unearthing the most poignant and peculiar objects from andy warhol’s personal archive
On February 20th 1987, Andy Warhol checked into New York Hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side for a routine procedure. He'd packed some clothing, a few possessions, and six different pairs of sunglasses. Two days later, the Pop Art icon unexpectedly died in his sleep from heart failure.
Soon after, the hospital packed up a box of his personal effects and sent it to the artist's home. A letter addressing a non-existent "Mrs. Warhol" explained that the hospital could no longer hold onto his belongings. Some of these objects — including a pair of light-pink Calvin Klein briefs, the last he wore — are now on show for the first time at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. For the installation Remains, artist Adam Milner used the museum's extensive archives like an archaeological site and dug up some of Warhol's most intriguing possessions, unveiling his private, vulnerable self.
"I wanted to excavate the archives in search of a body," says Milner, who started the project back in May. The Pittsburgh-based artist, whose work examines the boundary between the intimate and the detached, has installed fragments of Warhol's personal archives mixed with his own. Fingernails, photographs of feet, wigs, and fake eyelash from a drag queen are amongst the unusual items thoughtfully placed in two large museum vitrines, oddly resembling archaeological remains. There are no indications to help visitors identify which objects are Warhol's and which are Milner's, leaving the ghostly installation open to speculation. "It's an experience of mystery and discovery," affirms Milner.
Mind you, rummaging through 8,000 cubic feet of personal archives is no easy task. "It's very disorganized," says Milner, "I was interested in the messiness and subjectivity of it." Before he died, Warhol wrote in his will that his entire estate should be used for the creation of a foundation dedicated to "the advancement of the visual arts." Artworks, clothes, furniture, and a collection of 175 cookie jars were auctioned by Sotheby's in 1988, generating more than $25 million. Another half a million items, including unsold objects, documents, and personal belongings, were donated to the museum. "I would work with the archivist and ask her, 'Do you know if he had any human teeth'?" recounts Milner amused, "One day she asked me, 'Did you know he had a mummified foot?' I was like, 'What?!'"
Also on display is a small plastic tube containing gallstones from artist and muse Brigid Berlin, which she had gifted to Warhol. "For most people it would be so weird, but for me it's the perfect gift!" laughs Milner, who placed his ex-boyfriend's wisdom tooth alongside it. "For just a moment, I felt I understood Andy a little bit — his personality, the way he connected to his friends."
Some of these objects, as disturbing as they are, reveal another side to the celebrity-obsessed artist and socialite. They reveal the vulnerability and sensitivity of a man who felt, quite possibly, lonelier than the business of the Factory had onlookers believe. "Holding on to objects is very lonely, I say that from experience!" says Milner, whose impressive collection of locks of hair is simultaneously on show at Galería Mascota in Mexico City. "It's a type of voyeurism, a way of connecting when you can't connect to people physically."
"When I first met Adam, I was struck by the parallel between his work and Andy Warhol's," explains Jessica Beck, a curator at the Warhol, "In [Warhol's] first decade in New York, there was a lot of intimacy in his photographs and drawings." Throughout the 1950s, the young Warhol — then a commercial illustrator — produced hundreds of minimalist, Egon Schiele-esque sketches and drawings of his surroundings. It wasn't until the early 1960s that he turned to silk-screen printing, Marilyn Monroe, and soup cans, establishing what we understand now as Pop Art.
Warhol eventually turned his compulsive need to preserve everyday life "stuff" into an art form with Time Capsules, in 1974. The series — today archived at the Warhol — consists of 610 cardboard boxes filled with magazine cuttings, fan letters, and personal ephemera spanning a period of 30 years. The artist meticulously sealed and sent the boxes to storage himself. "I see Warhol as both a minimalist and a hoarder," explains Milner, "Time Capsules resolves that problem."
Archives of all shapes and sizes have fascinated the art world and beyond for a long time, and continue to do so. Earlier this year, recent Nobel Prize-winner Bob Dylan sold his entire personal collection of notes, lyrics, poems, and artworks to the University of Tulsa, for educational and curatorial purposes. Meanwhile, New York artist Jill Magid turned the ashes of iconic Mexican architect Luis Barragán into a diamond as a commentary on the inaccessibility of his archives, preserved in Switzerland. Examples abound, often raising complicated legal and moral questions.
With Remains, Milner explores an acute interest in those uncertainties. "I was taken aback by how close they had been to him, in his most vulnerable moment," the young artist gently explains about Warhol's stained size-28 pink underwear, "I started to ask myself, 'Does it need to be here?'" Although preoccupied with the inherently private nature of these objects, Milner was, paradoxically, determined to make them public. "Showing them is the only way to have these conversations," he says, "It brings up important questions, about who controls whose body, legacy, and memory. What is the role of the museum? Who does the archive serve?"
While the installation shows us another side of the most publicized artist of the 20th century, it also reminds us of exactly why he was such a much-loved public persona. "Even in his older age, he still had this priority for his looks," observes Milner, commenting on the six pairs of eyeglasses Warhol brought to hospital. "To me that says so much about a person."
Text Benoit Loiseau
Images courtesy the Andy Warhol Museum