Meeting Modern Art in Pittsburgh: Day 1

Morgan Robertson

We learned a useful lesson today: Man Plans, God laughs! Our original plan was to place our lunch order well ahead of time so that our advisor could meet us once we landed in Pittsburgh. In this manner, we could drive directly to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob, so that we could get in before tours closed.

Our flight, however, was an hour late. So, we had to cancel Kentuck Knob, and go to our backup plan, which had, fortunately, been thought of in advance. The upshot was that we ate in the car. We ordered from the Mayfly Deli and wanted food that would travel well, so all the LEAP Ambassadors ordered chicken salad sandwiches, while our advisor had pepperoni and provolone, and Victoria had a prosciutto sandwich. The food was great! Even though we didn’t have a chance to eat for a couple of hours after, our choices from Mayfly held us over. 

We even passed the first test of the trip: spotting the Giant Alexander Calder in the Pittsburgh Airport!

We were all surprised by the nice weather and did our best to savor the sunshine (as we soon learned it would not remain that way for long). 

The Mattress Factory was located in a quaint, and seemingly vintage part of Pittsburgh, blended in nicely with the surrounding structures. However, the exterior of the contemporary art museum was where the similarities ended. The museum was divided into three different buildings, each one within walking distance of the next. While we traveled from building to building, the juxtaposition of the modest townhomes and brick roads, to eerie and dramatic pieces, became more pronounced. 

The first building was dedicated entirely and stretched over three floors for one piece entitled A Second Home by Dennis Maher. Made from salvaged architectural items and various trinkets of everyday life, Maher combined each piece in a way that created a dynamic flow of the room. Some aspects of the “Home” were intentionally lit well to showcase its intracity, while others were nearly pitch black and nearly impossible to make out distinctive shapes. 

Other exhibits included several representative pieces that took the form of projected images on what appeared to be cheesecloth or 3-D figurines placed in detailed manners around a central focal point.

In the form of viewing rooms, Artist Yayoi Kusama placed a focus on lighting and the use of polka-dots! The first room we entered was entirely made of mirrors, and was dark, save for the reflecting dots that appeared to move around the room. The illusion created by the mirrors added space to the room and created a sense that the room was endless.

In complete contrast to the darkroom and multi-colored room, we then entered a white room with red polka-dots covering the surfaces. This room contained three posed mannequin-like figures, also decorated in a white and red fashion. 

We continued our tour with more viewing rooms involving light, but this time by an artist we all recognized: James Turrell. The largest of the rooms we ventured into was lit by violet/purple lighting. The concaved wall appeared to narrow as it moved backward. The darkest, and probably the most enjoyable of the Turrell light experiences began with a narrow hallway leading to a small viewing room entitled Pleiades. Some of us were able to make out the shape of the light, whereas others were not. We later learned that to properly view the exhibit, the viewer must wait fifteen minutes in front of the piece. 

The Mattress Factory offered several new perspectives on contemporary art, and while I might have an answer to every “why” question regarding artistic designs and choices, the style and movement itself became clearer after our visit.  

Ambling through the Andy Warhol

Erin Juarez

One of Pittsburgh’s famous sons is Andy Warhol. We had the opportunity to visit the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The museum holds the largest collection of his artwork and archival materials, ranging from drawings to sculptures and to taxidermized animals! It is also one of the largest museums dedicated to a single artist in North America, and it boasts an extensive permanent collection of art and personal archives from Andy Warhol.

The museum has seven floors. We followed the instructions from the young woman at front desk, took the elevator to the top floor, and began to work our way back down via the stairs. We were able to see Pittsburgh’s influence on the young artist, and how the city looked when Warhol was there. The seventh floor began with some Warhola family history (born Andy Warhola, he later changed his name to Andy Warhol).

Andy Warhol’s High-School Yearbook Photo

Even at the age of fourteen, the artists distinct voice is visible.

An Early Warhol Work, Completed at the Age of 14

The early art school sketches are shown on the seventh floor, not nearly as colorful as his more recognizable works. 

