The recently opened Pop Art Centre in Prague’s Old Town features works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana. But the biggest draw at the gallery on Husová St. will no doubt be pieces by Andy Warhol. The pop art pioneer had close ties to this part of the world, given that his family were Ruthenes who came from what is today northeastern Slovakia. Among those at the launch of the Pop Art Centre was Warhol’s nephew James Warhola, himself a noted book illustrator. Indeed, paintings by James Warhola from the book Uncle Andy’s – drawing on the time he spent with Warhol as a child – are also on display at the downtown gallery. At the opening, Radio Prague’s editor-in-chief Miroslav Krupička spoke to James Warhola about “Uncle Andy” – and much more.
“I was asked a question about our heritage, and it is a little complex because my grandfather emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire [in 1914].
“About eight years later, after WWI, Julia was able to emigrate. That was then Czechoslovakia. And now the Czech and Slovak countries have split. Our family comes from Eastern Slovakia. Our heritage is Carpatho-Ruthenian.
“But to me it kind of represents the whole area. I mean, the whole area is very magical. Eastern Europe had a lot of special aspects that I think Andy had.
“So it’s logical that there should be a museum here. Especially in Prague, as opposed to Medzilaborce [East Slovakia], which is pretty far away and very difficult to get to. Prague is more centrally located – I’m very happy that more people will be able to see his work here.”
I must ask you about your impressions of Prague. You’ve been here once or twice, 20 years ago?
“Yes. I was here just a year or two after the Velvet Revolution and of course it was exciting. I got to see a lot of relatives and kind of get a feeling of the new atmosphere of freedom.
“It was fantastic. I wanted to move here but I couldn’t do that so easily, though I understand a lot of Americans did move here.
“Now I think it’s more pristine. It still has an ancient quality but not as old looking as it did in back in the early 1990s.”
It was a little shabby.
“Yeah, a little rough around the edges. I think they still used a lot of coal so there were a lot of black buildings. Now it’s more fairytale-like. The architecture is beautiful.
“The other thing that hasn’t changed that much is that the people here are very warm. I’ve had a wonderful visit. I feel at home here in Eastern Europe, in Prague.
“The language sounds familiar to me. My parents of course spoke fluent Ruthenian. It’s a Slavic language and there are a lot of similarities. I pick up words here and there.
“It’s exciting. I like being back in Prague. Again I’m getting those feelings that I want to move back.”
“I’ve been there a few times. But I haven’t been there in six or seven years. I was in Slovakia several years ago because there was a Slovak version of my book Uncle Andy’s. It’s about our visits to Andy Warhol, our uncle.
“We travelled all the way through Slovakia on a book tour and we ended up in Medzilaborce. It was very exciting to go back there.
“Of course between 1991 and 1992 when I was here and 2008 when I was last here, it had changed a lot. More modern, cleaner, it looked like there was more prosperity.
“And it’s a cute museum. I know it has its difficulties, because of its budgeting and getting people to travel there. But I think that it’s a beautifully designed museum.”
Did you know that Andy Warhol was so popular in this country?
“I’d say that when my uncle first passed away in 1987, he was famous but I don’t think that he was that popular in every part of the world. Especially in Eastern Europe.
“He was known as an artist, but in the 27 years since he died his fame has grown tremendously. In fact he’s rivalling Picasso as the most important artist of the 20th century.
“I think many people who live in this area recognise that his family came from here, so he’s become more popular. Also his influences, from the long view of art historians and art critics, they see that he an influence in a lot of areas. And I think he influences artists of all nationalities.
“I’m always impressed with Czech and Slovak artists. I always saw a lot of creative art being done here, when I first came 20 years ago. And I think they give a lot of respect to Andy Warhol.
“Sometimes he’s even accused of opening up a Pandora’s box, where anything goes, for better or for worse. But I think he definitely gets a lot of respect here and I’m amazed.
“I’ve seen his name all through the city because there are a few shows going on. There’s a show of his cars [at Kampa Museum]. Then there’s this other show saying, I’m OK, Andy Warhol [at Gallery of Art Prague].
“And the Pop Art Centre is going to be the third place where you can see Andy Warhol here in the city, but it’s more permanent.”
“No, they were provided by different collectors. They’re very unique pieces. It’s not uncommon for me to come across artwork that I’ve never seen before, and these few series are unique.
