Andy Warhol: The Artist and His Amazing Personal Collections
Andy Warhol became a household name as one of the leading artists of the “Pop Art” movement in the 1960’s. His paintings of everyday objects such as soup cans and dollar bills changed the way the world looked at art, and brought Warhol the fame and fortune he always wanted. But while he was building his reputation in the art world, Warhol was also amassing an amazing collection of weird and wonderful items that ultimately filled his 30-room New York townhouse.
Andy Warhol: Artist & Collector
Andy Warhol was born on August 6, 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to immigrant parents. As was common for immigrants during the city’s industrial age, Warhol’s father worked as a coal miner to support his wife and three children, but the family was poor and often lived hand to mouth.
Andy was sickly as a child and his mother encouraged him to draw and paint to keep him occupied while in bed. She soon recognized that little Andy had a natural artistic talent. As a teen, Warhol continued his art education by taking classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art. He then studied commercial art in college at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh).
After graduating in 1949, Warhol moved to New York City where he quickly found work as an illustrator for advertising agencies and magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. Warhol began painting in the late 1950’s and gained the art world’s attention with his bold paintings of Campbell Soup cans, Brillo boxes, and other household items. He later moved on to working in silkscreen, producing hundreds of portraits of celebrities, while also turning his attention to film and launching his own magazine.
Throughout his career, Warhol was almost obsessively collecting various items. He held on to all the daily debris of his life, from receipts to junk mail to takeout menus. He also had a weekly routine of visiting flea markets and seemed to have a knack for knowing what items might become popular and valuable in the future. As his personal wealth grew, he began collecting paintings, furniture, and jewelry, and became a regular visitor to the top antique dealers and auction houses in New York City.
But did Andy Warhol’s artistic eye influence his collecting, or did his collections inspire his art? In 2002, the Andy Warhol Museum held an exhibition of some of the objects in Warhol’s personal collections. The world would finally see what Warhol found beautiful and interesting.
Time Capsules of “Stuff”
Sometime during the course of Andy’s art career, he developed a practice of keeping a plain brown cardboard box in his studio. Into it, he would deposit all of the basic paper ephemera of his life for that month – letters, receipts, invitations, newspaper clippings, photos, posters, takeout menus, and the like. At the end of the month, the box would be labelled with the date, sealed with tape, and put into storage. Andy would start a new box each month for the rest of his life.
After his death, his estate transferred these boxes to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where the staff began systematically opening a box a month and archiving its contents. Inside was a wealth of information about Warhol’s daily life, doings, and correspondence.
Although this habit seems like an interesting quirk of Warhol’s, the artist may have had other reasons for holding on to this material. After growing up poor during the Depression with few extra possessions, he may have simply wanted to accumulate as much “stuff” as possible during his life. With an eye for graphic design, he may have wanted to save these items as samples of colors, typefaces, and images to inspire his art works. As a conceptual artist, he may have also wanted to explore how these items might be considered in relation to one another when placed in a defined space together.
But Warhol was always concerned with his fame and public persona, and saw the image that he created of himself as one of his greatest work of art. He probably hoped one day that people would be interested in his “time capsules” and thought that these collections would add intrigue to his reputation as an avant-garde artist. And he would have been right - the Andy Warhol Museum has an interactive section on their webpage that shows and documents every item from each box that has been opened to date. Visitors to the site can sift through and learn about each item, and what was going on in Andy’s life at the time.
175 Cookie Jars
Through his trips to flea markets, Warhol began collecting all types of pottery: Fiestaware, Depression era dinnerware, and (most charmingly) cookie jars. Always one to enjoy a bargain, he would pick up these jars for a couple of bucks each and was able to build a collection of 175 cookie containers. Friends of Warhol said that Andy had an uncanny ability to know which objects would increase in value and be in demand in the future (after his death in 1987, a set of 136 of his cookie jars were sold at auction for a jaw-dropping price of $198,605).
Warhol’s collection featured ceramic jars shaped like smiling animals, kitschy figures, and Disney characters. These objects were common place in most middle class homes from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. For Warhol, they may have represented a stable, happy childhood unlike his, where cookies were abundant and life was free of want. Warhol might also have been attracted to these vessels for their bright color combinations. The artist would use a similar color palette during his career, starting with his bold Brillo boxes and soup cans, and continuing through his celebrity portrait series.
