Contemporary Art

Andy Warhol and His Family

By Roger Kamholz

Andy Warhol, right, eating cereal and looking at his mother, Julia Warhola, most likely at her home. Julia is said to have unwittingly inspired one of his first important works when she fed him lunchtime bowls of Campbell's soup. Credit: Ken Heyman/Woodfin Camp/Woodfin Camp/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

21 Days of Andy Warhol is Sotheby’s three-week celebration of the essential 20th century artist with one-a-day stories and videos about Warhol’s origins, influences, inspirations, all leading up to the sale of important Warhol pieces in our Contemporary Art Evening auction 13 November.

NEW YORK - Andrew Warhola was the youngest of Ondrej and Julia Warhola's three boys. The family planted roots in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after the couple emigrated from an Eastern European town called Miková. Born in 1928, Andy – who later in life would drop the final "a" from his last name – lived what his brothers would call a "spoiled" childhood, despite the fact that the family was poor. (They couldn't afford a car, and the five of them slept in the attic of their home in order to rent out the floor below.) Reflecting the family's Carpatho-Rusyn traditions, Julia acted as the backbone of the family and, owing to his frequent bouts with illness, closely watched over young Andy.

Warhol's interest in celebrity culture – one of the richest veins he'd mine as an artis – began early in life. When ailing and bedridden, Andy would occupy himself with comics and celebrity tabloid magazines. When he did go out, it was to see movies, a popular form of escapism during the Great Depression. At the time, the price of admission included a glossy photo of the film's star, and Andy cherished these images. His childhood scrapbook still survives today; the collection includes a signed photo of Shirley Temple and another of Mae West.

Julia Warhola wasn't just Andy's protector and caregiver; she also nurtured Andy the budding artist. Initially she shared with him the folk-craft traditions of her homeland. Later she arranged for Andy to take lessons with one of Pittsburgh's best artists and art educators, Joseph Fitzpatrick, who recognized Andy's talents early. Perhaps in honor of her support, Warhol would give his mother the celebrity treatment in 1974, two years after her death, creating a vivid portrait of Julia similar in style to his famous series of works capturing the likes of Liza Minnelli and fellow painter David Hockney.

Ondrej Warhola was a more distant parent, but still helped advance Andy's artistic career in one important respect. He supported the family working construction, coal mining, and as a laborer, and although the Warholas lived simply, Ondrej quietly saved enough money to put Andy through his first two years of college at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie-Mellon University.

Andy's father died in 1942, when Andy was a teenager. The immediate cause was tuberculosis peritonitis, brought on by consuming tainted water on a construction job, but the family felt that Ondrej's poor recovery from gallbladder surgery in the late 1920s was partly responsible. The funeral proved intensely traumatic for Andy. Ondrej's body was laid in the family's living room for three days prior to burial, per the Warholas' Greek Catholic beliefs, but Andy refused to be near it. According to Warhol biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton, at first he hid in his bedroom and then spent the remaining days at a relative's.

It is widely thought that Warhol felt ashamed of his humble roots. ("I come from nowhere," was one of his famous deflections.) And yet, it's hard to imagine Warhol the artist taking shape without the influence of his childhood experiences. He came from a working-class family, and thus "wholeheartedly shared the twentieth-century American working class's ardor for the products of consumer culture," write Scherman and Dalton. "Because he was equipped for it," they argue, "he felt the consumer-media explosion of the early sixties more intensely than his colleagues, and he rode Pop's wave brilliantly."

Tomorrow: Andy Warhol's Ascent in the Art World

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