguing about being able to hear more about Andy firsthand instead of reading it in a book or biography.
Definitely. I see it as my contribution to be able to further my uncle’s legacy.
And every day that goes by it’s more of a rarity to meet someone who actually knew my uncle. Who actually talked with him and a had a relationship with him. People really enjoy the fact that I grew up around him and knew this unique, rare side of Andy Warhol that wasn’t available to all of his coworkers and friends. He was very private about his personal life.
Your uncle also ensured that future generations of artists would be supported. Can you talk about The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts?
The foundation is a contribution that my uncle made to the arts by giving back in a huge way. He bequeathed all of his assets to create the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.
They made a decision early on that they were not going to support individual artist directly — they would support art organizations and then have that money funnel down to individual artists.
But they found along the way that many individual artists who were still asking the foundation for support, so they created a sister foundation called Creative Capital. And Creative Capital works exclusively with individual artists. Anywhere from straight financial aid and grants to workshops on the business end of art; how to secure an art space; how to read a lease and make sure you’re getting a good deal. They have many wonderful programs and and workshops.
Do you get to interact with visitors at the museum?
Actually that’s my favorite part of my job is interacting with the visitors. I give a gallery talk twice a week. That’s one of several opportunities that I have to interact with visitors. I also work with the education department, and we do outreaches at different schools and work with kids with special needs. So that’s another opportunity to interact with kids that have an interest in art and teach about Andy Warhol. Hearing the story of Andy Warhol may take an interest or a hobby and turn it into a more serious pursuit for someone, in time.
Other than than that, I’ve been kind of defined as the family historian, so any department that has questions about Andy’s early years and his family, I’m the the one they consult with.
It must be pretty interesting, and maybe a little weird, to study someone academically who you also knew personally.
It really is. Some of the stuff I hear or read about him, I’ll say — no, that’s not the way I see it. And it’s not like I’m the final word. I would never pretend to be that. But I do have a different perspective; a different lens that I’m able to see information and the art created by my uncle through. It’s fun to share that.
Are they any interactions with your uncle from when you were a kid that stick out in your mind?
There’s not one specific one. But just in general, my Uncle Andy was always present, and he made you feel important. Even as a kid. When I was growing up, kids were supposed to be seen and not heard. He was attentive to us.
Sometimes he would kind of prank you or try to get a reaction. And that was the true Andy Warhol. He would do that with others, and in his art. To try to kind of get right to the soul of who you are.
But I always felt important and heard and listened to by Uncle Andy.
I remember when I was just a little kid, when my grandmother was still alive, and she asked me to do some task that was a little bit challenging. And my Uncle Andy said, no, he’s too young, he can’t do that. He just wanted to get a reaction out of me. He knew that I was the type that wouldn’t back down. And I said no, watch, I’ll show you Uncle Andy.
And he loved that. He wanted that type of spirit in any individual. He respected that. Much like he did not back down when he faced challenges.
Here more about the man behind the famous artist at Donald Warhola’s presentation this Friday.
Details: 3 p.m. Oct. 25. Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave.W., Bradenton. $15.
Info: 941-748-5875. manateeperformingartscenter.com.