Loads of Fine Furniture
As Andy’s popularity and personal wealth grew, he was able to indulge in hunting and collecting more expensive items. Using his artist’s eye, Andy began buying folk, empire, and art deco furniture long before the days of Antiques Roadshow and these items were coveted again. Although he rarely entertained at home, friends said Warhol’s 30-room home was so stuffed with furniture and items that he was living in only two rooms. His taste was eclectic - he reportedly had a primitive painting of two children by Joseph Whiting Stock that hung in his bedroom, mixed with furniture pieces of different styles and periods.
Among the most impressive items in Andy’s furniture collection was a desk created by Jean Dunand, featuring a unique egg shell finish. Literally covered in small (5 mm or less) pieces of crushed egg shell and coats of lacquer, this desk had an unusual pebbly texture that complimented its art deco lines. Warhol would definitely appreciate the geometric lines of art deco furniture, but he also would have loved Dunand’s use of an everyday item like an egg in an unexpected way as art. Warhol himself explored this idea when he set the art world on fire with his Campbell Soup can series of paintings. When Warhol took a common household object like a can of soup and made it the subject of a painting, he forever changed our ideas about what is art.
Art Deco Jewelry
Warhol also collected many pieces of jewelry in the Art Deco style of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some of these pieces were expensive and some inexpensive, but all featured the bold lines, big stones, and bright colors of Art Deco design.
Despite his love for this style, Warhol was not wearing this jewelry himself. Instead, these items might have reminded him of the lavish and eye-catching jewelry worn by the beautiful actresses of the 20’s and 30’s. As a child, Andy loved the movies and cut out photos of screen sirens from Hollywood film magazines. He even sent requests to his favorite stars for signed studio photos and taped them up in his bedroom. As a successful artist, Warhol used similar images of famous actresses as the subjects of his silkscreen celebrity portraits. Marilyn Monroe was one of the first celebrities that Warhol painted. Using a well-known photograph of Marilyn, Warhol reproduced the image over and over, using the silkscreen process with different colored inks to create a series of portraits. In each successive image, Warhol would switch one color with another, altering the appearance of the subject. He continued to create portraits in this style throughout his career.
Native American Artifacts and Photographs
Given Warhol’s appreciation for art in all forms and his wide ranging taste for quality antiques, it’s no surprise that he also collected Native American objects, such as masks, pottery, and blankets. At the time of his death, Warhol estate contained 57 Navajo blankets alone. Even more impressive was Andy’s collection of photographs by Edward S. Curtis who documented the tribes of American Indians in the early 1900’s. Warhol had a series of Curtis’s amazing photographs which depict the last years of some of these tribes before their land was taken and their culture was destroyed.
Warhol used some of these items as material for his series of paintings, titled Cowboys & Indians. Although this series included paintings based on the Hollywood images of John Wayne and Buffalo Bill, Warhol also included images of American Indian leaders such as Geronimo.
Warhol used his trademark bold colors in these silkscreen paintings, but these images also show Andy’s appreciation of Indian culture and tradition. In his portrait of Russell Means, Warhol depicted the Native American activist with the same respect and honor that Curtis captured in his photographs of the American Indians in the early 20th century.
Andy Warhol died unexpectedly in 1987 at the age of 59 after routine gallbladder surgery. In 1988, most of his personal possessions, including his extensive collections, were sold at auction by Sotheby’s. The auction grossed over $20 million. In 2002, the Andy Warhol Museum borrowed some of the more interesting and impressive objects from their new owners for an exhibition, titled Possession Obsession, where the quality of Andy’s collecting eye and the diversity of his personal tastes were on display. The museum also produced a companion catalog detailing the items in the exhibition.
The proceeds from the auction and settlement of Andy’s estate were used to establish the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, whose mission is “to foster innovative artistic expression and the creative process.” Today, the Foundation continues to support artistic advancements through artist fellowships, exhibitions, and art education programs.
Copyright © 2014 by Donna Herron. All rights reserved.