“There’s St. George and the Dragon prints. Goethe. Beautiful portraits. And then there’s the cathedral images. I’ve not seen them as complete sets and they’re beautifully hung. They’re very much what my uncle was doing in the ‘80s.
“His best period of course was the ‘60s. He was breaking new ground on many fronts. When the ‘70s came along he was doing a lot of society portraits, but yet he was also doing all kinds of themes: sports, flowers, still lifes, whatever.
“Through the ‘80s there were many themes. I think a lot of people didn’t realise what he was doing in the ‘80s and I think when they get to be shown it’s a treat, because he was extremely prolific.
“That’s one of the Warhola traits. He was a workaholic. He got that from his mother and father – mainly his father. I always think of him as getting his creative energy from his mother and his work ethic from his father.
“The combination made for an extremely prolific group of work. He died when he was ’58. He was very young. Yet he produced many more paintings than Picasso – who lived to be almost 90 – did.”
You remember him well? What kind of person was Andy Warhol?
“Of course I remember him from an early age. I remember him as an illustrator, sitting at a desk, picking up shoes, looking at them and then drawing their image on paper. They were done for shoe ads. He was really fantastic at drawing.
“He liked us kids. I’m from a family of seven, so when we would have these trips to visit Uncle Andy and my grandmother, who we called Baba…
“We’d visit them several times a year. We lived in Pittsburgh, they lived in New York. Of course he was born in Pittsburgh.
“I didn’t know how he could work when we were visiting because we would bring a lot of chaos. It always seemed like he was very focused, but yet he would stop working and play with us.
“He had a sense of humour. He was never shy with us. He was conversational. But also I think he could be demanding. He had a way of telling us if he wasn’t happy with what we were doing.
“Or he’d ask me and my brother to do work for him. He’d say, OK, Jamie and George, you’re going to take all these magazines upstairs, all these boxes. We did all these chores for him.
“The other thing was that my uncle discovered was that, even though we were quite young, we could start stretching canvasses. He showed us how to stretch a canvas with a stapling gun and a set of canvas pliers.
“I would stretch the canvas and my brother would staple it. And we did numerous canvas stretchings at his house. So when we came to visit, he knew that he could get me and my brother to work for him.
“In fact in those early years that was where he was working – at his house. He didn’t have the Silver Factory. It didn’t come about till around 1964.
“But before that all those early pop art paintings, like the soup cans and some of the earlier celebrity portraits were all done at his house. By himself and with us on occasion helping to stretch them to canvas stretchers.”
Later on, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, what was his lifestyle? Did he live at home with his mother, your grandmother, and then go to the Factory to create, to produce and to experiment?
“When he started to have the studio outside the house he would stay at his house till about 10 or 11, then go to the studio. He would come back at around 8 or 9 and then go out to a party or something.
“In the morning we were always waiting to ask him if he’d seen anybody famous.”
“But he kept his home life quite separate from his studio. He brought hardly anybody from his work life into his home life.
“Likewise he didn’t really want us to go and visit him at the Factory. He said, you wouldn’t like it. That was his comment if we ever said, gee, Uncle Andy, we want to go down to the factory today.
“He’d say, oh, there’s nothing really happening there – you’d probably get bored. He usually persuaded us to stay at home.
“I did get him to visit him a few times at the Factory and each time he was hard at work. He was painting. There were people running around doing things for him.
“There was never that crazy scene that you read about, with people taking drugs and parties and nude people being people. We never saw that. We saw the times when he was strictly working and producing art.
“When his mother came back to Pittsburgh… when my grandmother started to get, you know, a little bit older, she was hard for him to handle because he had to work during the day and couldn’t be at home to keep an eye on her.
“So we brought her to back to Pittsburgh and it wasn’t too long after that that she passed away. She passed away in her late 70s, in 1972.
“At that point he was living by himself. I think it was lonely life for him. There was a part of him that was very quiet and private…
“I would visit him when I graduated college. I moved to New York in 1977 so I would visit him very regularly. Every few weeks I’d stop by either at his studio or at his home.
“He’d always be encouraging and want to know what I was doing. Right after college I started to go into illustration work, because I wanted to be an illustrator just like he was.
“But he tried to persuade me to go into either photography or film. I didn’t see myself having a career in that area, so I just kept on doing the illustration work.
“I think right after his mother died he kind of changed a little. Of course he had a few companions, one of whom was Jed Johnson. But I think they kind of drifted apart in the early ‘80s, and I think from then on he was really by himself, mostly.”
