ANDY WARHOL IN SLOVAKIA
New York,Pittsburgh.....Medzilaborce Not generally known as a pop art barometer, thisbackward outpost of northeastern Slovakia has more in common with communismthan consumerism. So when a museum dedicated to art-legend Andy Warhol wasfounded here a few years ago, it caused quite a sensation -- and not a littlecontroversy.
Born in Pittsburgh toCzechoslovakian immigrant parents, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) never put much stockin his family background. When asked where he was from, the elusive artist oncequipped, "I come from nowhere." Yet, thanks to the Medzilaborcemuseum, "nowhere" is fast becoming a place of pilgrimage for Warholfans in search of the artist's Eastern European roots.
"Everyone knows about Andy Warhol, superstar," says Michal Bycko, ahigh school art teacher who, along with Andy's brother, John Warhola, and theWarhol Foundation in New York, established the museum not far from thebirthplace of Warhol's mother, Julia. "We want to show that there is anotherside to his persona: Andy Warhol, the boy from Ruthenia."
Founded in 1991, the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art is, to say the least,colorfully incongruous. An onion domed Orthodox church sits on the hill next toit, while old women in head scarves amble in front of two oversized Campbell'ssoup cans flanking the museum's entrance. The shops on A. Warhola Street aredepressingly bare of consumer goods, and no one has bothered to take down thesocialist realist paintings of yesteryear found in the town's only hotel.Indeed, the communist memorial here, with its freshly painted red star, seemsbetter suited to Medzilaborce than any monument to the American pop artist.
Not surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of hostility to a museum honoringa man whose art and lifestyle are so at odds with the local mores. "Nobodywanted anything to do with this 'decadent American homosexual,'" says thebearded and vaguely dissident-looking Bycko, recalling the town's negativeresponse when he first pitched the idea. Then there was the suspicion thatBycko's contacts at the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York were C.I.A agents."They thought our museum was going to be a cover for American intelligenceoperations," he says.
Yet, through a cleverrepackaging of Warhol's persona -- Bycko was able to persuade the authoritiesthat the artist was in fact a communist -- and with the support of leadingSlavic intellectuals such as the current Czech President Vaclav Havel, Byckomanaged to get the go-ahead. The Andy Warhol Foundation agreed to loan a numberof screen prints and John Warhola donated some of his brother's possessions.Only two years after the Velvet Revolution, the museum was unveiled in a formercommunist cultural center on Lenin Square, since re-christened Andy WarholSquare.
Today the museum stands as ashrine to an urbane world light-years removed from Medzilaborce's backward andrustic milieu. Serial portraits of Marilyn Monroe greet the visitor in themuseum foyer while aluminum foil awnings deck the ceiling of the museum caf,which gives a nod to Andy's Chelsea Factory. In the main hall, Warhol'ssnakeskin jacket, Brooks Bros. ties, sunglasses, Walkman and ubiquitous cameraare enshrined in vitrines, like relics of some saint. Photos of EddieSedgewick, Ultra Violet and other Factory personages grace the walls. A lot ofthis must go over the head of the average visitor. The upstairs mobileconsisting of polystyrene dollar bills and the nearby silk-screen icon of fourdollar signs strike a chord of empathy, though.
But things have not been easyfor the young museum. Two years ago, officials in Slovakia's conservativegovernment attempted to nationalize the Warhol works on loan to the museum.While the plan has since been abandoned, it caused considerable strain in themuseum's relations with its American supporters. And many people in this deeplyreligious part of Eastern Europe continue to regard the figure of Warhol withoutright suspicion.
According to Hannah Hudecova, aSlovak art scholar with close contacts to the museum, parents have been keepingtheir children away from art classes organized there and funded by the WarholFoundation. Bycko himself has received threatening phone calls. "Peoplehere are strongly conservative and a little bit wary of the fact that Warholwas gay," Hudecova says.
As a result, Bycko is constantlystriving to portray Warhol in a more congenial light. He plays up the Ruthenianconnection and Warhol's rather tenuous relationship (only manifested towardsthe end of his life) with his Carpatho-Rusyn ethnicity and his Eastern Ritefaith -- things, Bycko emphasizes, that "have nothing to do with thehomosexual aspect or the drug parties."
Still, as the social climatebegins to change and with the Slovak Republic's bid to prove its modernity andjoin the European Union, Warhol may yet become a local hero. For the timebeing, though, most of the enthusiasm seems to be coming from abroad. As agander through the museum guest book shows, foreign Warholites seem to bevisiting this far-flung destination with surprising frequency.