Before Andy Warhol became one of the most iconic and influential artists of the 20th century, his parents thought he was destined to become a priest in the Byzantine church. Here, we look into Warhol's Slovak-speaking, immigrant family, with whom he grew up in industrial Pittsburgh. Written by art critic Dave Hickey, and excerpted from the introduction to Phaidon’s new book Andy Warhol “Giant” Size, this text sheds light on Warhol's compelling rags-to-riches tale.
Andrew Warhola—the child who would become Andy Warhol—was born against the backdrop of industrial Pittsburgh on August 6,1928, the youngest of Andrej and Julia Warhola’s three sons. Andrej worked at physical jobs, mostly house moving and mill work. Julia was innocent and artistic. They were both Ruthenian immigrants from Czechoslovakia who kept to the old ways. The family spoke Slovak at home, and every Sunday, regardless of the weather, they rose early and trudged up over the bluff of Polish Hill and down into the next valley. They crossed a wide concrete bridge and headed up the valley, away from the river, under the trees, to a little Byzantine Christian church. There, they participated in the Eastern Rite mass said in Church Slavonic. They prayed among the candles while gazing at the altar screen upon which flat, golden icons of the saints were arrayed in a grid. Then they walked home. It was a simple life.
The Warholas lived in a Central European village set down in the middle of Depression-era America. The ghetto circumscribed their lives and the geographical setting echoed the hills and valleys of the old country they had left behind. During the first years of Andrew’s life, the family lived in a tiny apartment in a row house on the steep bluff above the Monongahela River. Little Andrew could stand out in front of the house on Orr Street and stare down through the smoke at the mills and factories lining the olive-drab river. Every morning of the working week, he could watch the men of his village trudging down the hill to sweat in those factories.
Andrew knew that he could never do what these men did, and, in his child’s world, that was all there was to do. He couldn’t work at the mill because he was small and always sick. He was plagued with Saint Vitus’s dance—a palsy that struck him periodically—and other nervous maladies. Julia cared for him full-time, keeping him home in bed with his coloring books. However sick he was, little Andrew never complained, never cried, and never quarreled. He neither raised his voice nor struck out at the world around him, and because of this—and because he was sickly—his family thought he was destined to become a priest in the Byzantine church, a legendary jewel of village life, in beautiful robes, swinging the censer, and chanting the liturgy.
On an evening in 1942, when Andrew was fourteen, his father gathered the family around the kitchen table. Early the next morning, Andrej Warhola would depart for the hospital, where he would die of tuberculosis, so he was putting things in order. He distributed his belongings among his sons and announced that the fifteen-hundred-dollar postal bond, which constituted the family’s entire savings, would go toward Andrew’s education. According to Andy’s brothers, no one questioned the wisdom of Andrej’s bequest. Andrew was their beloved child and whatever love can do by way of preparing a child for life, it did that for Andrew Warhola. Three years later, although no one knew it in 1942, he would begin studying commercial illustration at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, trekking back and forth across the bridge that still separates his neighborhood from Pittsburgh proper.
In the meantime, instead of studying for the priesthood, Andy studied at being an American. In his cultural isolation, America was always before his eyes and in his ears but always somewhere else. So Andrew and his brothers trained to be Americans. Because they were poor, they engaged in fugitive commercial enterprises to “bring home the bacon”—a term Warhol used throughout his life to refer to the daily grind of making one’s way in the world. His brothers washed cars for dimes and quarters. They jobbed vegetables and worked construction. His mother cleaned houses and washed clothes. She arranged artificial flowers in coffee cans, covered the cans with foil paper, and sold them door-to-door. She used her flower money to buy the Campbell’s Soup she served her sons for lunch. That soup, Andy told me once, constituted a rare opportunity as a child to exercise his taste, because he got to pick which kind of Campbell’s they would have for lunch. Usually, he said, he chose tomato.
When Andrew was nine, the Warholas moved up the hill to a house on Dawson Street, where they laid out a vegetable garden in the backyard. When the vegetables were ripe, his brothers would borrow a truck and trek out to the suburbs to sell the produce. Andy would go along on these expeditions with sheaves of drawings (mostly of stars and butterflies). He would sell the drawings for nickels and dimes to his brothers’ customers. Sometimes he drew portraits of suburbanites on the spot, which he would also sell. This was his first venture into the realm of American commerce. At ten, he was hustling rich folks for portrait commissions. He never stopped.
When the three brothers weren’t trying to make money, they played baseball in the park. (Andy was always in right field; that is, if he didn’t wander off to sit on the concrete steps and draw butterflies.) They listened to the radio. They read newspapers, magazines, and comic books. In the comics and on the radio, they participated in the adventures of Dick Tracy and Superman, the Little King and Little Lulu, Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks. Sometimes, on Saturdays, they would go to the movies, where, unlike his brothers, Andy favored the films of Shirley Temple—especially the ones in which the spunky little Shirley, armed with nothing more than charm and talent, guts and gumption, valiantly rescues her parents from penury and danger, in which the factory girl ends up owning the factory or the vaudeville kid, born in a trunk, becomes a star.
Ultimately, Andy Warhol would do everything that he saw Shirley Temple doing on screen, except for the singing and dancing. He would become a star, own a factory, and rescue his mother from the penury of working-class Pittsburgh. He would do these things by catholicizing the funny papers he pored over as a child, by translating the images of American popular culture into the language of the Byzantine icons. The most interesting thing about this cultural conflation is that Warhol clearly knew the difference between an image and an icon. He knew they differed because an image—like a picture in a magazine—represented something that was absent from the present moment, while an icon embodied the presence of whatever it represented. A picture of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus represented the historical Saul of Tarsus, who was dead and forever absent; the icon of Saint Paul in the sanctuary of their church in Pittsburgh embodied Paul’s eternal spiritual presence in the chapel. This distinction between image and icon is an important article of Eastern Orthodoxy and, years later, Andy would apply it to his paintings of Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities.
He began painting Marilyn in the early 1960s because Marilyn was still famous—still lived in a way—even though she was dead. He began painting Elizabeth Taylor when it looked like Liz was going to die, too—in her case from pneumonia. He based these paintings on silk-screened photographs of the actresses to which he applied painted color. The silk-screened photographs and the over-painting, however, never align on the canvas. They remain distinct entities, an image and an icon—a photograph of the historical Marilyn Monroe, who is dead, and the painted icon of Marilyn’s magical presence in the room where the painting hangs.
Growing up small and sickly in working-class Pittsburgh, little Andrew Warhola never complained and never quarreled, but he would never be a priest, because little Andrew, as frail as he was, was also a tough American kid from the wrong side of the tracks with the will and arctic shrewdness to bend things to his advantage. He was, it’s true, the most passive of modern revolutionaries. He never did confront people or raise his voice. He never challenged anything outright or openly attacked the status quo. He always appeared to be aspiring to do the right thing as best he could, while inadvertently screwing up and doing something revolutionary.