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‘College Years’ shows Warhol’s early work

Andy Warhol may be known the world over, but around these parts he is legend, especially tales from his college years. Many still remember the shy kid that majored in art at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, in the late 1940s.

An exhibit currently on display at the Andy Warhol Museum focuses on those years. Titled “Andy Warhol: The College Years,” it features more than two dozen paintings, drawings and news clippings that show a different side of the Pop artist the world knows and still very much loves.

The exhibit, which is part of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s Centennial Celebration exhibit roster, is centered around a single painting: “The Lord Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose” (1948), which is also known as “The Broad Gave Me My Face, But I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

The painting, which Warhol submitted for inclusion in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s annual exhibit in 1949, was famously rejected. A member of the group, Warhol had displayed two works in the annual juried show the previous year. But this painting, which is a cartoon self-portrait of Warhol naked and picking his nose, was vehemently rejected.

“It’s funny that the painting that was rejected is now the basis for this exhibition that celebrates the 100th anniversary of AAP,” says Warhol curator Eric Shiner.

Aside from that work, the rest of the pieces on display have rarely been on display before. That’s because all but two of the works in the exhibit are owned by the Warhola family.

The earliest ones include drawings Warhol, who dropped the final “a” in the family name in 1950s to make his name seem less ethnic, made the summer after his first year of classes in the Carnegie Tech department of painting and design (1945-46).

In that first year Warhol studied under such notable artists as Balcomb Greene, Robert Lepper and Samuel Rosenberg, but Shiner says, “Andy was threatened with expulsion from the school because his professors didn’t like his work very much.”

Deciding to give Warhol a second chance, his professors gave him an extra credit assignment over the summer. “They told him to draw what he observed,” Shiner says. “So, he decided to go out with his brothers, John and Paul, who sold fruit and vegetables from the back of trucks.”

The drawings made during that summer are surprising for their level of maturity, being technically well-executed images of women buying fruits and vegetables on the streets of South Oakland, where the Warhola family lived.

“Andy was really clever,” Shiner says. “He decided that, instead of doing the drawings in his own style, he would mimic that of his professors. He did that exceptionally well, so when he took them back to show his professors they loved them.”

So much so, Shiner says, that when Warhol returned to school in the fall he was awarded the Martin B. Leisser Prize and the works were exhibited in the college’s fine art gallery.

A newspaper clipping from that year is on display nearby. The article, titled “Artist Huckster Sketches Customers, Wins Prize,” includes a picture of a young Andrew Warhola accepting his award.

“Living Room” (1948) is another piece that was close to home. “This is a painting of his family’s living room on Dawson Street,” Shiner says. “This is what it looked like at that time.”

Another painting is believed to be a depiction of the interior of the Syria Mosque or possibly the Carnegie Music Hall, as seen from the upper tier. Shiner says the undated work is a reflection of the artist’s interest in dance.

“Andy always said that his true intention in life was to become a ballet dancer,” Shiner says. “So, dance figures into a lot of his early work. He was in a dance club at Carnegie Tech. But the only problem was that he couldn’t dance. He was the only boy, and the girls, knowing that he couldn’t dance, made him design all of the programs.”

A delightful pen-and-ink drawing of a grouping of little sprite children from 1949, the year Warhol graduated, is a real standout. It has the telltale “blotted line” technique that Warhol would become so well known for in his illustration style, which made him a financial success in New York in the 1950s.

Shiner says this particular drawing was never intended for a class project. “Here again Andy was smart,” Shiner says. “He knew that, in order to graduate, he could only use drawings like the sprite kids, which is much more indicative of Andy’s playful nature, for student publications; never turned in for a class or critique.”

Probably the most unusual piece in the exhibit is a sheet of drywall on top of which is a painting of a floral still life. The piece was part of a window display Warhol created when he worked in the display department at Horne’s, Downtown, as a summer job in 1947.

“As far as we know this is the only extant artwork from one of Andy’s window displays at Horne’s,” Shiner says. “He liked it so much that he cut it out of the wall and kept it.”

Looking at this piece, Shiner says, “No one will walk through this exhibit and think Andy Warhol. But here he’s just being a student. How many students carry through what they did as a student in their professional life?”

Even so, Shiner says, “Some of these are really exceptional.”

Additional Information:

‘Andy Warhol: The College Years’

When: Through Jan. 2. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; until 8 p.m. Fridays

Admission: $15; $9 for senior citizens; $8 for children and students

Where: Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side

Details: 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org


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