In 1946, after three years in the army, Philip Pearlstein returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh and became an art student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Here, in an excerpt from his autobiography in progress, Pearlstein remembers his student years, his friendship with the young man at the next easel named Andy Warhol, and their struggles to establish their careers in New York City.
I returned to my hometown of Pittsburgh in May 1946, one year after World War II ended. I had been in almost constant training as an infantry foot soldier for two years, the second in Italy, but because, miraculously, I was never in combat, I remained in Italy for another year as part of the army of occupation. I worked as a sign painter, mostly producing traffic signs for the bombed Italian roads.
That September I began my sophomore year in the art department of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where most of the men in the class were veterans using their GI Bill benefits.
One day early in the first term, one of the young men, named Andy, set up his easel next to mine in painting class. He said he had been told that my paintings had been reproduced in Life magazine when I was one of the winners of a national high-school art competition. As it was now five years later when Andy asked me, “How does it feel to be famous?” my spontaneous answer was, “It only lasted five minutes.”
During the next three years, Andy’s easel remained next to mine in painting and life-drawing classes, and we became close friends. His drawings and paintings were always eccentric and charming, as if the styles of Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, and Ben Shahn had been combined. The rest of us almost always produced more traditional realist work, at least until our junior year, when aspects of modernism began to dominate and we became more inventive and experimental, while Andy continued on his own way.
In our first term, a social group formed that included George Klauber, Leonard K. “Pappy” Kessler and his wife, Ethel, Andy, and Eleanor Simon and her friend Dorothy Cantor. Eleanor, called “Elle,” had been Andy’s classmate and guardian angel through high school. Because she had liked his work in art class so much, she had acted as his tutor to help him through his academic courses, and she continued in that role at Carnegie Tech. Dorothy was a year behind us, but joined us at the movies and weekly concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Another significant addition to the group was Corinne “Corky” Kessler, Pappy’s sister. She and Andy became close friends. Using a joking manner she encouraged him to express himself as a more assertive, flamboyant personality. She was a modern dancer, and soon had Andy practicing dance moves with her.
Our professor of design was Robert Lepper. He was an enthusiast of modernism and presented us with complex problems to solve. Of the students, George Klauber was by far the most knowledgeable about modern architecture, classical music, and literature, and he became the star of the class. He was from New York and had spent his prewar freshman year at Pratt Institute.
Eventually I showed Professor Lepper samples of the work I had done in the army, including some charts diagramming the operation of weapons, which I had worked on for a short while after completing my first bout of infantry training. Lepper hired me as an assistant to work on his freelance project, designing pamphlets on architectural products for Alcoa. For the next three years, I worked with him on the layouts and illustrations and their preparation for the printer.
During our junior year, Andy got a job in the display department of the large local department store, Joseph Horne’s. It was during lunch breaks there that he gave himself his real art education by studying the workshop’s collection of current fashion magazines. He developed his knowledge of page design, the placement of marks and areas of color on white paper, the transformation of the look of artwork when it was printed, the effectiveness of different approaches to stylization, and the kinds of marks that caught the eye. He became a connoisseur of the printed page, a student and eventual master of the visual effects produced by the mechanics of printing.
In our last year at Carnegie Tech, when Professor Lepper assigned a particularly complicated problem that called for a finished presentation in a short time, Andy came to work alongside me, usually all night long, in my studio in the cellar of my family’s home. I was struck each time by the simplicity and visual charm of Andy’s solution to the given problem, in contrast to the austere-looking solution that I had intellectualized and labored over. Other students and some of the teachers were also fascinated by the unpredictability of Andy’s work and by his eccentric, always surprising character. He and I had in common the single- mindedness with which we worked at making images.
That year we all joined the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh so we could submit paintings to their annual exhibition. This event gave Andy his first taste of fame. He submitted a self-portrait that showed him with a finger in one nostril, which he called God gave me my face but I can pick my own nose. The jury was reported to have been deeply offended by both the work and its title, but somehow the painting made it into the exhibition.
During the spring term of our senior year, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts held a gala fundraising evening, during which Andy and I sat outside on the sidewalk doing portrait drawings for a couple of dollars each. I remember occasionally glancing over at Andy’s drawings and feeling some envy at the easy elegance of his work, as I labored on. We must have made at least a dozen drawings each that evening. I wonder if any still exist.
George Klauber had decided to return to Pratt Institute for his final two years of study. He was a student in Will Burtin’s design courses, and Burtin, who was also the art director of Fortune magazine, was so impressed with George that he hired him to be his assistant at the magazine. George invited Andy and me to stay with him during Easter vacation of our senior year.
