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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
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

    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...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    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
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments