Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Et in Pittsburgh Ego: Figment

Report from… Andy Warhol’s grave in Pittsburgh

Figment: A live feed of Andy Warhol's gravesite.  Collaboration of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam.  Screenshot of on August 22, 2013
Figment: A live feed of Andy Warhol’s gravesite. Collaboration of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam. Screenshot of on August 22, 2013

Andy Warhol had an unusually strong fear of death. His father died suddenly when the artist was young. And of course he himself was nearly murdered in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, who thought, mistakenly, that he had stolen her script for a film. Warhol had such a strong fear of hospitals that he would ask cabs to go around the block to avoid them. It was sadly ironic that, going into the hospital for routine gall bladder surgery, he died  prematurely, in 1987, aged only 58.

Earlier this month the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, his hometown, marked his birthday, August 6, with an installation, which very imaginatively links this fear of death to his fascination with banality.  Figment is a live, streaming webcast from his grave, which is in that city, 24/7. In this creation of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam, you see the quiet cemetery and the flowers left on his grave. There’s nothing much more to see unless somewhat happens to visit the grave. He had wanted, Warhol once said, that his  “own tombstone . . . be blank. No epitaph and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment’.” He didn’t quite get his wish- tombstone gives his name and dates of birth and death. “We believe,” the Warhol museum director Eric Shiner said,  “that this will give Warhol the pleasure of knowing that he is still plugged in and turned on over 25 years after his death.

Joyce Burstein, The Epitaph Project, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001
Joyce Burstein, The Epitaph Project, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001

During his lifetime, Warhol inspired violent animosity. When he was called “a weird cooley little faggot with his impossible wig and his jeans,” or described as “an auntie. The family he documents is one which adopted him rather than giving him birth,” then you see how deep hostility ran. Has he finally become a canonical figure? It is too soon, I believe, to answer that question.  Myself, I am fascinated with the way that this installation extends a long tradition of visual art employing cemeteries. Nicolas Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds (1637) shows a Latin inscription, “Et in Arcadia ego” which is the subject of highly subtle, much discussed analysis by Erwin Panofsky, for it can mean either, ‘there is death even in Arcadia’ or, rather, ‘I, the person in this tomb, once lived in Arcadia’. As befits a pop artist, the more straightforward inscription on Warhol’s tomb gives just his name and dates.

A little over a decade ago, when I was teaching art history in Cleveland, Ohio I met Joyce Burstein, a gifted artist whose the epitaph project was installed in the Lake View Cemetery, which is near to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Burstein set a slate tombstone atop an empty grave and invited passersby to write epitaphs in chalk, which she photographed.

It took a little searching in the cemetery to find her site, and by the time you arrived there, you had seen many more conventional monuments, and so had time to reflect about death. On Burstein’s slate, some people joked, some wrote poetry, and some responded seriously to the theme.

In his catalog essay for the epitaph project Peter Lamborn Wilson observed that “A society that deals with the presence of the Dead simply by ignoring them (“cutting them dead”) seems difficult to imagine. If the Dead are not in some place then they will not rest in peace.”

I hope that Warhol rests in peace.



Quotations: Calvin Butt, Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963 (Duke University Press, 2005); Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts, 1986-1993 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Figment: A collaboration of The Andy Warhol Museum and EarthCam, can be viewed at