Sunday, September 03, 2006

fifteen minutes in steel town

I honestly was not expecting much to blog about in Pittsburgh (technically, in Carnegie, pronounced car-NAY-gee, a decaying western suburb of Pittsburgh named for, yes, that Carnegie) The trip has been great for family gossip and catching up on sleep, and little else. Except…

On Wednesday I made a trip into town to see the Andy Warhol museum, and to catch a Pirates game in the new PNC Park. (Conveniently, they are within three blocks of each other.) Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He left for New York at about age 18 and, well, became Andy Warhol. The building is a renovated factory (fitting for someone whose workspace was dubbed “The Factory”) Seven modest-sized floors accommodate five floors of Warhol art and artifacts and two rotating exhibitions. The Warhol stuff includes a fairly representative sampling of his career, including a wall montage of InterView magazines (I'd no idea that was his baby), a set of punching bags with Jesus on them he created with Basquiat, and a room of Chagall-ish cat drawings created by his mother (signed, conveniently enough, “Andy Warhol’s Mother”), and a collection of the time capsules he was apparently constantly creating, revising and storing away. The first floor includes a theatre where two or more of his films are shown daily, and a rotating large “important” work, this time around “Twelve Elvises”. The rotating exhibits were a large collection of Downtown and Punk art from New York, which I spent some time parusing, and a gallery called “The “F” Word (female, feminist, feminism)”, which I didn’t.

The word that kept coming up, both in my head and in the literature about Warhol on display, was “obliterate”. Warhol is most famous in his work for obliterating lines between high and low art, commercial and artistic imagemaking, gender distinctions, class lines, etc. And making himself famous in the process. (Some of my favorite pieces in the museum were photo portraits he took of the people he hung out with, famous and not-so. His eye for capturing something very essential in his subject as a photographer is terribly underrated, or maybe just overshadowed my everything else he did and was.)

I had a music history teacher in college who compared some of Warhol’s silkscreens (especially the more violent ones, i.e. Hiroshima) to early minimalist music. By repeating and recasting one image eight or a dozen or more times, he mutes the extrinsic values or meanings of the object, much as a composer blunts the functional or theoretical meanings of a chord or scale by repeating it ad naseum. I don’t know if I completely buy that- I’m not big on reading too much ideology into an image, or a scale- but it’s interesting to think about when you’re looking at an image like “Twelve Elvises”, twelve purplish silkscreen images of Elvis pulling a gun in one of his westerns, some fuzzed up or abstracted more than others, set on a blank grey background. By pulling Elvis completely out of context, he look even more absurd (I always found Elvis absurd to begin with), but it asks you to take stock of your perception of Elvis, in a way that you never would if there were tumbleweeds, or a band behind him. Always a useful notion, I think. (I also think Warhol would never talk this way, which makes me leery about writing this way)

Another unexpected find in the museum were original scores of songs Lou Reed wrote for the Velvet Underground. (I didn’t know that Warhol was an early advocate for them, “presenting” them at downtown clubs along with his films, pushing them toward the limelight.) Reed wrote the tunes, even the simplest, out on big pieces of manuscript paper, in ballpoint pen with phenomenally neat penmanship. I didn’t sing along as I looked at them, but even if I didn’t know the tune (and most of the time I didn’t) I could have. In all, more than worth the time and money if you’re ever, well, somehow in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates game was another unexpected pleasure. The new stadium, which hosted this year’s All-Star Game, is a gem, intimate, well laid out, all the good adjectives we use about post-Camden Yards ballparks. People are friendly without meaning to be, something I’m not used to at all. The whole day cost me $25, including food and a decent beer, a mere fantasy in Boston. And the team, despite its horrible record, wasn’t bad. They won in 11 innings, using a combination of hit and runs, good defense, and even a suicide squeeze (the first one I’ve ever seen in person) to beat a rather hapless Cubs side. Nothing abstract about it; with three more decent arms, this team is competitive in the (I admit, rather pathetic) NL Central next year. And pigs will fly too.

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