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How to Take a 36 Hour Art Adventure to Pittsburgh or, When You See a James Turrell, Don’t Scream

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Suzy Kopf Does 36 Hours in Pittsburgh

In early April, I drove to Pittsburgh and back to see the Corita Kent show at the Warhol Museum and the 2015 Artists-in-Residence installations at the Mattress Factory. This piece is the first in a series of 36-hour art adventures throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Pittsburgh is closer than you think. From Baltimore, it’s a mostly straight shot west on two lane highways for four-ish hours. Once there, you’ll find a funky little city comprised of public works era bridges and tunnels and nonsensical winding streets. Essentially the convergence of three rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio), Pittsburgh is home to some world-class museums and art spaces. Knowing that most spaces are closed on Mondays, I set off from Baltimore on a Monday afternoon and arrived by 9pm in time for a two hour kitchen table conversation and a good night’s sleep on my friend’s couch.

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Corita Kent

Tuesday morning, with only five hours to art, I prioritized the Warhol Museum’s special exhibit, Corita Kent: Someday is Now and the Mattress Factory’s 2015 season of A.I.Rs. (Pro tip— most Pittsburgh museums offer reduced or free admission on Tuesdays.)

Corita Kent
Corita Kent

The Corita Kent show was everything I hoped for. Occupying the second floor of the Warhol’s impressive seven-story building, the exhibit surveys the life of Pop artist, art educator, and nun, Corita Kent. A Los Angeles-based contemporary of Warhol’s, Kent drew inspiration from advertising slogans of the 1960’s, famously repurposing the slogans of Life cereal and General Mills. Her silkscreened designs reveal an interest in design, technology and the revolutionary attitude of her times. Typically presented as female foil to the male dominated Pop Art style, this exhibit highlights Kent’s influential and unique teaching style.

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Corita Kent

After the Kent show, I took the elevator to the top floor and walked through the chronology of Andy Warhol’s life. So much has been said and written about Warhol, the museum’s role is largely to present a familiar narrative about America’s most famous artist. All his greatest hits are out on display in one way or another— the Marilyns, the silver clouds and Chelsea Girls. But somehow, the effect of seeing so much work by a single artist always reveals more of who they were as a person. It is clear from a trip to the eponymous museum that Warhol was not a particularly happy person. After a near-fatal assassination attempt in 1968, Warhol was obsessed with death and his own legacy. The result is art that repeatedly addresses popular culture’s portrayal of violence and sex. Still, Warhol must have had some hope for the future — his estate provided the provisions that established both the museum and the foundation in his name.

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Andy Warhol

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From the Warhol, I grabbed a quick bite at El Burro, a passable burrito spot close to the Mattress Factory, my second stop. The Mattress Factory is a museum and residency program devoted to contemporary visual art. The museum has a number of permanent installations; most famously, a floor of James Turrells. Also currently on view are the works of the five 2015 Artists-in-Residence.

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Ryder Henry

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I began with the work ‘Diaspora’ by A.I.R Ryder Henry, which is one of the most elaborate craft driven pieces I have seen in a long time. Constructed primarily from discarded cardboard, Diaspora combines obsessive hobby-craft pleasure with an implied apocalypse sci-fi narrative.

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Yayoi Kusama

Also in the museum is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s 1996 installation, ‘Repetitive Vision.’ A mirrored room filled with mannequins covered in the artist’s infamous red dot motif, ‘Repetitive Vision’ combines the awkwardness of shopping mall lighting with the surreal aspects of a carnival. Having seen the work in Instagram selfies and art history textbooks, I had the feeling of someone seeing a national monument for the first time— it was a lot smaller than I imagined, less pristine.

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James Turrell: Pleiades

I concluded my trip to the Mattress Factory with James Turrell’s 1983 piece, ‘Pleiades.’ With admission tickets, the museum gives out a paper of six recommended behaviors specifically for the Turrell floor. Among four other suggestions, the paper reminds viewers to turn off their cellphones and allow themselves time (perhaps as much as 20 minutes) to adjust to the low lighting. A Quaker, Turrell’s light based experiential works often require the viewer to stand in darkness for an amount of time to allow the rods and cones of the human eye to adapt before the work can even be seen. Pleiades is configured so two people at a time can walk up a dark hallway ramp and sit in two chairs that face the piece. Simple enough, right?

