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Rummaging through Andy Warhol's 'junk'
PITTSBURGH (CNN) -- During his lifetime, pop artist Andy Warhol was a painter, a photographer, a film maker, even a magazine entrepreneur, but visitors to Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum discover he was also something else -- a pack rat.
Warhol's artwork includes paintings, silk screen prints, drawings, photographs, films, videos and sculptures, but it was his affinity for collecting that resulted in the accumulation of 610 sealed boxes -- or time capsules, as he called them.
"There's always a sense of excitement when we open a box," says John W. Smith, the museum's chief archivist. "I feel very lucky to have the privilege of being the first one to go though this material since it was placed in the boxes by Warhol."
Born in Pittsburgh to Czechoslovak immigrants, Andy Warhola grew up in the city and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He graduated with a degree in pictorial design in 1949 before moving to New York City to work as a commercial illustrator.
The seven-story museum, which opened in 1994, houses nearly 4,000 pieces of Warhol's art. It is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to a single artist.
The Archives Study Center, on the third floor, is ground zero for rummaging though the boxes. The glass-encased workroom is complete with photo slides, books on Warhol, reference material and dozens of yellow sticky notes.
Intrigued by American commercial culture, Warhol was an avid collector of all things. His collections were sometimes grandiose, other times small, often lewd, and in general, mind-boggling. Some say he even collected people, in the way that he painted, photographed and videotaped certain individuals, as if their personalities, not the film or the canvases, were his medium.
In 1974, the artist began boxing his collections and labeling them as time capsules. Material dates from the 1950s to the time of his death in February 1987, at 58, of a heart attack following gall bladder surgery. Warhol's handwriting, in black ink marker, can be seen on the exterior of some of the cardboard boxes.
As the collection grew, Warhol kept empty boxes close to his desk in which to deposit material.
Only about 100 of the boxes have been opened so far, and the diversity of items found inside them sheds light on the Warhol's eclectic tastes. Party invitations, unopened mail, art gallery advertisements, newspaper clippings, a slice of pizza, even a mummified foot, have been uncovered.
"We've had a curator of Carnegie Museum of Natural History confirm that it is an ancient Egyptian foot," says Smith. "It's a strange thing to come across, sort of creepy. It is also untypical in the fact that it is the only thing like that we've found in the time capsules."
"There has been all kinds of food -- chocolate bars and a whole pizza. There was also a piece of birthday cake found from Caroline Kennedy's 16th birthday," says Smith, who says he tries not to read too much into everything he finds.
Often the boxes are packed full of duplicates of the same item, but other boxes give researchers a glimpse into Warhol's private life and his relationships.
"One is filled with letters from Warhol's family, friends and fans that were sent to him after the attempt on his life by Valerie Solanas," Smith says.
Warhol suffered gunshot wounds after an obsessed fan, Valerie Solanas, attempted to kill him at his New York City studio in June 1968.
A crucial issue for most archivists is the preservation of historical items and documents. "Our biggest concern is that valuable material has been damaged," Smith says.
"Fragile newspaper clippings, photographs -- especially Polaroids -- and other materials are particularly vulnerable to damage."
When the archivists open a box, they document each article and make photocopies, when applicable, of the item. The museum hopes one day to support a database of the findings and of other information from Warhol's diaries.
A glass display case in the archives center houses 136 items -- all found in one time capsule -- including a $7.73 receipt for three ties, a funeral home calendar, some embroidered cloth and several Christmas cards.
A museum visitor peers into the case and says, "I think I have the same thing in my basement."
Warhol's archives are beneficial to artists and historians who want to learn more about what America was like in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
The practice of making time capsules has been around for centuries. Touching and holding items from earlier generations can evoke emotions that reading about the time period cannot. Museum Director Tom Sokolowski believes "Warhol knew what he was doing."
Sokolowski feels Warhol was intuitive to the fact that someday people would desire to look back at the culture of the American 20th century.
About the 1960s Sokolowski says, "Everything was changing -- civil rights, the Vietnam War and politics -- it was an amazing time." He believes Warhol wanted to give future generations "a sense of what it was like" to live during this time.
Not only can historians find cultural significance in these boxes, but also researchers can also use the time capsules to cross-reference other artists of the same period.
Sokolowski describes using the archives to find information about Warhol's connection to Salvador Dali, the Spanish surrealist painter and print maker.
An entry in "The Andy Warhol Diaries" (published in 1989) from March 1978 reads, "Dali was really sweet, he'd brought a plastic bag full of his used-up palettes as a present to me."
Sokolowski and Smith read this entry and decided to investigate the time capsule labeled March 1978. Inside were the palettes.
"Everything in his life, in an artist's life ... was meritorious of recollection," Sokolowski says of the capsules.
Smith studies the capsules to better understand the artist, his relationships and the state of affairs around him. When all the boxes have been opened, he hopes to publish a report on the contents.
"Eventually we may be able to document almost every day of Warhol's life," says Smith. Cross-referencing the findings of the time capsules with information about Warhol's paintings, photography and film would lead to an exhaustive archive of the artist's work.
"All of Andy Warhol's art, in my opinion, is really one big diary," says Sokolowski.
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The Andy Warhol Museum
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