Saving Time: the
Archives of The Andy Warhol Museum
By John W. Smith
The archives of The Andy Warhol Museum are the most extensive and significant documentation
of any American artist's life and times. Accumulated and collected by Warhol throughout
his life, the material in the archives ranges from photographs and memorabilia collected
during his childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the books he had beside his bed
at New York Hospital when he died in February 1987 at the age of 59. The collection
is available to researchers at the museum's Archive Study Center, and it allows for
new and powerful insights into Warhol's art, and the important social and cultural
changes that occurred during his lifetime.
Warhol was an avid and knowledgeable
collector of fine art, furniture, jewelry and decorative objects. Buying expeditions
to antique shops, auction houses, flea markets and junk shops were a daily ritual
for many years. In his own words, Warhol was "always looking for that five-dollar
object that's really worth millions."
Over time, his 27-room Manhattan
townhouse was filled to overflowing with the fruits of his obsessions. Exquisite Art
Deco furniture and American folk art vied for space with Navajo Indian blankets and
Empire sofas. After Warhol's death, Sotheby's auction house was given the daunting
task of inventorying the contents of the townhouse and selling them at what has become
a series of legendary auctions, which Time magazine characterized as "the most
extensive estate sale in history, and the glitziest." Fueled by the power of
Warhol's celebrity, buyers at the sale paid record-high prices for a piece of the
artist's legacy. The public frenzy generated by these sales was the ultimate confirmation
that Andy Warhol had entered the pantheon of Pop culture icons.
the Sotheby's auction, as archivists and curators began to make their way through
the remaining contents of his home and his studio on East 33rd Street, it became clear
that his collecting extended far beyond art and antiques, cookie jars and costume
jewelry. A staggering accumulation of boxes, shopping bags, trunks and filing cabinets
showed that collecting had permeated every aspect of Warhol's life, and these materials
now represent the core of the Warhol Museum's archives.
The archival collection
currently consists of more than 8,000 cubic feet of material, including 42 scrapbooks
of press clippings related to Warhol's work and his private and public lives; his
art supplies and materials; posters publicizing his exhibitions and films; more than
3,000 audio tapes of interviews and conversations between Warhol and his friends and
associates; thousands of documentary photographs; an entire run of Interview magazine,
which Warhol founded in 1969; his extensive library of books and periodicals; and
many personal items such as clothing and 30-plus silver-white wigs that became one
of Warhol's defining features.
At the heart of this vast collection are the
"Time Capsule" boxes. Their contents, like Warhol's artwork, are both illuminating
and enigmatic. Originally, these boxes were used to simplify a move from Warhol's
studio at 33 Union Square West to a new location at 860 Broadway. Afterward, Warhol
began to use these moving boxes to store the bewildering quantity of material that
routinely passed through his hands. Ironically, he referred to these boxes as "time
capsules." Normally, time capsules commemorate events of special significance.
By placing a few carefully selected objects into a container, sealing it, and specifying
a date when it should be opened, a time capsule is meant to capture a sense of the
current Zeitgeist for future generations. For Warhol, however, his Time Capsules functioned
not only in the traditional way, but also as a memento hominem, a register of his
everyday life. In documenting the most insignificant details of his existence, Warhol
created a complete, though often cryptic, diary of his life and the world in which
Photographs, newspapers and magazines, fan letters, business and
personal correspondence, source images for art work, books, exhibition catalogues
and telephone messages, along with objects and countless examples of ephemera--such
as announcements for poetry readings and dinner invitations--were placed on an almost
daily basis into a box kept conveniently next to his desk. Time Capsule #3, for example,
contains a 17th-century German book on wrestling. Letters received by Warhol while
he was hospitalized following a 1968 assassination attempt are found in Time Capsule
#4. Other unusual items include a mummified foot, silverware he kept from a flight
on Air France, a large banner created for a Rolling Stones tour, and a pair of white
leather cowboy boots. When he died, Warhol had created over 600 Time Capsules.
scholars of Warhol and postwar American popular culture, the Time Capsules are a treasure
trove of new and important information. Through invoices, bank statements and other
financial information, researchers are beginning to unravel the complexities of Warhol's
business practices. Scripts, cast lists and reels of previously undocumented motion
picture film have provided historians studying Warhol's film work with a wealth of
new detail. Rare exhibition catalogues and announcements, press releases, correspondence
and installation photographs have allowed art historians to study more thoroughly
the critical and public reactions to Warhol's art, and to sort out the difficult questions
of exhibition history and provenance. Visitors to the Warhol Museum discover that
the archival material is fully integrated with the art collections to provide a broad
social and historical context for understanding Warhol's work.
Capsules also occupy a significant place in his total artistic production. Warhol
labored continuously to document everything he could. Like his films and audio tape
recordings, the Time Capsules are a further attempt to capture time and human experience
in an indiscriminate way. The films and audiotapes elevate the most mundane action
or conversation to the level of art, and a similar status is conferred on the material
in the Time Capsules. The Time Capsules are also linked to works by other artists.
Both Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, artists whom Warhol knew and admired, created
box-like objects that, like the Time Capsules, can be read as a form of autobiography.
The Time Capsules share a kinship with the German Wunderkammer. Popular in the 17th
and 18th centuries, these cabinets of curiosities were created by collectors to exhibit
their treasures. They often contained a highly eclectic assortment of objects--architectural
fragments, travel souvenirs, scientific instruments, engravings and oddities of nature.
Though rarely of great value, they often revealed a great deal about the tastes and
interests of their owners.
As The Andy Warhol Museum proceeds to inventory
and catalog the Time Capsules, and scholars study their contents, our understanding
of Andy Warhol and his place in 20th-century culture will continue to evolve.
W. Smith is archivist and interim manager of The Andy Warhol Museum