Dead Bees, Nail Clippings And Priceless Art In Warhol's 'Time Capsules'

Nov 2, 2013
Originally published on November 2, 2013 9:36 am

Marie Elia likes to describe her job this way: She is the secretary to a dead man. As one of two catalogers for Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, it's her job to go through the 610 boxes he left after his death in 1987.

In one box she found a mysterious, small tin. "I opened it and it was full of fingernail clippings, dead bees and those little holes that come from a hole punch," she says. The fingernail clippings weren't Warhol's. They were sent to him by a fan. "I don't know why. Somebody mailed that to him. Somebody thought that he would like it."

Over the past six years, catalogers at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh have indexed more than 300,000 items, from a Tyvek suit covered in Jean-Michel Basquiat's scribblings to a box of Preparation H.

"We work more with the intimate side of Warhol. His prescriptions, his shampoos, his acne medication, his letters from his family," says Erin Byrne, the Time Capsules' other cataloger. "These are things that blow people away."

Warhol began the project when he was moving the Factory, as his studio was called. But the artist didn't hire a moving company, says Matt Wrbican, the Warhol Museum's chief archivist. Warhol asked his staff to clean up the mess, and one of his assistants found a workaround.

"He suggested to Andy that they start putting everything in these boxes, and they could call them 'time capsules' and he could work on them forever. And he did. He thought that was a great idea," says Wrbican.

Warhol intended for the Time Capsules to eventually be sold as art, but they never went on the market. And it's certainly easy to balk at the idea that the stuff that wound up in the boxes is art. Warhol was a packrat. But that desire to collect helped inform his artistic point of view.

"There's an interview Warhol gave pretty early in his days as a pop artist where he said that pop art is liking things," Wrbican says. "I can't think of a better expression of that idea than the Time Capsules. I mean, Warhol loved stuff."

Warhol also loved the spotlight and theatrics, so it is fitting that the museum has turned the Time Capsules into performance art by opening some of them on stage, in front of an audience. On a recent afternoon, catalogers Elia and Byrne prepared to open an unremarkable cardboard box marked simply with dates — 1967 to 1969.

Once open, the box was a bit of a disappointment. No previously unknown artworks, just papers: telegrams, art opening announcements and lots of correspondence. Elia opened one of the envelopes, addressed to Andy Warhol Films, and pulled out a photo of a nearly nude man. It was Paul Richard Shipman, a nude male model who wanted to be cast in Warhol's films. In his letter, he said he'd appeared in several nude magazines — and included all of his "physical details."

Sometimes Byrne feels like Elia finds all the good stuff. "I might be looking over at Marie's box and she's pulling out a Basquiat and Keith Haring underwear and all this great stuff and I'm still knee deep in junk mail," says Byrne. "It's total time capsule envy."

After sifting through 608 Time Capsules, plus a trunk and a filing cabinet that are also part of the work, Byrne and Elia definitely have a different picture of Warhol than the celebrity image he liked to project.

"The flotsam and jetsam that's left of his life is almost a little bit more truthful and faithful to the life he actually lived versus the life he put out there," Byrne says.

In that way, the Time Capsules serve as a kind of Warhol autobiography. Fingernail clippings, dead bees and all.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Andy Warhol is probably best known for his pop art paintings, but his most personal and intimate work was never exhibited until well after his death. "Time Capsule" is comprised of more than 600 boxes filled with the ephemera of Andy Warhol's life: Postcards, phone messages, newspaper clippings, toenail clippings. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh houses the contents and catalogers there have been opening boxes for six years.

Now they're almost finished. Lauren Ober reports.

LAUREN OBER, BYLINE: Maria Elia likes to describe her job this way: she is the secretary to a dead man. As one of two cataloguers for Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, it's her job to go through the 610 boxes he left after his death in 1987.

MARIA ELIA: I found this little tin like you'd get lip balm in or something. It was labeled in a weird, weird way. And I opened it and it was full of fingernail clippings, dead bees and those little holes that come from a hole punch.

OBER: The fingernail clippings weren't Warhol's. They were sent to him by a fan.

ELIA: I don't know why. Somebody mailed that to him. Somebody thought that he would like it.

OBER: Over the past six years, cataloguers at the Andy Warhol Museum have indexed more than 300,000 items from a Tyvek suit covered in Jean-Michel Basquiat's scribblings to a box of Preparation H.

ERIN BYRNE: We work more with the intimate side of Warhol, like his prescriptions, his shampoos, his acne medication, his letters from his family. These are things that blow people away.

OBER: That's Erin Byrne, the Time Capsules' other cataloguer. Warhol began his the project when he was moving the Factory, as his studio as called. But the artist didn't hire a moving company, says Matt Wrbican, the Warhol Museum's chief archivist. Warhol asked his staff to clean up the mess, and one of his assistants found a workaround.

MATT WRBICAN: He suggested to Andy that they start putting everything in these boxes and they could call them time capsules. And he could work on them forever. And he did. He thought that was a great idea.

OBER: Warhol intended for the Time Capsules to eventually be sold as art. But they never went on the market. And it's certainly easy to balk at the idea that the stuff that wound up in the boxes is art. Warhol was a packrat. But that desire to collect helped inform his artistic point of view.

WRBICAN: There's an interview that Warhol gave pretty early in his days as a pop artist where he said that pop art is liking things. And I can't think of a better expression of that idea than the Time Capsules. I mean, Warhol loved stuff.

OBER: Warhol also loved the spotlight. So, it makes sense that the museum would turn the Time Capsules into a type of curatorial performance art by opening some of them on stage in front of an audience.

ELIA: So, we're going to put these here for you to take a look at and they should show up on the screen for you.

OBER: On a recent afternoon, cataloguers Maria Elia and Erin Byrne prepare to open an unremarkable cardboard box marked simply with dates 1967 to 1969.

ELIA: Are you guys excited? This is what you came here for.

OBER: Once open, the box is a little bit of a disappointment. No previously unknown artworks - just papers, telegrams, art opening announcements and lots of correspondence. Elia opens one of the envelopes.

ELIA: This is addressed to Andy Warhol Films.

OBER: She pulls out a photo of a nearly nude man.

ELIA: Oh, hi.

(LAUGHTER)

ELIA: This is Paul Richard Shipman. He says that he's a nude male model and is interested in appearing in some of Warhol's films. He's posed in several nude magazines, such as the Queen's Quarterly, June issue. And gives all of his physical details.

(LAUGHTER)

OBER: Sometimes it feels like Elia finds all the good stuff, Byrne says.

BYRNE: I might be looking over at Maria's box and she's pulling out, like, a Basquiat and Keith Haring underwear and all this great stuff and I'm just, I'm still knee deep in junk mail. So, you know, sometimes it's total time capsule envy.

OBER: After sifting through 610 Time Capsules, plus a trunk and a filing cabinet that are also part of the work, Byrne and Elia definitely have a different picture of Warhol than the celebrity image he liked to project.

BYRNE: The flotsam and jetsam that's left of his life is almost a little bit more truthful and faithful to the life he actually lived versus the life that he put out there.

OBER: In that way, the Time Capsules serve as a kind of Warhol autobiography - fingernail clippings, dead bees and all. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Ober. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.