Except when you get to the second floor, it is pretty dark. You round the corner to the entrance of ‘Pleiades’ and it is completely dark. Gripping the provided handrail like a parent holding the passenger side door as she teaches her fifteen-year to drive, I put one foot in front of the other. The ramp leading up to the piece creaks. I am not afraid of the dark. I do not think things go bump in the night. Yet, I am terrified.

I remind myself that it’s unlikely I will die this way. I keep walking very slowly. Then I bump into another person. We say, ‘Excuse me,’ in unison, which is hilarious given that we are alone in the dark inside an art installation and not in a crowded subway car. Minutes go by, I am still seeing nothing. The person I bumped into sighs loudly, muttering the web equivalent of I don’t get this stuff, and stumbles out. Secretly, I am pleased I outlasted this person (gender was never established in our brief embrace). I am clearly the more hardcore art viewer. I find one of the seats in the dark and settle in for something profound.

And then, I hear it— all the noises of this museum that used to be a mattress factory. People talking on other floors, water running through pipes, someone getting a string of what must be one-word text messages they come in such alarming succession. I try to focus on seeing the art, which accomplishes zilch. I practice some breathing I picked up at a yoga class in Brooklyn, which simultaneously calms me and makes me feel like a ridiculous person. About five minutes later, just as I am finding my Zen, two women stumble down the ramp, bump into me and settle on the other chair. A beat passes. Then one of them screams. Then the other one screams. Fighting the impulse to also scream, I settle for, ‘Are you okay?’ They don’t answer me and keep screaming. I sit for as long as I can manage it and then I stand and stumble down the ramp. Someone needs to tell the museum they need a seventh suggested behavior for their pamphlet.

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AIR Resident Danny Bracken at The Mattress Factory
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AIR Resident Danny Bracken at The Mattress Factory
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AIR Resident John Pena at The Mattress Factory

If You Go to Pittsburgh:
The Warhol Museum, http://www.warhol.org/
The Mattress Factory, http://www.mattress.org/
Carnegie Mellon Art Museum, http://www.cmoa.org/
Miller Gallery, http://millergallery.cfa.cmu.edu/
Frick Museum, http://www.thefrickpittsburgh.org/index.php
Future Tenant, http://futuretenant.org/
Space, http://www.spacepittsburgh.org/
Boxheart Gallery, http://www.boxheartgallery.com/
El Burro, http://www.elburropgh.com/

Additional Pro Tips on 36 Hour Art Adventuring:

1. Have breakfast. Do not expect you will find things you will want to eat en route. Resign yourself to eating fast food if you did not bring healthy snacks from home.

2. If possible, work up until you have to leave. By all means, skip out of work an hour or so early to beat the traffic (assuming your boss is cool with that!) but if you can work right up until it’s playtime you’ll feel better about goofing off.

3. Listen to the radio. You may end up listening to mostly country and Christian rock but one of the best things about road trips is doing things you wouldn’t in your regular life. Turn that shit up, roll all the windows down and pretend you’re in 90’s music video.

4. Use GPS but also take a map you can read. You never know when you’ll drive out of coverage or your phone will die.

5. Have cash and coins. For vending machines, tolls, parking meters.

6. Your mom says: Bring a jacket, a blanket, a towel, a gallon of water and have an emergency roadside kit for any destination more than two hours from home. You should listen to her, she’s a smart lady and she’s certainly never been stranded in the middle of nowhere.

7. Stay with a friend or acquaintance whenever you can. Ask a week or so ahead of time and if they say okay, thank them profusely! They are doing you a huge favor and may be an invaluable source of local tips (best coffee in walking distance, where to park for free by the museum, can’t miss shop on your way out of town).

8. Plan your trip at least a little. Know how many miles you have to drive and approximately how long it should take. Have some idea of where you are going to sleep and the sites you hope to see. Prioritize: you cannot see five museum collections in an eight-hour period. A temporary or visiting exhibit? Those take precedent over permanent collections or installations. Pay attention to opening and closing times and give yourself ample time to sit, eat lunch and possibly meander the gift shop. You don’t want to be speeding through traffic in a city you don’t know to get to an exhibit that is going to close in thirty minutes.

9. Have the right attitude. Odds are, something is going to go wrong. You’ll forget your wallet at a restaurant or you’ll arrive at a museum you drove hours to just to find it closed. It will be okay. Retrace your steps when you need to, look up another museum that is open on Mondays and above all, keep your cool. You’re doing this for fun and the minute you freak out about a travel problem is the minute your trip goes from being a wild time to being a lame one.

Author Suzy Kopf is a recent Brooklyn to Baltimore transplant. She is studying painting in MICA’s MFAST program.

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