Andy Warhol was a pioneering artist, surely the most influential since World War II. But he was also unique as a collector.
Some, in fact, might call him a hoarder: Warhol was fascinated by objects, acquired them obsessively, and then hung onto seemingly everything he ever bought or was given. His material legacy ranges from his childhood collection of autographed movie-star photos to invoices for office supplies, and from his immigrant mother’s Czech passport to a pair of Calvin Klein men’s briefs signed by Klein himself.
“I don’t think there’s another artist in the world with an archive as complete as Warhol’s or as interesting,” said Blake Gopnik, a nationally known critic and author of a forthcoming Warhol biography. “The great thing about Warhol’s archive is that it has a bit of everything in it, and I think that he wanted that to be the case. He wanted to sow confusion, rather than to clean up the story.”
Perhaps even more than his body of artwork, Warhol’s vast archive is key to understanding the man, and no one knew that archive better than the late Matt Wrbican, The New Kensington native was the long-time archivist for The Andy Warhol Museum. Wrbican, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who died this year at age 60, spent his career researching and cataloguing the hundreds of thousands of individual objects not only in Warhol’s 610 famous Time Capsules, but also in countless other boxes the Pittsburgh-born artist left behind after his death, in 1987.
Now that archive is, for the first time, the subject of a full-length book. “A is for Archive,” published by The Andy Warhol Museum and Yale University Press, features 420 illustrations of objects from the archive and 26 essays by Wrbican, one for each letter of the alphabet. The book gets its Pittsburgh launch Thursday in a Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures event featuring Gopnik and current museum archivist Erin Byrne.
The book’s alphabetic structure was the brainchild of Abby Franzen-Sheehan. She was the museum’s director of publications when Wrbican, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015, asked her with help publishing some of his writings on the archive. Much of the text began life as accompaniment to more than two dozen archive-based exhibitions at the museum over the years. With Franzen-Sheehan as editor, the book was completed in time for Wrbican to hold a copy in his hands before he died, in June.
“C is for Canis Major,” for instance (dog-themed items), while “P is for Phoney” (Warhol and the telephone).
Gopnik spent many hours in the archive with Wrbican, researching his Warhol biography.
“We would stay up late at night, way beyond when we were supposed to have left the museum, just poring over objects in the archive, talking about why they were important, why they were fascinating,” said Gopnik, by phone from his home, in New York City.
Gopnik said that during his three decades as the foremost Warhol archivist, Wrbican made signal contributions to Warhol scholarship.
“Matt really had the mind of an artist, so he could make connections that other people might not make,” Gopnik said. “He was always eager to figure out [about] these different objects, ranging from movie stubs to old clothing of Warhol’s, how we could make those talk about Andy Warhol and his art.”
The best-known parts of the archive are the 610 Time Capsules that Warhol assembled as an art project starting in 1974. He intended to sell the sealed boxes to collectors, but never followed through. Wrbican writes that the boxes contain an average of 800 items each, adding up to nearly half a million items in the Time Capsules alone.
But there's much more Warhol never sealed into his Time Capsules. “It’s just a treasure trove of unbelievable depth,” said Franzen-Sheehan.
Some objects were clearly source material for Warhol’s artworks – Polaroids of celebrities like Mick Jagger that later became silkscreens, for instance, or the original of a newspaper front page that Warhol recreated by hand. Others objects speak of different sorts of obsession, like the dozens of dental models Warhol bought, apparently as a lot, in 1982.
Franzen-Sheehan (who left the Warhol in August) said Wrbican traced Warhol’s urge to collect partly to his upbringing as a poor, working-class kid. “It was pure consumerism, at some level,” she said.
Gopnik also cites Warhol’s debt to Marcel Duchamp, who upended the art world more than a century ago by presenting “readymades,” like a mass-produced urinal, as art.
“Warhol had this openness to everything in the world as potentially interesting, and as potentially art,” said Gopnik. “And that I think is one of the reasons that he accumulated stuff at such a rate and in such quantity. Even when he bought a vast quantity of dental models, I think in the back of his mind was the thought that this could somehow turn into art.”
More banal artifacts from Warhol’s everyday life were especially valuable to Gopnik. For instance, the artist’s stash of ticket stubs for seemingly every show he ever attended suggests that Warhol was a fan not only of pop spectacles like James Bond movies, but also avant-garde theater and grand opera.
The Sept. 12 book launch, at the Carnegie Lecture Hall, will not be a standard talk. Rather, it’s a sort of show-and-tell, said Gopnik. He and Byrne will have an unscripted discussion about selected objects from the archive, video of which will be projected live on a big screen. Gopnik said objects to be discussed include Warhol’s collection of prescription sunglasses, without which (Gopnik determined by consulting an optometrist), Warhol was purblind.
The event, however, will also serve as a tribute to Wrbican’s years of work.
“I can’t say enough for Matt’s scholarship, to what he contributed to the world of Warhol, and to the research, and to scholars all around the world came to the archive to visit with him and to do research on Warhol,” said Franzen-Sheehan. “He will be missed incredibly.”