Big City Tales

The Wild and Wacky Warhol Museum

September 6, 2018
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Located in the quiet and conservative North Shore district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there is certainly nothing quiet and conservative about the wild and wacky Andy Warhol Museum.

Indeed, the pink bannered building and pink pylon outlined parking lot that fittingly features a specially themed Brillo Box attendant booth are the first clues that this is not your regular museum. The next clues come inside with exhibits chronicling the artist’s life story beginning on the top floor and winding down into an underground conservation lab.

From his early successes with Campbell’s Soup and other brand name product paintings to his later triumphs with celebrity portraits and experimental films, all aspects of Warhol’s eccentric and exceptional career are on display making for an entertaining and enlightening viewing experience.

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Off to the BIG City

Before he took the New York City art scene by storm in the 1950s and 60s, Andy Warhol was a clean-cut, fresh-faced kid from Pittsburgh who discovered a penchant for drawing during his teenage years. While he originally wanted to study Art Education in university and become a teacher, he ended up changing his mind and pursued training as a commercial artist at the Carnegie Institute of Technology where his first published works appeared in Cano, the student art magazine. After earning his Fine Arts degree, Warhol moved to the Big Apple in 1949 where he found work with magazines and advertising firms.

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Before and After Campbell’s Soup

Along with being a talented illustrator, Warhol was adept with silk-screening techniques and enjoyed making fruit and floral prints that evolved into the more abstract ‘Pop Art’ works that he is famous for such as soup cans and celebrity portraits. Early on, he was known for ink blotting and the use of tracing paper to replicate images and produce variations on the same themes. He also liked to project photographs and transform them using shading and contouring to bring out shadows and other subtleties.

Consumerism and Cult of Celebrity

Warhol started showing his work in the 1950s with some initial success in local galleries but his career really took off in the 1960s when his focus turned to iconic American objects and the cult of celebrity. At the time of his first solo exhibition in the fall of 1962, he was a creative genius to be reckoned with and was now garnering attention across the United States and beyond for his signature pop art pieces such as 100 Soup Cans, 100 Coke Bottles, 100 Dollar Bills and the Marilyn Diptych, which was created following the death of Marilyn Monroe.

Jackie Kennedy 

Along with Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy was one of Warhol’s favorite celebrity muses in the 1960s. The unfortunate assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy in 1963 provided fodder for the series of Jackie silk-screen portraits he produced using a selection of newspaper images of the grieving widow.

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Crazy for Cardboard and Flower Power

Not one to shy away from quirky and bold exhibits, Warhol’s other early pieces included a series of supermarket boxes and and a grouping of hibiscus blooms in a range of bright colors and varying textures.

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Pop Art Portraits

In the 1970s, Warhol’s work was mostly focused on portraits of celebrities and politicians, many of whom he sought out as patrons to support the growth of his artistic enterprise. Warhol was known to frequent the Studio 54 nightclub where he hob-knobbed with the likes of Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross and other superstar entertainers of the day.

As much as Warhol loved celebrities, he was also a devoted son and occasionally painted his mother’s portrait. The 5th Floor gallery in the museum shows his mother in good company between British actress Joan Collins and 1970s super-model Cheryl Tiegs.

Warhol’s circle of high-profile acquaintances also included controversial international political figures such as the deposed Shah of Iran and his family, and he famously created a series of Mao Tse-tung images to mark President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

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Dazzling Digital Design

With new technological advances in the 1980s, Warhol experimented with creating digital art on an early version of the Commodore computer. He used The Birth of Venus by Botticelli as inspiration and succeeded in turning an Early Renaissance masterpiece into a stunning stylized modern design.

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Collector or Pack Rat?

Anyone who had the privilege of visiting Warhol’s townhouse can attest to the fact that Warhol liked to collect eclectic things and display them throughout the four floors of his home. Referred to by Warhol’s friends as “Andy’s Stuff,” his collection of knickknacks was so extensive that overflow items ended up in a nearby storage unit. After his death, the museum took in an astonishing 641 boxes of personal effects that contained items ranging from cookie jars and jugs to airplane menus and supermarket flyers.

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Wild, Wacky…and WONDERFUL!

True to Warhol’s iconic and indelible image, the Andy Warhol Museum showcases all that was wild, wacky and wonderful about him. When in Pittsburgh, be sure to include a visit and check out its glorious oddities.

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The Pride of Pittsburgh

January 11, 2018
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Even with one of its nicknames being “Steel City,” Pittsburgh is a city that has long intrigued me. True, some historical references conjure up images of thick black plumes of smoke hovering over dreary factory buildings in a landscape devoid of green spaces. But that was then and this is now. The industrial town of old has definitely made way for a new cosmopolitan vibe that is attracting curious visitors like me in droves. Indeed, in recent years the city has received notable accolades for its livability, culture, foodie scene and economic prosperity.

Yes, “The ‘Burgh” or “City of Bridges” as the city is also referred to today is chock-full of amazing architecture, museums, parks, educational institutions, restaurants, and sports & entertainment options on par with New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major US cities. Whichever nickname you prefer, each truly represents the best of Pittsburgh’s past and present.

