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In Warhol's Memory, Soup Cans And Coke Bottles

Aug 6, 2012
Originally published on August 6, 2012 1:02 pm

Andy Warhol is often remembered as larger than life, but it's all too easy to miss where he's buried.

The pop artist's grave is in the modest St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, on a hill overlooking a highway about 20 minutes outside of downtown Pittsburgh.

Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, says it's a pretty typical cemetery for Pennsylvanians with Eastern European roots.

"Which is, of course, ironic," Shiner says. "That the arbiter of taste and style and art of the 20th century is laid to rest in an otherwise very mundane graveyard."

Warhol was buried there in 1987, after dying unexpectedly while recovering from gallbladder surgery at New York Hospital. His relatives wanted him buried in the same place as his parents: just outside Pittsburgh, the city where he was born.

It's often said Warhol once suggested his tombstone should be blank except for one word, "figment."

That didn't happen.

Instead, the unconventional Warhol has a fairly conventional tombstone. There's a cross representing the Byzantine Church, a picture of hands praying and the name he adopted as an artist, "Andy Warhol."

Warhol's parents share a larger tombstone right behind his.

In short, there's absolutely nothing exceptional about Warhol's grave, save for what visitors add to it.

For about a month in spring, a local Warhol impersonator decorated the tombstone with striped green, blue and white wrapping paper.

Other visitors leave items that were subjects of Warhol's famous silkscreen prints, such as bottles of Chanel perfume or Coca-Cola.

The objects turn his simple grave into a shrine.

Artist Madelyn Roehrig has documented the additions as part of a project she began four years ago. She calls it, "Figments: Conversations With Andy."

Roehrig says the items most commonly left at the grave are cans of Campbell's soup. She says she's seen more than 100 over the years.

"Sometime there are so many soup cans up there, there's like two rows of them," she says.

Roehrig says she's seen all sorts of flavors — "Mainly tomato, and chicken noodle, and all the varieties of chicken noodle. Now you're getting low fat, low salt.

"And then some of the competition," she adds. "Cup-O'-Noodles show up every once in a while, and it kind of stands out, you know. I don't know why somebody would want to do that, but they do."

Roehrig, who works at the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, visits the grave almost every day, and snaps regular photos of the grave to track the objects visitors have left behind.

She also collects any notes left for Warhol, and if visitors stop by, she'll interview them on camera and ask what they would like to say to the artist.

Roehrig says she's met people from all over the world who make the pilgrimage to this tiny cemetery.

Locally, she's inspired a number of offbeat types to drop by the grave from time to time to pay their respects. Many refer to the artist as simply "Andy."

Dave Olson is a musician who knew one of Warhol's brothers. He read about Warhol's grave on Facebook and one day, on a lark, decided to play his bagpipes at the cemetery.

Now Olson makes visiting the grave part of his routine. His pipe band meets at a church near the graveyard.

"I would just come up here early before band practice while it was still light, and I'd say my piece with Andy, and then rush off to band practice," Olson says.

For Warhol's birthday, Roehrig throws a party at the cemetery. There's cake. A bellydancer shows up. And Roehrig films it all.

Donald Warhola, Andy Warhol's nephew, tends the grave, and says his uncle would have loved the idea.

"I think that my uncle, from up in heaven, he's probably looking down and would probably say, 'Why didn't I think of that? I could have been hanging out at Marilyn Monroe's tombstone with my camera or my tape recorder and getting people's thoughts.'"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's skid from Usain Bolt's incredible speed right to a Dead Stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Dead Stop is the name of our special summer series. We've been visiting unusual final resting places. And today, we take a trip to the grave of Andy Warhol. The artist was born 84 years ago today. NPR's Travis Larchuk visited his tombstone in Pennsylvania.

TRAVIS LARCHUK, BYLINE: If you didn't know where to look, you might never know where Andy Warhol was buried. It's about 20 minutes outside of downtown Pittsburgh at a modest graveyard on a hill overlooking a highway - St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery. Eric Shiner's the director of the Andy Warhol Museum. He says it's a pretty typical graveyard for Pennsylvanians with Eastern European roots.

ERIC SHINER: Which is, of course, ironic, that the arbiter of taste and style and art of the 20th century is laid to rest in an otherwise very mundane graveyard.

LARCHUK: Andy Warhol was buried here in 1987. He died unexpectedly at New York Hospital while recovering from gallbladder surgery. His relatives wanted him buried with his parents just outside Pittsburgh, the city where he was born. Warhol once said he'd like his tombstone to be blank, except for the word figment. That didn't happen. His tombstone reads Andy Warhol, and is just a few feet tall - smaller than his parents', which is right behind it. There's absolutely nothing exceptional about the grave, except that on this day...

MADELYN ROEHRIG: It's decorated with striped green and blue and white wrapping paper.

LARCHUK: That's artist Madelyn Roehrig. She works at the Carnegie museums in Pittsburgh. Her project for the past four years has been to visit Warhol's grave almost every day. She documents the people who come and the objects they leave behind. She didn't put the wrapping paper there. A local Andy Warhol impersonator did. Over the years, visitors have left objects evocative of Warhol's life and work, turning this simple grave into a shrine. Some of the items are subjects of his famous silkscreen prints: a bottle of Chanel perfume, Coca-Cola, and today there are four cans of Campbell's soup. It's the item most commonly left at the grave. Roehrig says she's seen more than 100, in all sorts of flavors.

ROEHRIG: Mainly tomato and chicken noodle, and all the varieties of chicken noodle. Now you're getting low fat, low salt. And then some of the competition: Cup-O'-Noodles show up every once in a while. And, I tell you, sometimes there's so many soup cans up there, there's like two rows of them.

LARCHUK: Roehrig says she's met people from all over the world who make the pilgrimage to this tiny cemetery. And locally, she's inspired a number of offbeat types to drop by the grave from time to time and pay their respects. Dave Olson's a musician who knew one of Andy Warhol's brothers. He comes by to warm up his bagpipes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE OLSON: Oh, Andy, I'm so sorry. That was terrible.

LARCHUK: Olson read about Warhol's grave on Facebook. He says, on a lark, he decided to perform at the cemetery. Now he makes visiting the grave part of his routine.

OLSON: My band meets at Bethel Church, up over the hill. So I would just come up here and I'd say my piece with Andy, and then rush off to band practice.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday, Andy Warhol...

LARCHUK: On Warhol's birthday, Madelyn Roehrig throws a party at the cemetery. There's cake. A belly dancer shows up. And she films it all. Donald Warhola is Andy Warhol's nephew.

DONALD WARHOLA: You know, I think that my uncle, from up in heaven, he's probably looking down and probably saying: Why didn't I think of that? You know, I could have been hanging out at Marilyn Monroe's tombstone with my camera or my tape recorder and getting people's thoughts.

LARCHUK: Now, Madelyn Roehrig's putting together a photo book of the objects and messages left at Andy Warhol's grave. Travis Larchuk, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now, if you'll pardon me here, I'm just watching this time-lapse video of Andy Warhol's grave, which you can find at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.