Skip to content

EssayWarhol At Pitt: When Andy Returned to Pittsburgh

Man stands next to car across from woman.

Paul Morrissey and Viva near the Cathedral of Learning, 1968.

The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection,
Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, Inc.

Andy Warhol is one of the most famous Pittsburghers in American history, yet his storied and often scandalous career in New York City tends to overshadow his Rust Belt roots. However, in the years since Warhol’s death, Pittsburgh has become the home of The Andy Warhol Museum, the Andy Warhol Bridge, and several murals celebrating Warhol as its native son. The artist’s legacy is now a major asset to the city of Pittsburgh, but what did Pittsburghers think of him during his lifetime? One resource that could help answer this question is the archives of The Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper. Although Warhol first became famous for his Campbells Soup Can paintings in 1962, Pitt students did not get much exposure to Warhol until the late 1960s. It was during the years of 1967–1970 that Andy Warhol’s name first appeared in The Pitt News. That’s when the artist exhibited his Pop Art and experimental films in Pittsburgh for the first time, and when he made his first and only documented return to Pittsburgh. Naturally, this means that college students in Pittsburgh during that era had more opportunities to encounter Warhol and his work than ever before. Even though Warhol was not very popular as a college student in the 1940s, he became wildly popular among college students in the 1960s. Warhol’s coverage in The Pitt News and other local news outlets on his 1968 visit to the Pitt campus shows that Pittsburgh college students took a great interest in Warhol’s art, his films, and his radical queer identity.

The first mention of Andy Warhol in Pitt News occurred on April 3, 1967, in an advertisement for the record, The Velvet Underground with Nico, the debut album of the rock band that Warhol managed at the time.1  The ad humorously refers to Warhol as “the daddy of Pop Art” and describes the record as “Warhol’s very first, very far-out album.”2  The ad copy seems to imply that Warhol may actually play music on the recordings, when in fact he just managed the band and executed the multimedia light shows for their live performances. Overall, the ad conveys how much the Velvet Underground’s success was tied to Warhol’s name recognition during their early years.

A few months later, Warhol’s artwork was exhibited in Pittsburgh for the first time since his years as a pictorial design student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). The Pitt News mentioned Warhol as one of the “established artists” featured in the 1967 Carnegie International exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, which University of Pittsburgh students could attend for free.3  This exhibition marks the beginning of an increase in showings of Warhol’s art and films in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Although, interestingly, research shows that during the late 1960s, Warhol’s films traveled to Pittsburgh more frequently than his paintings.

Warhol’s presence in Pittsburgh reached a notable peak in February and March of 1968. During the six-week period of mid-February to late March, films by Warhol, about Warhol, and inspired by Warhol were screened at CMU and a café near the University of Pittsburgh; the Frick Fine Arts gallery exhibited Warhol’s artwork in a Pop Art group show; and Warhol himself visited the Pitt campus to conduct a lecture and film screening.4  Even though more film screenings took place at CMU than the Pitt campus, The Pitt News made a point to advertise all of these cultural events to the student body.5  Students could view artwork by Warhol and five other major Pop artists at the Frick Fine Arts gallery, and even purchase prints for relatively affordable prices ranging from $6 to $70.6  Once news arrived that Warhol would visit campus in person, The Pitt News listed an application for a chance to have lunch with the artist after the lecture.7   Suddenly, Warhol became more accessible than ever to Pitt students, but his physical accessibility did not necessarily result in more acceptance from the entire Pittsburgh community.

Andy Warhol and some of his friends, assistants, and Superstars visited the University of Pittsburgh on March 26, 1968. Although announcements prior to the event had advertised that Warhol would deliver a lecture titled “Pop Art in Action,” he apparently decided to simply screen an excerpt from one of his films and then take questions from the audience.8  Coverage of the event in both The Pitt News and The Pittsburgh Press conveys a bemused but cynical assessment of what transpired. Both journalists noted that Warhol had managed to fill the Student Union Ballroom to the brim; he spoke to a massive crowd of “more than 500 assembled beards and non-beards.”9  The Pitt News described the audience as “a few token straights in suits or crew necks, but, primarily, the listeners were long-haired and bedizen in beads or buttons.”10  A writer for The Pittsburgh Press went so far as to call a student he spoke to “a slightly chubby blonde ‘witness’ known only as ‘Melda,’ who looked as if she had been bounced over the Alleghenies behind a 40-mule team for this purpose.”11  Clearly Warhol had attracted a large swath of the Pitt counterculture; but Warhol’s film and Q&A session may have left his fans rather befuddled.

