Andy Warhol in Slovakia

by Robert Rigney

New York, Pittsburgh.....Medzilaborce? Not generally known as a pop art barometer, this backward outpost of northeastern Slovakia has more in common with communism than consumerism. So when a museum dedicated to art-legend Andy Warhol was founded here a few years ago, it caused quite a sensation -- and not a little controversy.

Born in Pittsburgh to Czechoslovakian immigrant parents, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) never put much stock in his family background. When asked where he was from, the elusive artist once quipped, "I come from nowhere." Yet, thanks to the Medzilaborce museum, "nowhere" is fast becoming a place of pilgrimage for Warhol fans in search of the artist's Eastern European roots.

"Everyone knows about Andy Warhol, superstar," says Michal Bycko, a high school art teacher who, along with Andy's brother, John Warhola, and the Warhol Foundation in New York, established the museum not far from the birthplace of Warhol's mother, Julia. "We want to show that there is another side to his persona: Andy Warhol, the boy from Ruthenia."

Founded in 1991, the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art is, to say the least, colorfully incongruous. An onion domed Orthodox church sits on the hill next to it, while old women in head scarves amble in front of two oversized Campbell's soup cans flanking the museum's entrance. The shops on A. Warhola Street are depressingly bare of consumer goods, and no one has bothered to take down the socialist realist paintings of yesteryear found in the town's only hotel. Indeed, the communist memorial here, with its freshly painted red star, seems better suited to Medzilaborce than any monument to the American pop artist.

Not surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of hostility to a museum honoring a man whose art and lifestyle are so at odds with the local mores. "Nobody wanted anything to do with this 'decadent American homosexual,'" says the bearded and vaguely dissident-looking Bycko, recalling the town's negative response when he first pitched the idea. Then there was the suspicion that Bycko's contacts at the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York were C.I.A agents. "They thought our museum was going to be a cover for American intelligence operations," he says.

Yet, through a clever repackaging of Warhol's persona -- Bycko was able to persuade the authorities that the artist was in fact a communist -- and with the support of leading Slavic intellectuals such as the current Czech President Vaclav Havel, Bycko managed to get the go-ahead. The Andy Warhol Foundation agreed to loan a number of screen prints and John Warhola donated some of his brother's possessions. Only two years after the Velvet Revolution, the museum was unveiled in a former communist cultural center on Lenin Square, since re-christened Andy Warhol Square.

Today the museum stands as a shrine to an urbane world light-years removed from Medzilaborce's backward and rustic milieu. Serial portraits of Marilyn Monroe greet the visitor in the museum foyer while aluminum foil awnings deck the ceiling of the museum caf, which gives a nod to Andy's Chelsea Factory. In the main hall, Warhol's snakeskin jacket, Brooks Bros. ties, sunglasses, Walkman and ubiquitous camera are enshrined in vitrines, like relics of some saint. Photos of Eddie Sedgewick, Ultra Violet and other Factory personages grace the walls. A lot of this must go over the head of the average visitor. The upstairs mobile consisting of polystyrene dollar bills and the nearby silk-screen icon of four dollar signs strike a chord of empathy, though.

But things have not been easy for the young museum. Two years ago, officials in Slovakia's conservative government attempted to nationalize the Warhol works on loan to the museum. While the plan has since been abandoned, it caused considerable strain in the museum's relations with its American supporters. And many people in this deeply religious part of Eastern Europe continue to regard the figure of Warhol with outright suspicion.

According to Hannah Hudecova, a Slovak art scholar with close contacts to the museum, parents have been keeping their children away from art classes organized there and funded by the Warhol Foundation. Bycko himself has received threatening phone calls. "People here are strongly conservative and a little bit wary of the fact that Warhol was gay," Hudecova says.

As a result, Bycko is constantly striving to portray Warhol in a more congenial light. He plays up the Ruthenian connection and Warhol's rather tenuous relationship (only manifested towards the end of his life) with his Carpatho-Rusyn ethnicity and his Eastern Rite faith -- things, Bycko emphasizes, that "have nothing to do with the homosexual aspect or the drug parties."

Still, as the social climate begins to change and with the Slovak Republic's bid to prove its modernity and join the European Union, Warhol may yet become a local hero. For the time being, though, most of the enthusiasm seems to be coming from abroad. As a gander through the museum guest book shows, foreign Warholites seem to be visiting this far-flung destination with surprising frequency.

Related sites:

The Andy Warhol Museum of Pop Art in Medzilaborce

Andy Warhol Museum

Warhola Family and Friends

Carpatho-Rusyn Knowledge Base