in Features | 04 APR 04
Featured in
Issue 82

Living in a Box

Andy Warhol's Time Capsules: art or artefact?

in Features | 04 APR 04

In 1974, Andy Warhol packed the first of over 600 Time Capsules. Although their value resides in the glimpse they allow us into both the artist's life and his insights into modern history, originally Warhol seemed blasé, even indifferent towards them. He mentions the boxes in his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again): 'What you should do is get a box for a month, and drop everything in it and at the end of the month lock it up ... You should try to keep track of it, but if you can't and you lose it, that's fine, because it's one less thing to think about, another load off your mind.'1

Fifteen of these boxes were shown this winter at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (MMK) and later this year they travel to the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Given Warhol's motives, it is unsurprising that the handsomely displayed contents are a seemingly uncensored indication of the jetsam and flotsam of his life. Like a top-quality flea market or an oddball curiosity cabinet, it is a positively captivating collection. Brendan Gill - luminary editor at The New Yorker, who chaired the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts - once said about a work of literature 'If it were better, it wouldn't be as good.' So too the Time Capsules. The question left begging is who made them, Andy the archivist or Andy the artist?

Warhol died in 1987 and if he had taken his own advice to create one capsule a month, there would be 156 to unpack. However, an untiring collector to the end, he ultimately provided 456 extra capsules. With oodles of Warhol miscellanea to decipher, it seems more than just an idiosyncratic coincidence that the year before Warhol began compiling them, William Rathje, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology, established his theory of 'garbology', reasoning that contemporary garbage could tell us as much about contemporary civilization as the objects we preserve in museums.

The exhibition at MMK established links between its impressive Warhol collection and the odds and ends Warhol tossed into his boxes. Time Capsule No. 21, for example, contains a stray page from an issue of Life magazine commemorating John F. Kennedy's funeral procession. The page is stunning for what it is missing, namely the cut-out head of a bereaved Jackie. Today the clipped page triumphs as an allegory for absence - dead President, dead Jackie, dead Andy - but also becomes the connection to Warhol's silkscreen Jackie (1964) that was hung nearby, prompting reflection about how close the magazine scrap comes to bettering the painting with its status as relic.

The sheer magnitude of accumulation is startling here. Some examples: Warhol's hospital bracelet from the 1968 shooting, receipts from Max's Kansas City, four maids' uniforms, a 1941 photograph of Shirley Temple inscribed to Andrew Warhola, a letter from Philip Johnson reminiscing about police arriving at his Connecticut home to put a stop to the Velvet Underground playing, an announcement for a memorial exhibition for James Harvey (the designer of the Brillo box), fan letters, a pair of shoes that once belonged to Clark Gable, the Raymond Loewy-designed dinner service from Concorde, a 1956 letter from Alfred Barr turning down Warhol's offer to donate one of his shoe drawings to the Museum of Modern Art, a letter from Irving Blum encouraging him to leave the Stable Gallery for Leo Castelli, a Christmas card from Paul and Linda McCartney and some of Warhol's mother's clothes.

The hundreds of Time Capsules left to open will engage historians for years. Among this cache more hard evidence will be surrendered to art history and traces of Warhol's abandoned ideas will continue to surface. There are allusions here to ideas that appear nowhere else in Warhol's oeuvre, such as a 1966 letter responding to the artist's request for a floating chair and a solid metal ring from a company that produced professional magic tricks. There the matter would end, except that in the same cardboard box we find a letter from Ileana Sonnabend wondering if the 'floating sculpture is prepared ... just in case you forgot to work on this project'. Warhol's Silver Clouds produced for his 1966 exhibition at Leo Castelli, are well known, but when Sonnabend prompts Warhol for a 'floating sculpture', is she asking about the unrealized chair or his clouds?

The Time Capsules are undisputedly beguiling, but in the end there is uncertainty whether they qualify as works of art. John W. Smith, Assistant Director for Collections and Research at The Andy Warhol Museum, believes them to be art because Warhol had, from time to time, ruminated over what market value the Time Capsules might possess. He points to a diary entry the artist made just before his death: 'took a few time capsule boxes to the office. They are fun - when you go through them there's things you really don't want to give up. Some day I'll sell them for $4000 or $5000. I used to think $100, but now that's my new price.'2

Marketable artefacts or art works? Such questions have gained significance since The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc. recently created a row over the legitimacy of some of the artist's self-portraits. 'A procedure has been established for the authentication of works of art purportedly by Andy Warhol' reads the Board's website, setting out their role as the judicial arm of Warhol's legacy. At the heart of the current dispute is the Board's refusal to declare their procedure or justify their carte blanche decisions that would, of course, leave them vulnerable to interpretation. The Board will be accountable in a court of law rather than culture - there is simply too much money at stake - and the outcome may well reflect on who will decide the status of the Time Capsules.

If the Capsules are artworks, then they are also important historical resources; one need only remember how the details of Jan Vermeer's The Astronomer (1668) and its probable pendant The Geographer (1669), enlarged the history of science. But such archives are rarely works of art. Perhaps the stuffing inside these boxes is best thought of as a strain of meta-art, like Marcel Duchamp's Green Box (1934). Once the question is posed and the status of the boxes decided, it will change their monetary value but not the historical grist their contents dependably record.

It is also true that Warhol said of the Time Capsules: 'I want to throw things right out the window when they're handed to me, but instead I say thank you and drop them into the box-of-the-month. But my other outlook is that I really want to save things so they can be used again someday.'3

There is a verdict implicit here in the artist's words, but one which is complicated by another of his statements: 'I'd prefer to remain a mystery. I never give my background, and anyway, I make it all up different every time I'm asked.' The real question of course is fundamental to the protocol of every discipline: who gets to decide? And the answer to that, as always, is subject to change.