Andy Warhol: His Art and Ethnic Roots

Panel discussion at the Ukrainian Museum, New York City on February 15, 2019

Paul Robert Magocsi

The task given to me by the organizers of this panel is to comment on the question of Andy Warhol’s ethnicity. My remarks will touch briefly on three topics: cultural appropriation; national identity; and the Warhola family. But before addressing those issues there are a few caveats about art and national identity that I wish to mention.

As much as I understand the visual arts, most artists are not concerned with their ethnic or national identity. They may ponder their role as creative artists but they are generally not concerned about an identity that may or may not be defined by the language they speak or the country where they were born.

To be sure, there have been exceptions, most particularly nineteenth-century artists whose deliberately chosen images of historical themes were often inspired by their deep patriotism and desire to serve their nation. Among such painters were Jan Matejko among the Poles, Alfonse Mucha among the Czechs, and Viktor Madarász and Bertalan Székely among the Hungarians, to name but a few.

Whereas representational art lends itself to depicting patriotic subjects, abstract art by its very nature precludes the ethnic or national factor. Although a representational artist, Warhol did nothing that purposefully reflected his specific ethnic identity or that could be construed to be in the service of the nation—any nation. Perhaps it is for this reason that the organizers of this panel wisely included in its title a reference not to Warhol’s ethnicity, but to his ethnic roots. And if implicit in the panel’s title is a question, I would think an answer is quite straightforward: Andy Warhol’s “national” identity was American; his ethnic roots—Carpatho-Rusyn.

Of course, it is true that until recently most people never heard of Carpatho-Rusyns, just as they have never heard of most other stateless peoples, whether Kashubes, Ladins, Frisians, or Sami, to name but a few of numerous such examples in Europe alone. And so, when Andy died in 1987, prompting a spate of biographical works about him, most writers needed a label when addressing his background. American seemed insufficient. Why not Czechoslovak, which Warhol himself used on occasion (but which meant nothing in ethnic terms), or Polish, or Slovak, or Ukrainian? All those ethnonyms were more or less known phenomena. The ethnonym Carpatho-Rusyn, even in its English form Ruthenian, was certainly not.

Now we may turn to the three topics I noted at the outset, the first of which is cultural appropriation. Considering the setting where our discussion is taking place, the Ukrainian Museum, I cannot help but be reminded of all those great “Russian” artists, like the abstract painter Kazimierz Malevich and sculptor Alexander Archipenko in the early twentieth century, or “Russian” writers like Nikolai Gogol in the early nineteenth century. Their ethnicity, like Warhol’s, has almost always been distorted by authors who facilely associate them with the state (the Russian Empire) where they were born and functioned. Their ethnic roots, on the other hand, were indisputably Ukrainian (or in the case of Malevich, someone of Polish heritage born in Ukraine). Therefore, one cannot help but have sympathy for Ukrainians who accuse most art historians, museum curators, and the general media of cultural appropriation; in other words, rendering Ukrainians as Russians.

However, the victim, in this case Ukrainians, can in other circumstances quite easily become the perpetrator. Even a sophisticated and nuanced scholar such as our panel chairman Professor Alexander Motyl, proposed in an article published in a scholarly journal by Harvard University that if one might not quite call Andy Warhol a Ukrainian, he nevertheless ostensibly belongs to the culture of Ukraine. Not Ukrainian, but belonging to the culture of Ukraine? I’ll leave that to others to determine what difference, if any, there is between the two.

Like Russians, Ukrainians—both before and certainly since they have obtained an independent state—have bordered at times on becoming themselves cultural imperialists. How else can one explain claims by Ukrainian patriots in Ukraine and abroad1 that Warhol’s ethnicity is Ukrainian? And why is the Ukrainian Museum in the New York holding an exhibit of some of Warhol’s art? Is it because Warhol is a famous American artist, or is it because of some ostensible Ukrainian connection? And is it possible to square the two aspects of the assertion by Professor Motyl that Warhol, without being Ukrainian, nevertheless “belongs at least partly to the culture of Ukraine.”2

To address that curious formula, let us look ever so briefly at the socio-cultural context of the Warhola family. It is common knowledge that Andy was an American born in Pittsburgh.3 His parents, however, both father and mother, came from a mountain village, Miková, in the pre-World War I Hungarian Kingdom, which is located in an area that after the war became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia, today Slovakia.