George Thomas never mentioned the title of the film in his article for The Pittsburgh Press, and Paul Anderson’s article for The Pitt News incorrectly referred to the film as “Stars” and “Starts.”12  The actual title of the film was “****” and most Warhol scholars call it “Four Stars.Four Stars is a 25-hour movie that was only screened once in its entirety, but Warhol broke down the film into several shorter movies for other screenings.13  In The Pitt News, Anderson described the film as “a garbled compendium of every cinematic trick known to man” that included “a series of impromptu jokes (often very racy) and extemporaneous discourse on such varied topics as Vietnam, Truth, Hell’s Angels, Shriners, Santa Claus, Magic Marker pens, psychic echology [sic], and the Ku Klux Klan.”14  In The Pittsburgh Press, Thomas called it one of Warhol’s “double-exposure adult home movies with a presumably (but not clearly) nude co-ed on what passed for an LSD ‘trip’ superimposed on continuous shots of a platform speaker presumably ranting against war.”15  In short, both journalists sound quite baffled and overwhelmed by the content of Four Stars. To be fair, having such a reaction to any Warhol film is not uncommon.

When it came time to take questions, both journalists noted that two of Warhol’s assistants, Paul Morrissey and Viva, did most of the talking. All three speakers kept it light even when things got personal. As documented in The Pitt News, “when a certain hippie asked Viva if Superstar Nico went both ways she replied, ‘Well I roomed with her for a year and she never came my way.’”16  Indeed, reporting on the event indicates that the discussion revolved around the sexuality of many members of Warhol’s entourage, as well as Warhol himself. Anderson noted, “a few of the queries were downright antagonistic and questioned Warhol’s sexual orientation.”17  While Thomas initially tried to avoid addressing the sexual taboos in his article for The Pittsburgh Press, declaring “then there were the rapid-fire exchanges on sex—but this is a family newspaper;” he eventually recorded the queer outcome of Warhol’s upcoming Western, Lonesome Cowboys, which “started out as a Romeo-and-Juliet, boy-gets-girl movie—but they ran out of girls so the boy wound up with a cowboy.”18  Rather than expend many words exploring the implications of Warhol’s queer cinema, both authors simply ended on the positive note that “it was all in fun,” and everyone seemed to have a good time.19 

Warhol’s visit to Pitt encapsulates two interesting trends in the coverage of the artist in The Pitt News in the late 1960s. First, Warhol agreed to do a lecture on Pop Art, but what he delivered was a film screening. In 1965, Warhol had announced to the press that he was “retiring from painting” to focus on making films; and while the declaration was mostly a publicity stunt and he never stopped painting altogether, he did focus more of his energy on filmmaking until the early 1970s.20  In fact, of the 19 mentions of Warhol in The Pitt News from April of 1967 until June of 1970, only 5 refer to Warhol in the context of visual art, while 12 refer to him in the context of experimental film. It is remarkable that Warhol had made such a name for himself as a filmmaker during these years, considering his reputation today primarily centers around his paintings.

The other striking trend in Warhol’s coverage in The Pitt News is the rather matter-of-fact acknowledgement of Warhol’s homosexuality and the queer content of his films. In another article by Paul Anderson on the topic of underground cinema, he wrote, “the Little Boy Naughty of the underground movement is ex-Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, who delights in filming seldom seen scenes of a world in which the queen’s word is law.”21  He went on to discuss Warhol’s most successful film, Chelsea Girls, and explained that “straight audiences all over the United States are thrilling to its explicit scenes of drug-taking, homosexuality, and lesbianism.”22  In an article about a screening of Warhol’s film My Hustler at the Crumbling Wall Coffee House, the author actually quoted Warhol’s summary in his own words: “It’s about an aging queen trying to hold on to a young hustler and his two rivals, another hustler and a girl; the actors were all doing what they did in real life, they followed their own professions on the screen.”23  Warhol revealed that his film included real queens and hustlers playing themselves, and The Pitt News apparently had no qualms about sharing this information with impressionable young college students. This may not indicate that all Pitt students fully accepted Warhol’s queer filmmaking; as Anderson suggested in his assessment of the success of Chelsea Girls, the “straights” may have simply found the novelty of Warhol’s queerness to be intriguing. However, since the art world subjected Warhol to so much straightwashing throughout his career, it is nevertheless significant that Pitt students at least had a clue about Warhol’s sexuality back in the late 1960s.

Pittsburgh did not have many opportunities for a young, gay artist when Warhol moved away in 1949. By the time he returned to Pittsburgh two decades later, the city had started to change. Local galleries and museums embraced his visual art; cafes and universities screened his bizarre films; newspapers advertised his avant-garde rock band. He only visited once in 1968, but his legacy has had a huge presence here for years. Despite spending much of his adult life in New York City, Warhol had a major role in Pittsburgh’s cultural transformation.