Bartholomew Ryan assumed the role of Milton Fine Curator of Art at The Andy Warhol Museum in May of 2015. Originally from Ireland, Ryan worked as assistant curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where he helped curate “International Pop,” a global survey of Pop Art, five years in the making.
Andy Warhol would have turned 87 Thursday [August 6, 2015]. What do you think is the biggest misconception people still have about Andy today?
It’s interesting. I started here a few months ago, and so I’ve been kind of testing that a little bit when I meet people out and about. It’s kind of surprising how little awareness people have of the depth and breadth of Warhol’s work. Everybody know he’s the kind of witty, ironic guy, who sort of appropriated soup cans and Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe, and made them into art in a period when those weren’t perceived as high art. But people don’t really understand that he’s one of the most important experimental filmmakers of the last half of the Twentieth Century. That he had this extraordinary ability to read the tea leaves of where society was moving and to predict in many ways – both through how he lived but also what he wrote about – how we would enter this social media age where we’re all self-broadcasting and we’re all sort of curating culture in our lives in the same way that he did in his work. So I guess a lot of people think of Warhol as somewhat of a surface person, but there were just so many layers to his work.
Is Pop Art still relevant today?
Yeah, I think so. I think in some ways it’s as relevant as it ever was. But what Pop Art was was essentially artists anticipating where society was moving. It was the first time that artists really engaged popular culture and jammed with it and became part of the dialogue of what it would be, rather than passively ignoring it or just saying “that’s not for us, real art is not popular – it’s more removed,” or whatever.
So I think when you look at the way young artists work today, so many of them are totally engaged by popular culture. There’s no question that that’s a train that’s permissible for them to inhabit or engage. So in a way, Pop Art collapsed those boundaries and did it forever.
Is it too early to give us an idea of what we might find at next summer’s Andy Warhol | Ai Wei Wei exhibit? And to follow up with that, what do you see as the connection between these two artists?
Well you know, I just met Wei Wei in China and I was sitting in his studio with some of his assistants, and talking to him, and for like the first 15 minutes I thought he was just a bit bored or something, because he was looking at his iPhone. And then the conversation really got going, and toward the end I asked him if I could take a photograph, and he was like, well, I’ve taken 30 already! So he had been just snapping photograph after photograph after photograph, and he was recording the conversation, and that was something Warhol did avidly. [Warhol] was constantly documenting life – he literally walked around with a tape recorder and recorded every telephone conversation and was photographing constantly.
So yeah, you’ll have a lot really interesting objects by Wei Wei beside works by Warhol. One really interesting room, for example, will be – Wei Wei lived in New York for most of the 80s, and took hundreds and hundreds of photographs that are really fascinating documents of the city at that time, seen through the eyes of this expat Chinese artist. And Warhol, similarly, went to Beijing and went to China in the 80s and took hundreds and hundreds of photographs. So we’ll have these two very different meditations on very different places by related artists on display in the same space, which I think will be very nice.
You come from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, one of the “Big Five” modern art galleries in the country. Describe for us what challenges you face in your position as curator, working now for a museum that’s devoted almost exclusively to a single artist, albeit a prolific one.
That’s a really good question, because I guess it comes down to what the legacy of Warhol is, and what is the responsibility of a museum that is honoring that legacy. And for me that is the biggest challenge, because I am really engaged in contemporary art and culture, and I think the Warhol Museum should be too. If Andy Warhol was alive right now, he would be finding new and devious ways to befriend the youngest and most interesting people out there creating the most creative work. And in a sense I think that’s part of what our legacy needs to be: connecting with the most innovative, the most engaged, and sometimes the most out-there production that’s going on, and bringing it to Pittsburgh and showing it and always trying to think about in relation to this great artist that we represent.
You started your position in May of this year. What has surprised you about Pittsburgh so far?
I think what surprised me first was the passion. Since I’ve come to Pittsburgh I’ve been driven around and toured by so many different people, each of whom is passionate about the city and growing up here and so on, so I think I already have a strong sense of the strong character and nature of Pittsburghers. So I don’t think that’s a surprise exactly, but it’s been fun to see that and share it a little bit.
This interview was edited and condensed for length.