Marie Elia likes to describe her job this way: She is the secretary to a dead man. As one of two catalogers for Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, it's her job to go through the 610 boxes he left after his death in 1987.
In one box she found a mysterious, small tin. "I opened it and it was full of fingernail clippings, dead bees and those little holes that come from a hole punch," she says. The fingernail clippings weren't Warhol's. They were sent to him by a fan. "I don't know why. Somebody mailed that to him. Somebody thought that he would like it."
Over the past six years, catalogers at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh have indexed more than 300,000 items, from a Tyvek suit covered in Jean-Michel Basquiat's scribblings to a box of Preparation H.
"We work more with the intimate side of Warhol. His prescriptions, his shampoos, his acne medication, his letters from his family," says Erin Byrne, the Time Capsules' other cataloger. "These are things that blow people away."
Warhol began the project when he was moving the Factory, as his studio was called. But the artist didn't hire a moving company, says Matt Wrbican, the Warhol Museum's chief archivist. Warhol asked his staff to clean up the mess, and one of his assistants found a workaround.
"He suggested to Andy that they start putting everything in these boxes, and they could call them 'time capsules' and he could work on them forever. And he did. He thought that was a great idea," says Wrbican.
Warhol intended for the Time Capsules to eventually be sold as art, but they never went on the market. And it's certainly easy to balk at the idea that the stuff that wound up in the boxes is art. Warhol was a packrat. But that desire to collect helped inform his artistic point of view.
"There's an interview Warhol gave pretty early in his days as a pop artist where he said that pop art is liking things," Wrbican says. "I can't think of a better expression of that idea than the Time Capsules. I mean, Warhol loved stuff."
Warhol also loved the spotlight and theatrics, so it is fitting that the museum has turned the Time Capsules into performance art by opening some of them on stage, in front of an audience. On a recent afternoon, catalogers Elia and Byrne prepared to open an unremarkable cardboard box marked simply with dates — 1967 to 1969.
Once open, the box was a bit of a disappointment. No previously unknown artworks, just papers: telegrams, art opening announcements and lots of correspondence. Elia opened one of the envelopes, addressed to Andy Warhol Films, and pulled out a photo of a nearly nude man. It was Paul Richard Shipman, a nude male model who wanted to be cast in Warhol's films. In his letter, he said he'd appeared in several nude magazines — and included all of his "physical details."
Sometimes Byrne feels like Elia finds all the good stuff. "I might be looking over at Marie's box and she's pulling out a Basquiat and Keith Haring underwear and all this great stuff and I'm still knee deep in junk mail," says Byrne. "It's total time capsule envy."
After sifting through 608 Time Capsules, plus a trunk and a filing cabinet that are also part of the work, Byrne and Elia definitely have a different picture of Warhol than the celebrity image he liked to project.
"The flotsam and jetsam that's left of his life is almost a little bit more truthful and faithful to the life he actually lived versus the life he put out there," Byrne says.
In that way, the Time Capsules serve as a kind of Warhol autobiography. Fingernail clippings, dead bees and all.
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