Here is a sampling of the Pride of Pittsburgh:

A “Top 10” City View

As the locals have long been aware, Pittsburgh has a lot of attractions to be proud of. The view of downtown from the Mt. Washington district at the top of the Duquesne Incline (pictured below) is one of the city’s shining gems. This vantage point also just happens to rank in Fodor’s Travel “10 Most Incredible Views of America’s Cities” and shows off many of the city’s bridges, skyscrapers and the fountain at Point State Park, a national historic landmark.
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When dusk makes way to mid-evening and late night, the city lights begin to twinkle and reflect off of the river waters making for a glorious sight that photographers of all levels clamor to capture. Even my humble 35mm point and shoot digital camera produced a decent shot. Having enjoyed a lovely panoramic nighttime view of downtown, I was looking forward to getting a closer look in the daylight of Pittsburgh’s iconic buildings.

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Architecture

It may not be the tallest building in Pittsburgh, but PPG Place certainly caught my eye as it sparkled against the backdrop of a crystal blue sky.  The complex towers above most of the city’s skyline and its series of buildings stretch over three city blocks. PPG Place is noteworthy for its matching glass design consisting of six buildings, 231 spires, and 19,750 pieces of glass. At ground level, a large plaza paved in a mosaic of red, grey and black granite provides a gathering place for various seasonal activities such as an outdoor skating rink during the winter months and a fountain feature from spring until fall. For those who prefer an indoor refuge, the Wintergarden is a glass-enclosed garden oasis located in the main tower that is open year-round.

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PPG Place is also located next to the Market Square district where restaurants, cafes and retailers cater to tourists, as well as the regular Monday to Friday downtown business crowd. One of the popular casual dining haunts in Market Square is Primanti Brothers, known for their colossal “Almost Famous” sandwiches of grilled meat, an Italian dressing-based coleslaw, tomato slices, and french fries piled high between two pieces of thick Italian bread. Believe me, you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day, and you’ll probably want to head to one of the city’s nearby world-class museums to walk off some calories!

Museums

From history to art, to soldiers and sailors, or the celebration of the bicycle, Pittsburgh’s wide variety of museum options offers something for everyone’s taste and interests. 

Heinz History Center

Located in the Strip District, which is a one-half square mile shopping area northeast of downtown, the Heinz History Center is Pennsylvania’s largest history museum and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The center showcases Pittsburgh’s past and highlights its tradition of innovation, notably that Pittsburgh is known as a city of “firsts” such as the first Big Mac hamburger at McDonald’s, the first retractable roof, the first drive-in gas station, the first ferris wheel, etc. As depicted in its many permanent and rotating exhibitions, the city is the headquarters of the Heinz food empire, is where famed explorers Lewis & Clark launched their epic trek from Pittsburgh to the Pacific from, and is where the beloved children’s show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was filmed at the local public broadcasting station. A unique feature of touring the museum is that you can start in the stairwell and view highlights of the city’s 250-year history on the walls and steps as you wind your way to the top floor and then work your way down. I highly recommend this approach before taking in the full exhibits; the incline is not too steep and the museum is only six floors so you don’t have to be in tip-top shape.

Andy Warhol Museum

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Before he took New York City and the entire world by storm with his abstract art (most notably Campbell’s soup cans and images of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), Andy Warhol was a fresh-faced kid from Pittsburgh. Located in the city’s North Shore district, the Andy Warhol Museum holds the largest collection of Warhol’s artworks and archival materials, and is the largest single artist museum in North America.

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I found it interesting to see Warhol’s development as an artist before and after his fixation with Campbell’s soup cans, and late in his career when he started using computer generated design and color techniques. It also surprised me to learn that he was a pack rat and amassed quite a collection of knickknacks.

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Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History Museum 

Founded in 1895 by renowned businessman Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Museum of Art is considered to be the first museum of modern art in the United States. With paintings ranging from Monet to Whistler, the museum’s impressive collection also features one of the largest collection of plaster casts of architectural masterpieces in the world that are housed in the massive Hall of Architecture wing. The statues and building facades may be plaster, but they certainly looked authentic which speaks to the high quality of the replication process. The Porch of the Maidens installation captured my attention along with an elaborate burial shrine.

The Natural History Museum is noted for having one of the finest collections of dinosaur skeletons in the world, but has many other exhibits covering subject matter such as minerals and gems, Ancient Egypt, life in the Arctic, and geology. The museum’s high vaulted ceilings are the perfect construction to show off the towering heights of long extinct species.

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Educational Institutions

Situated in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus, the Cathedral of Learning stands 535 feet tall and contains 42 floors.

Aside from its magnificent Late Gothic Revival exterior, the interior features the infamous Nationality Rooms that are located on the first and third floors. The rooms are representative of various cultural and ethnic groups that have settled in the Pittsburgh area. When not in use, the public is free to explore the rooms; there are also great city views from the windows on the 35th and 36th floors.

Sports & Entertainment

Pittsburgh has a stellar record of winning sports franchises and an impressive array of venues to show off their talents in. PPG Paints Arena is the home of the 5-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League; Heinz Field is where the 6-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League play; and PNC Park is where the 5-time World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball hear the cry “Batter Up!” Even if ‘black and gold’ aren’t your colours, there’s plenty to cheer about and admire in this amazing “City of Champions!”