Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol

click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The "KAWS + Warhol" exhibit is on display now through January 20, 2024 at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

Aside from “Silver Clouds,” I don’t typically associate The Andy Warhol Museum with kids. (To be clear, the museum does not have this disassociation.) But, as someone who has spent almost 30 years either working with or parenting children, I couldn’t not see most of the new KAWS + Warhol exhibit through that lens. Like, immediately, even before now-former Warhol director Patrick Moore shared the inspiration behind the show.

The second-floor exhibition — now on view through Jan. 20, 2025 — begins with a direct line of sight across the room at the bronze sculpture of KAWS’ signature character, Companion, face-down on the ground. Companion, painted matte, wears dark shorts and white gloves and, combined with cloud-shaped hair framing the sides of his face, echoes Mickey Mouse. 

click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The "KAWS + Warhol" exhibit is on display now through January 20, 2024 at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

While Moore — who led a preview of the exhibit he curated before stepping down from his role on May 31 — explained of Companion, “I think a lot of us coming out of the pandemic and all of the angst that we’re feeling in the world sometimes feel like that, like just collapsing,” I thought about every kid I’ve known who has pancaked in a grocery store or who has finally given into how tired they insisted they weren’t.

A 2020 KAWS exhibition in Manhattan sparked something for Moore. “It was just filled with [teenagers] who were sitting on the floor, taking pictures with the work, completely at ease, completely engaged.” He wanted the same to happen in Pittsburgh.

The exhibition unofficially begins in the museum’s outdoor Pop District with a teak wood sculpture and mural by Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS. The pieces will not travel with the exhibition after it ends on Jan. 20, but, Moore said, “We know that there are a lot of people who may or may not be museum people who might be going to a game, for example, and it’s a way to introduce them to the museum and introduce them to the idea that there may be some art that actually speaks to them and is of interest to them.” 

click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The "KAWS + Warhol" exhibit is on display now through January 20, 2024 at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

The concept worked once the weather turned for the better. “It’s been a constant parade of people stopping and taking their picture,” Moore said.

He pitched to KAWS the idea of juxtaposing his work with Warhol’s in a conversation about the “darkness in both of their work.” On the brightly colored surface, Warhol’s pop icons and KAWS’ variations on cartoons don’t suggest darkness; however, even the most casual Warhol observer knows that many of the artist’s subjects — Marilyn Monroe, for instance — were as tragic as they were beautiful. (That KAWS’ characters, as a rule, have X-ed out eyes shortcuts the connection.)

To finish setting the tone, two of Warhol’s skull images flank the walls on either side of the exhibit entrance. Stacked on the wall behind the fallen Companion are two images from Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster series. It isn’t until you turn the corner that you’re met with the vividness of Warhol’s Myth series in conjunction with a series of KAWS’ paintings of Elmo bursting out of Companion and Companion tearing through Elmo. Here, the exhibition text reads, “The youthful memories of both artists are fertile sources for works recalling simpler times.”

The thing about nostalgia, however, is that it’s a misremembering and/or incomplete understanding of the past. In some ways, yes, childhood is a simpler time, depending on assorted privileges, fewer responsibilities, and direct exposure to adult hardships. But even the most comfortable childhood is beset with the anxieties that accompany sleeping in the dark, thunderstorms, new houses, and the first days of school. 

click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The "KAWS + Warhol" exhibit is on display now through January 20, 2024 at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

Developmentally, children typically need to explore difficult, even macabre subjects, to make sense of the world around them and, through stories, see characters succeed in navigating physical and emotional hardships. (Think Grimms’ fairy tales, dead-parent Disney movies, and the inside-out world of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.) 

As Moore said about the show’s section about anxiety and dread, “When you have young people who were interacting with this work, they just think it looks cool. They don’t necessarily read all of this into it.”

click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The "KAWS + Warhol" exhibit is on display now through January 20, 2024 at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

In another sculpture, Companion is on the ground sitting cross-legged, his back rounded with his face in his hands. It’s evocative of every distraught child, every heartbroken teenager, every overwhelmed caretaker. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Perhaps because I’ve recently seen a child look/feel that way? Because I recently have, too? The piece is haunting in a way that Warhol’s depiction of the electric chair on which the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 should be, but, for me, isn’t. 

The tone changes drastically to something closer to whimsy on the fourth floor — unless, of course, being completely surrounded by brand names makes you dread the consumerist abyss that is late-stage capitalism. In it, Warhol’s famous Brillo boxes are stacked alongside boxes for Heinz, Del Monte, and Campbell’s. Along the wall beside them, Warhol’s toy paintings hang at a child’s eye level. 

Warhol’s commerce-turned-art gives way to a new KAWS installation — the only never-been-seen-before piece in the exhibit — brought out of his collaboration with General Mills. In 2022, he KAWS-ified their Monster Cereal mascots, including Count Chocula and Boo Berry. The four cereal box covers are blown up and framed along one wall, with four-foot sculptures of Monster Cereal characters on either side. Numerous dark-toned versions of the regular-sized boxes wrap the room, floor to ceiling, encased in plexiglass sheets. 

click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
The "KAWS + Warhol" exhibit is on display now through January 20, 2024 at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

“This may be an olfactory hallucination, but I can smell the syrup,” Moore said, “with a little cherry flavor.” He recalled his favorite cereal growing up and the nostalgia of it, how it “takes me back immediately to that childhood memory.” He’s also certain the installation will be “the Instagram moment” for visitors.

The exhibit encapsulates the fleetingness of beauty and life. Pittsburgh’s weather will wear away at the teak sculptures outside, a painted Warhol flower (and icons, for that matter) “blooms bright for a day or two and then fades and dies,” we grow taller than the height of those toy pictures and forget what it means to be a child, when the world still new and bright and somewhat frightening. 

“Nothing can be really beautiful,” Moore said, “unless it’s only here for a moment.”


click to enlarge Anxiety and dread meet youthful nostalgia at KAWS + Warhol
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Parking attendant, Dave Sciallo, smokes a cigarette outside of the Warhol Museum on May 17, 2024.
KAWS + Warhol
Continues through Jan. 20, 2025
The Andy Warhol Museum. 117 Sandusky St., North Side
Included with regular admission. warhol.org

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