Andy Warhol hated his hometown. But he might have felt differently had he seen what a great art city it would become
What is it about Pittsburgh and art?
Despite a local population well below three million people, Pittsburgh boasts a big city’s worth of enviable set of visual art experiences, from the blue-chip Frick and Carnegie museums to some more envelope-pushing stuff in the North Side area.
What gives? One theory: As we have mentioned in Billy before, the city’s creative industries enjoy a solid underpinning thanks in part to an independent organization with a US$100 million endowment. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust owns prime real estate downtown and uses the proceeds to help sustain cultural buildings and programming. Some believe the steady, neighbourhood-saving hand of the Trust helped Pittsburgh successfully shift its economy from old-school heavy industry to contemporary high tech – in part because lots of nerdy workers will happily relocate to a city if it offers bona fide creative cred.
Whatever the reason, you can sample the Pittsburgh arts scene by making your way to these four North Side spots. They will especially suit those whose taste in art is not conservative. The itinerary should take around half a day, depending on how engrossed yinz get.
The Andy Warhol Museum
The idea of thousands of people a year treating Pittsburgh as a Pop Art pilgrimage might have infuriated the late Warhol, who reportedly loathed his hometown (which, granted, was pretty different back in the mid-20th century). Between graduating from art school in 1949 and his death in 1987, he only returned to Pittsburgh twice.
But they built the shrine here anyway, and not in New York, and that is just as well: The Andy Warhol Museum is the biggest public gallery dedicated to a single artist in the United States, and there may not have been space for all seven storeys of it in the Big Apple.
For new admirers of Warhol’s work, the museum serves as a thorough introduction to his life and art, from (the famous) soup to nuts. There’s enough context here to make Warhol’s enormous impact clear to visitors who are too young to remember when he was arguably the most famous artist alive. (Younger visitors will also get a kick out of primitive digital art displayed on Amiga computers – the work was part of a collaboration between Warhol and computer maker Commodore. The artist didn’t label the floppy disks containing his experimental doodles, and it languished unseen for decades before being discovered.)
Established fans of Warhol, meanwhile, will enjoy learning more about the often overlooked first two decades of his career. The biggest treat may be the archives on the third floor, which (in a Warhol-esque fashion) preserve and display some of his stuff, down to pocket items like headache pills and eyeglasses.
The gift shop is fabulous, meanwhile – which is also appropriate, because Andy loved money.
A unique contemporary art gallery dedicated almost entirely to installation art, Mattress Factory consists of three buildings located (as are the next two attractions) in the so-called Mexican War Streets, a gentrifying neighbourhood of row houses where the signposts bear the names of dead officers.
The art here is never simply something that hangs on the wall. Each time you step out of an elevator or ascend a staircase, you come across something arresting, whether it’s a bank of television screens screeching and fizzing with disjointed images (Christopher Meerdo’s Active Denial System); or a mirrored chamber populated by polka-dotted mannequins (Yayoi Kusama’s Repetitive Vision); or a room in which you sit in almost total darkness (James Turrell’s Pleiades) waiting to see … something …?
In the installation Repetitive Vision (1996) by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, visitors enclose themselves in this mirrored chamber â¦Â and then take selfies, of course
City of Asylum
A loose organization of buildings and activities centred around the goal of offering sanctuary to persecuted artists and writers, City of Asylum includes a publishing house, a reading garden and a café/bookshop/event space, Alphabet City at 40 W. North Ave., which makes a suitable rest stop for visitors.
The most well-known edifice of the City of Asylum, however, is a brown house inscribed top to bottom in white Chinese calligraphy. Located at 408 Sampsonia Way, this is a former coach house in which the dissident poet Huang Xiang and his wife resided from 2004 to 2008 (if you don’t understand the language, you can at least read one of the verses here). Two other decorated houses nearby, Jazz House and Winged House, were likewise created in collaboration with exiled artists and writers.
During the 1990s, when the Mexican War Streets were a less desirable place to buy property, local artist and waiter Randy Gilson purchased a corner house. It was so affordable he was able to put it on his credit card. His mission was to transform the building into Randyland, an expression of his Technicolor dreams.
Today, the riotous backyard at 1501 Arch St. makes for a prime gawking (and Instagramming) destination. Through the brightly painted gate, you step into a Pee-wee Herman-esque arrangement of mannequin heads, discarded furniture, mirrors and other bric-a-brac that Gilson has assembled over the years. Admission is free but donations are welcome (there’s a self-serve “shop” that operates on the honour system), and if Randy is not in residence to reign over his land, you can at least pose for that selfie with a cardboard cutout in his likeness.