How, then, can one speak of Andy Warhol belonging to the culture of Ukraine? If this is not cultural appropriation of the most misconstrued kind, I don’t know what else it is. Aside from the birthplace of Andy’s parents, in a village whose inhabitants were at various times Hungarian, Czechoslovak, and Slovak citizens—never Ukrainian—the Warhola family language was neither Hungarian, nor Czech, nor Slovak, but Rusyn or Ruthenian.

These realities are usually dismissed by Ukrainian commentators based on their own self-serving argument and belief that there is no Rusyn or Ruthenian language. For them Rusyn is a dialect of Ukrainian. Hence, speakers of that dialect are, ipso facto, Ukrainians.

The question of non-recognition of Carpatho-Rusyns as a distinct people is part of a long tradition of many peoples who have their own state, but who deny the existence of distinct ethnolinguistic groups who they claim as their own. Hence, in the nineteenth century, from the perspective of the German public, Luxembourgers were not a distinct nationality and Luxembourgish not a language but simply a dialect of German. In the twentieth century we have seen Bulgarians denying the distinct national existence of Macedonian Slavs, and in the twenty-first century Poles denying the distinct national existence of Silesians. The list could go on.

Back to the Warhola family. As for genealogy, my colleague Professor Elaine Rusinko has completed groundbreaking detailed archival research which proves that both the paternal and maternal sides of Andy Warhol’s forbears were for the most part of Carpatho-Rusyn ethnicity and of the Byzantine (Greek)-rite Catholic faith.4 Most important was the socio-cultural context in which the Warhola family—and Andy—functioned. In Pittsburgh, the family did not associate with the local Ukrainian community and did not attend the Ukrainian branch of the Byzantine (Greek)-rite Catholic Church. Andy’s family members did not intermarry with Americans of Ukrainian background. Why did they not have anything to do with the Ukrainian-American community? Because they did not feel themselves to be—and, therefore, were not—Ukrainians.

Instead, Andy was baptized in the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church; his entire family belonged to that denomination; and one of his nephews—encouraged by Andy—attended the Byzantine Catholic Seminary. Andy’s two older brothers and other family members intermarried with Americans of Slovak or of Carpatho-Rusyn background. In New York City, Andy attended regularly Catholic churches, at first together with his mother (who lived with him) the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church on Second Avenue and 15th Street. Neither mother or son ever attended the nearby Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic churches nor did they interact with Ukrainian Americans on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

If scholars and biographers feel the need to talk about Andy Warhol’s ancestral heritage and wish to link it to a people who have their own state, then, to use Motyl’s formula, it could be said that Andy belongs at least partly to the culture of Slovakia, but certainly not to the culture of Ukraine. The reality, however, is that Warhol’s state or “national” affiliation was American. And since all Americans come from somewhere, that somewhere—or as Andy would prefer “nowhere”—is historic Carpathian Rus’ in the heart of Europe. No cultural appropriation, Slovak or Ukrainian, is necessary for Andy Warhol, who undoubtedly is an American artist of Carpatho-Rusyn ethnic heritage.

NOTES

1 On the claims of the Ukrainians and other groups to make Andy Warhol “their own,” see Elaine Rusinko, “We Are All Warhol’s Children”: Andy and the Rusyns, Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, No. 2204 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2012), pp. 9-14.

2 Alexander J. Motyl, “Was Andy Warhol Ukrainian?,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, XXXII-XXXIII [2011-2014], Part 2 (Cambridge, Mass., 2015), p. 554. In one of his recent novels, Who Killed Andrei Warhol? (Santa Ana, Calif., 2007), Motyl dropped all nuances, describing Andy as “the son of a Ukrainian worker” (p. 75) and his mother “as Ukrainian in her features as one can possibly imagine” (p. 77). Functioning in the role of a novelist, Motyl may be excused for such exaggerations on the grounds of poetic license, but this is nonetheless an egregious example of cultural appropriation.

3 Actually,  Warhol’s birthplace was not determined until the last decade of his life, precisely because of Andy’s typical pattern of making up stories about his life, including contradictory dates (at various times between 1927 and 1931) and places (Philadelphia, Cleveland, Newport, Rhode Island) of birth. [Paul Robert Magocsi], “Andy Warhol,” Carpatho-Rusyn American, III, 2 (Fairview, N. J., 1980), p. 2.

4 Elaine Rusinko, “Andy Warhol’s Ancestry: Facts, Myths, and Mysteries,” January 7, 2019

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