George’s one-room apartment in Brooklyn had only one bed, which the three of us shared. Burtin had been elected president of the New York Art Directors Club, and as Burtin’s assistant, George had a list of the telephone numbers of all the secretaries of the art directors of all the advertising agencies and publications. By then George was on speaking terms with many of these secretaries, and he offered us the use of his name in setting up appointments to show our portfolios to the art directors.
Balcomb Greene was our professor of art history at Carnegie Tech. Both he and his wife, Gertrude, had major reputations as abstract artists in New York. At Carnegie Tech, they opened their home one evening each week to students from the art, drama, music, and architecture departments for informal discussions and social sessions. When Andy and I told Greene we were going to New York, he arranged for us to sublet an apartment that belonged to friends of his.
The apartment was on St. Mark’s Place (8th Street) near the corner of Avenue A. It was my idea to transport our clothing and art supplies in shopping bags, along with our portfolios. We made the all-night trip from Pittsburgh to New York by Greyhound bus and then splurged on a taxi to St. Mark’s. The apartment was on the sixth floor, so we had to walk up five flights lugging shopping bags that were by this time falling apart.
The apartment had one large room that served as kitchen and living room as well as studio. A claw-foot bathtub covered by a chipped white porcelain tabletop hinged to the tub took up a lot of the space. There was an electric refrigerator and a couple of chairs. Worn patterned linoleum covered the floor. Each of us had a small bedroom, and in a closet there was a private toilet and a sink. Bare lightbulbs, one in each room, hung from the ceiling.
George gave us his list of phone numbers. We decided that Andy should make the first calls to set up interviews and I would make my calls at least ten business days later. Andy was about 20 years old then. He wasn’t tall, but he was a good bit taller than I. He was slender and stood straight. He had a pleasant face and smiled easily. His nose ended in a small round ball, and there were very slight discolorations on parts of his face. His light-blond straight hair was carefully combed. He looked like a nice young American kid with a Czech name, Warhola.
It was hot that summer, long before air conditioning came into use. Andy’s main interview clothes were a heavy white corduroy jacket and trousers, and he always wore a bowtie. On his first appointment, he told the receptionist that he was about to faint and asked for a glass of water. The whole staff scurried around to make him comfortable. He wondered if he could use that routine again.
On Andy’s fourth or fifth day of interviews, he landed a major assignment for an important fashion magazine: a full-page drawing of several woman’s shoes on the rungs of a ladder. He took the shoes from a shopping bag and placed them on the bathtub table. He set up his Strathmore 3-ply sheets of gleaming white paper, a sheet of blotting paper, a roll of masking tape, a bottle of India ink and pens, pencils, and his watercolor box. And then for a long time he sat staring straight ahead. Finally he said, “I can’t figure out how to draw a shoe in perspective.”
So, on a piece of scrap paper I sketched one of the shoes in a perspective diagram. Andy said “Okay,” then he sat up all night working at the table. By morning he had created three or four versions of the drawing by using a technique he had devised for himself. He hinged a sheet of blotting paper to the sheet of good drawing paper on which he had his master drawing and then re-inked an inch or so of the master drawing at a time, turned down the blotting paper on it and rubbed the back of the drawing paper to transfer the fresh ink lines to the blotting paper, then slipped another sheet of Strathmore paper in its registered place under the blotting paper, and rubbed the back of the blotting paper to make a new impression on the Strathmore paper.
It was time-consuming, but the procedure allowed him to make several versions of the original line drawing, each colored differently. When he presented them the next day, the art director was delighted to have a choice (and in the future the art directors often kept the variants as presents to themselves).
That all-night work session became Andy’s usual routine whenever he had a job. After each of his pieces appeared in print, he would study the way his work had been transformed by the printing process according to the type of paper used by the different magazines or newspapers, glossy or matte, and reduced or enlarged in size from the original art.
My own career didn’t take off so quickly. My illustration projects were too ambitious and intellectualized. They seemed to arouse latent hostility on the part of the art directors who looked at my portfolio. One famous art director of a high-fashion magazine told me he wouldn’t hire me even to do pasteups because my “virility showed up in everything I touched.” When our sublet ended, we found a new place through the New York Times classified ads. Our new landlady was Franziska Boas, a modern dancer, and the place was the large front room of her studio/performance space.
Franziska heartily disliked the Gustav Mahler symphonies I played repeatedly while I painted. She regarded them as “kitsch,” carefully explaining what the word meant. Anyway she preferred silence. Andy disliked Mahler as well, but he could listen endlessly to a recording I had bought at the Museum of Modern Art’s bookstore of Edith Sitwell reciting her poem “Facade” to the music of William Walton, and an album of Bessie Smith’s last recordings. His favorite number started with the line “Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer.”
