Pittsburgh: the ideas factory

Think Andy Warhol, think New York. Yet the real inspiration for his art was his gritty, industrial hometown. Charles Darwent visits the city in the week the artist would have turned 80

Asked to name his home town, Andy Warhol would whisper, "I come from nowhere." This was true, more or less: Warhol came from Pittsburgh, an industrial city so grim that H L Mencken said it reduced "the whole aspiration of Man to a joke". The word "smog" was coined for Pittsburgh; some critics think Warhol's lurid palette recalled the dyes that made the city's rivers run purple. It was a place to get away from, and, 60 years ago, Andy did.

Yet, little Andrew Warhola never really left town. We think of his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans as New York art, but his own explanation was more local. "I wanted to paint the things my mom had in her kitchen," he said. Warhol may have become the Manhattan artist, but there isn't so much as a plaque to him there. In Pittsburgh – a mecca for Warhol groupies like me and my companion Miles – he has his own bridge.

One of a trio, the Seventh Street Bridge – renamed the Warhol in 2005 – spans the reassuringly un-purple Allegheny. The Three Sisters were voted the prettiest bridges in America when they opened in the 1920s, which would have pleased Andy. (The Rachel Carson Bridge has its own hanging baskets, though, which would not.) The Andy Warhol Bridge leads to the Andy Warhol Museum which, as you'd expect, has a good collection of Warhols. Its star turn is hidden away in a corner of the fourth floor: Silver Clouds, made for a show in New York in 1966.

The clouds are foil pillows, filled with helium and wafted by fans. Walk into their room and they float quietly towards you: like Andy, it's hard to say whether they're gentle or sinister. When I try to free one trapped in a corner, the others move to the far end of the room and cluster. "I think they're looking at us," says Miles. We leave.

As we're driving back downtown, we spot a huge neon ketchup bottle filling and emptying, filling and emptying. The label says "Heinz", a Pittsburgh firm. Very Andy. Warhol's parents were dirt-poor Slovak immigrants: his mother Julia was occasionally reduced to feeding her children on watered-down ketchup. In better times, she gave her Andek a can of soup every lunchtime – always the same brand, always Campbell's. That was when they'd left the slum of Beelen Street for the slightly less dumpy Dawson Street.

And that's where we're headed now, to No 3252 – the meagre brick house where Andy Warhol grew up, where Julia Warhola, tin-opener in hand, supplied him with his material. I toy with the idea of ringing the bell and asking to see the kitchen, but Dawson Street is still a bit rough. Youths in baggy trousers seem to have developed an un-healthy interest in my camera. We smile Englishly and head for the Carnegie School of Art.

Known as Carnegie Tech when Warhol went there in 1945, this is a very weird place. You'd imagine its students to be skinny kids in fright wigs. But no: they are wearing sportswear and – jeez – playing frisbee. In the middle of the campus is a scary, Orwellian skyscraper, 535ft high and built in the Gothic revival style. Pop it is not: how Andy didn't become a Surrealist beats me. His portrait of Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh millionaire, hangs in the cafeteria, and there's a Heinz Tomato Ketchup Box somewhere, though we can't find it. ("I want to be a machine," Warhol once said. Processed food was fine by him.) We get in the car and head out to Bethel Park.

The final irony of Warhol's irony-filled life is that he is buried not in New York but in this bland Pittsburgh suburb, in the St John the Baptist cemetery. As he made no stipulations in his will, his family brought him home. The Warholas were Byzantine Catholics, a sect that uses icons in their worship. Maybe that explains Andy's faith in Pop icons, the Marilyns and the Elvises; maybe, too, his taste for silver and gold.

The cemetery looks down over Route 88 and a tram line. A tree has fallen, narrowly missing the gravestone of Andy's parents. WARHOLA, it says; their son dropped the A in New York. His grave is just down the slope, marked by the same black granite wedge as most others. There's nothing to suggest it holds the bones of one of America's greatest artists, other than the handful of change and can of tomato soup that a mystery fan has left there every month since Andy Warhol died 21 years ago. (He would have turned 80 this Wednesday.) The soup, naturally, is Campbell's.



How to get there

American Airlines (020-7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk) offers return flights to Pittsburgh from £465. Double rooms at the Courtyard at the Marriott (marriott.com) cost from £88 per night.



Further information

Andy Warhol Museum (001 412 237 8300; Warhol.org). Visit Pittsburgh (001 412 281 7711; visit pittsburgh.com).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world