Socialism probably isn’t the first political movement you’d think to associate with Andy Warhol. The king of Pop art was best known for work that cheekily glorified postwar American consumer culture, from paintings of Coca-Cola bottles to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, and for his glitzy presence in high-society New York City.
But as he was growing up in an immigrant family from present-day Slovakia in Depression-era Pittsburgh, Warhol’s social environment hardly reflected the individualist, commercialist fantasies that characterize much of his art. His poor neighborhood had strong ties to Communist-lead activism and union organizing. Most of the art professors with whom Warhol studied at Carnegie Tech, including R. L. Lepper and Samuel Rosenberg, were left-wingers of the Social Realist school: they largely depicted downtrodden neighborhoods in their paintings, critiquing the social structures that perpetuate their conditions.
“Where did the working-class Warhol go?” asks US-based, Russian-born artist Yevgeniy Fiks. “Was Warhol influenced by his Socialist professors in some way?” In his new exhibit at the Warhol Museum, Andy Warhol and the Pittsburgh Labor Files, Fiks explores Warhol’s relationship to his working-class roots, highlighting the reactionary elements in his artistic focus on consumerism.
The exhibit consists of a cardboard box filled with documents Fiks collected from left-wing political life in working-class Pittsburgh. It’s displayed alongside a permanent exhibition about Warhol’s early life, but the documents in the box itself don’t include any work by Warhol, nor do they mention his name. Using provided white gloves, visitors are encouraged to look through the box. There, they’ll find old photos of the streets of Woods Run, where Warhol grew up, images of Social Realist artworks by Warhol’s art professors at Carnegie Tech, pamphlets from the communist movements of the ‘20s, photographs from union rallies of the ‘30s, a government report on communist activities in Pittsburgh during the Red Scare of the ‘50s, and more. “The viewer can draw his or her own conclusions about how these cultural waves in Midwestern proletarian life ultimately shaped Warhol’s visual language,” Fiks says.
Not much is known about Warhol’s personal politics — he’s often perceived as apolitical. But we know this much: “Warhol hated the social class into which he was born. He wanted to get out,” Fiks says. “He grew up super poor. A bottle of Coca-Cola wasn’t something his family could afford every day. So it’s funny and contradictory that when he grew up, he had this idea of consumerist culture as something very democratic — that in America, everyone could drink Coca-Cola — the President, Elizabeth Taylor, you.” Warhol’s narrative — in which he transformed himself from Andrew Warhola, the youngest son of Czech immigrants, to Raggedy Andy, as he was nicknamed as a struggling freelance illustrator at Harper’s Bazaar in 1948, to international art star Andy Warhol — doesn’t include the elements of hometown pride that some rags-to-riches stories do. He didn’t want to still be Andy from the block.
Fiks maintains that Warhol’s portraits of Communist leaders like Mao and Lenin, as well as his hammer and sickle series, weren’t personal political statements so much as they were images of celebrities and iconography in the popular imagination — a hammer and sickle was given basically the same treatment as the Campbell’s soup logo. But the context of his upbringing complicates one’s understanding of these works. “What’s the exact nature of the connection between Warhol’s making a portrait of Lenin in the 1970s and his memories of banners baring Lenin’s image during Communist demonstration in Pittsburgh in the 1930–1940s?” Fiks asks.
The project is not about trying to claim Warhol as a Social Realist artist. Rather, “it’s about showing the ambient noise, the social historical background into which he was born, and against which he rebelled,” Fiks says. “It was a search for the working class Warhol. It’s kind of elusive. Maybe it doesn’t exist. What happened to that working class Warhol? I don’t have an answer. The closest thing I can come up with is that he repressed it in himself.”
Yevgeniy Fiks: Andy Warhol and the Pittsburgh Labor Files continues at the Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh) through January 10, 2016.