Your name, Warhola, is slightly different than Andy’s. Was it only Andy who used this shortened form of the family surname?
“Yes. It happened in a kind of natural way. I think when he moved to New York it just kind of became easier to say. There were two syllables, as opposed to three. I think Warhol was just easier to say.
“He just started going with it and it became his primary name. There was no explanation that he ever gave that was more than just it was easier to say.
“I don’t think he was trying to get rid of his name. It just lost that ‘a’. It could have been that Warhola sounded too ethnic, and Warhol sounded a little more American.
“A lot of people don’t realise that he spoke the old language with his mother. ..”
Did they communicate in Carpathian?
“Yes, he grew up speaking it fluently, when he was really young. He learned it first, from his brothers and his parents, and then when he went to school he learned English.
“I remember many times when he and his mother would be conversing back and forth. I wouldn’t know what they were discussing, because I didn’t know the language. I’d pick up a few words…
“He was fluent at the Carpathian language but I think he was a little self-conscious – he’d only speak it around family. I don’t think he would speak it around anybody else.”
You studied art in Pittsburgh, as Andy did. Was it your own decision? Or was the family inspiration behind you going into art?
“I think that my uncle had a lot do with it of course. I saw that he was an artist and I wanted to be like him.
“My parents, especially my father… he had seen Andy growing up having an interest in art and becoming very successful, so he gave me a lot of encouragement.
“When I got accepted at Carnegie Mellon [University], which had been Andy’s college, I had the good fortune of studying with some of the same professors who taught Andy.
“There were always Andy stories around. He had a bit of a following. He stirred up a little interest at the college. He became the star of his class, even though he was the youngest one in the class.
“Most of the men in the class were WWII vets who’d just come back from the war. Andy was too young to be drafted but he was among these older men who had to postpone their college education but wanted to become artists and designers.
“He was shy in the beginning but by the end of the four years he was the star of the class.
“I remember there were two professors. One said Andy Warhola would be the last one to ever succeed at anything. He thought he was too off the wall, so to speak. Then there was another who said Andy Warhola was the only one who had a product to sell.”
You must have started your career in the ‘70s. Given your name, didn’t you feel overshadowed by Andy’s glory at the time? Was it easy to get ahead with that name?
“It’s interesting that back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before my uncle passed away, most people never made the connection between Warhola and Warhol. I very rarely got asked that question.
“But I personally felt like this small shadow under a giant shadow. It was always at the back of my mind, in terms of being judged in some relationship to Andy Warhol, because of what he did.
“I think my uncle realised I had to go out into the world and make my own path, because you can’t repeat history in any way of course…”
You seem to be quite successful. How many books have you illustrated?
“I’ve illustrated maybe 50 children’s books. I also did a lot of book covers, paperback covers. The area I worked in was science fiction and fantasy.
“I did some very famous authors in the genre, such as Robert Heinlein, or William Gibson; I did the first cyberpunk novel, called Neuromancer. Very famous. I painted that in the early 1980s.”
Your watercolours are also on show in Prague now, with the works of Andy Warhol. Can you tell us which books they come from?
“Yes, one of the first books I wrote was called Uncle Andy’s. It’s basically about one of those special trips, when we’d visit my uncle and my grandmother. We’d just show up on his doorstep.
“In 1962 – which was his breakout year, when he did his first pop art paintings. Or he was doing them earlier, he was doing them in 1960 and ’61, but 1962 was the first time he had a show and he became well known at that point. He caused a little stir in the art world with his first show of soup cans.
“I remember him working on them that year and also working on a number of other pop art images, like the paint-by-numbers and the dance step paintings. He was very prolific.
“And he was still doing his illustration work too, because it was actually earning him the money to do the fine art painting.
“But that book, it highlights what it was like to be at home with our uncle and our grandmother.
“The show is really a collection of water colours from the book. It kind of documents life at home with my Uncle Andy, when we would visit.
“I’m the kind of illustrator that has a lot of detail. You can look very closely and see a lot of things happening. He had a lot of Siamese cats so you see all of them in different pictures. You see soup cans. You see all the antiques that he had.
“I always describe his house as a giant amusement park. There are
carousel horses. He loved collecting. In a way it’s a documentation of
the life of Andy Warhol that was not the public persona, but the private
side of things.”