Later in his career, Warhol found his niche. He enjoyed making ordinary objects the focus of his art and making them “pop” with repetition, bright colors, large size, and striking contrasts.

He was also known for his short films which were similar in that they oftentimes portrayed his subjects doing ordinary things on camera repeating on a short loop.

One small interactive part of the Warhol experience was a screen test area that is tucked into a corner of the museum and set up to look like Warhol’s silver film studio—so named because it looked as if the walls were lined entirely with aluminum foil. We hopped in front of the camera to try it out, but it quickly became clear that we lacked the on-screen presence of most of Mr. Warhol’s other subjects. 

Another interactive experience that we enjoyed at the Warhol was the Silver Clouds. The piece consists of about a dozen pillow-shaped helium-filled metallic balloons hovering in a large, dark room. The balloons are filled with a proprietary mixture of air and pure helium which ensures that they will not all stick to the ceiling but will instead float around and hypnotize the viewer.

We were able to walk in and playfully bat at them as they floated around our heads. We were mesmerized.

On one floor we came upon a huge painting of Elvis fully decked out in western wear and appearing to be just about to fire the pistol he aimed at the camera. This was Victoria’s favorite piece. She mentioned to us that she’d had a huge crush on Elvis when she was ten years old, and so we all lined up and took a photo imitating his pose. 

Morgan enjoyed a larger piece that included a composition of packing labels and was able to snap a nice photo of it! 

Others enjoyed Warhol’s many works depicting shoes, particularly those that employed “diamond dust” to create a sparkly visual effect.

Yvette’s favorite area in the museum was the sixth floor which houses the museum’s archives. It was here that the more minute details of the artist’s life were spelled out to us. We were able to see some of his belongings such as his wigs, shoes, and his corsets.

The museum has several wigs worn by the artist, all in the same style and color. Mr. Warhol liked to wear one wig, and rather than have it cleaned he would simply replace it with another. 

Warhol was shot during an attempted murder in 1968 by Valerie Solanas because she believed he was going to steal ideas from a manuscript she had sent him. After the attempt on his life, he had to wear corsets to help keep his internal organs in proper alignment, and these were also on display in the archives.

These accessories showed us some of the smaller, more intimate details of his life and we felt as if we might have known him personally after leaving the archive floor.

We loved The Andy Warhol Museum and enjoyed the vastly different compositions. The museum does a fantastic job showing the stages of his life and how he developed over time as both an artist and a person.

After ending up back on the first floor we spent about ten minutes meandering through the gift shop and then headed on foot to our next destination, dinner. 

Dinner at Max’s Allegheny Tavern

Victoria suggested that we eat at an “old World” restaurant, Max’s Allegheny Tavern, and it was a good suggestion. We began with stuffed pretzels and pierogis, which were excellent.

We also did a good job of trying different entrees. Some were heavy on meat and sausage…

…well, actually, most of the meals were heavy on meat and sausages!

…but, for the most part, the meats were different. No clear consensus was made on which of the sausages was best, but the group generally did not care for liverwurst. When all of these calories were followed by even more calories in the form of dessert, then we welcomed the long walk back to the car–even though it was beginning to snow!

Author: mikeyawn

Mike Yawn teaches at Sam Houston State University. In the past few years, he has taught courses on Politics & Film, Public Policy, the Presidency, Media & Politics, Congress, Statistics, Research & Writing, Field Research, and Public Opinion. He has published academic papers in the Journal of Politics, Political Behavior, Social Security Quarterly, Film & History, American Politics Review, and contributed a chapter to the textbook Politics and Film. He also contributes columns, news analysis, and news stories to newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time, Huron Daily Tribune, Laredo Morning Times, Beaumont Enterprise, Connecticut Post, and Midland Reporter Telegram. Yawn is also active in his local community, serving on the board of directors of the local YMCA and Friends of the Wynne. Previously, he served on the Huntsville's Promise and Stan Musial World Series Boards of Directors. In 2007-2008, Yawn was one of eight scholars across the nation named as a Carnegie Civic Engagement Scholar by the Carnegie Foundation.

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