While waiting to be discovered, I decided to revamp my portfolio. I tried to find a new approach to illustrating a story by presenting it in chart-like diagrams, but stupidly I chose the true story of a woman who had murdered her children. I designed and executed three charts on large-size Strathmore paper. The first chart had large areas of black poster paint.
The next morning I discovered that roaches had eaten away most of the black paint for the sugar it contained. Andy told me the work had to be kept covered at night. He had been battling the roaches: the empty bottles of the soda he constantly drank while working would be filled with roaches the next morning. I am sure the empty Campbell’s tomato soup cans, Andy’s favorite lunch, were also roach traps. We would dump them into the trash bin on the corner.
My third chart was a masterpiece. I designed a scraggly dollar sign, painted black, that dominated the page, with a child dangling from each of the strokes. I was so struck with the power of the image that I immediately began to paint the dollar sign with the dangling dead children in oil colors on a large canvas. However, being more interested in creating a painting than making a social statement, I enmeshed the dollar sign in brightly colored Clyfford Still–like clouds. The idea of a series of paintings of icons hit me then. The dollar sign was followed by the “Unknown Hero of World War 2,” which incorporated the torn-up image of a muscleman from a magazine cover. Paintings of the American eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and other iconic subjects followed over the next year, leading up to a painting of Superman, which I started in 1950.
About this time Andy became obsessed with meeting Truman Capote. A photograph of Capote lounging on a chaise longue that appeared on the jacket of his best-selling first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, became Andy’s icon. Every few days for several weeks Andy would put a drawing with a note expressing his wish for a meeting in an envelope filled with “fairy dust,” sparkling bits of colored foil that flew out when the envelope was opened. The meeting did take place the following year. I never heard the details.
Franziska was the daughter of the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, who had collected the primitive instruments in her studio. She was ending her career in modern dance and was now involved with psychiatry. She was investigating the use of movement as a tool to help psychologically disturbed children. Andy later described the racket some of the children made running around the studio screaming and beating drums.
One morning, after I finally got a job—an assistant to the important graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar—Andy was sick, and before I left for work I asked Franziska if she would look in on him during the day. Andy later described her visit. She had conducted a quick psychological exploration of his personality, told him he had to learn to express himself more fully as a person, and added that I was not being very helpful in his development. I realized that she had misunderstood our relationship.
It was probably in March that Franziska announced that we would all have to move. She was being evicted because she hadn’t been paying the rent and had been living on the rent we paid to her. Andy moved in with a group of young men, some of whom he had known at Carnegie.
I moved three times until Dorothy Cantor and I were married in August 1950. During that period, with Dorothy’s encouragement, I decided to use the two years of college time I had left on the GI Bill to study art history. Balcomb Greene also encouraged me. He wrote a letter of recommendation and contacted faculty members at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he had studied. So I was accepted into the program.
Dorothy and I moved into a pleasant renovated apartment on Second Avenue and 81st Street. Within a few months Andy moved into an apartment within walking distance and was joined by his mother. He was a frequent visitor, and at some point during the two years we lived there, he hired me to stretch several canvases for him. They became his first paintings of dollar bills and soup cans.
After my GI benefits ended, Dorothy and I moved into another top-floor tenement apartment on the Lower East Side, four blocks south of my starting point at St. Mark’s Place. Andy had been given a Siamese cat as a gift, and he gave us one of her kittens. His apartment was soon overrun with Siamese kittens. He named all of them Sam and did a small book of their portraits.
In 1957, I was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to Italy. Dorothy and I with our one-year-old son spent the year living in Rome. On our return I began my teaching career and I had an exhibition at the co-op Tanager Gallery of the wash drawings I had made of Roman ruins. It received a very good review in the New York Times. Andy asked me to show his work to the co-op members, but the drawings he produced were largely of young men kissing with their tongues in each others’ mouths. The Tanager artists were macho and responded negatively. Andy was upset and thought I hadn’t been persuasive enough. Our relationship cooled.
After that, we saw each other only occasionally. One memorable meeting took place shortly after he was shot by Valerie Solanas, one of his circle of “friends.” Dorothy and I were visiting galleries and ran into Andy, who immediately pulled up his shirt to show us his ghastly new scars.
Our last meeting was in Cologne, Germany. We were both having exhibitions in private galleries that were timed to open with the Cologne art fair. That afternoon Dorothy and I had seen Andy’s arrival on television news. He was going to be showing in Bonn the following evening along with Joseph Beuys. My exhibition was on the ground floor of a building where several galleries were having openings on the evening the art fair opened. Andy was being taken to an upper floor when he saw Dorothy and me through the window and he came in to greet us.
After looking around at my paintings, he commented, “You’re using Navajo blankets now. They have become so expensive.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “Watching Warhola Become Warhol.”