When Warhol Nearly Flunked Out of Art School

May 06, 1994|By BENNARD B. PERLMAN

When classes began in 1945, the first week of October, Andy Warhol and I were among the 60 freshmen enrolled in painting and design at Carnegie Tech. The majority of the group was female. World War II had ended just the month before; only four of the handful of males were veterans.

Andy was easy to overlook in such a crowd, for at 5-foot-9 and weighing just 135 pounds, he lacked a prominent presence. To those of us who came to know him, Andy was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, naive introvert. I never heard him shout, never saw him in a fit of rage. He often seemed awkward, timid, vulnerable and nonverbal, and his pale skin gave him a gaunt appearance.

At Schenley High School, Andy sometimes had been the only student wearing a white shirt and tie; at Carnegie Tech he quickly adopted the garb of the art students; a well-worn tan corduroy sports coat over a navy blue turtleneck sweater and paint-splattered jeans. Brown-and-white saddle shoes were popular, and his were unique; painted black over the areas that originally were white.

During his freshman year, 15 of the 30 hours of class each semester were devoted to Drawing I, which focused on ''analytical observation and the means of expressing volume, spatial position, illumination and texture.'' It should have been a trouble-free experience, except that Andy had had virtually no exposure to the medium of charcoal or to applying the principles of perspective, two of the mainstays of the course.

The class was taught by Roy Hilton, a man with impeccable manners and taste in clothes. We called him Mr. Tweed because of his three-piece suits, and assumed he was British; he was actually from Boston. A week into the semester we were asked to draw our first nude model, a shocking and embarrassing experience for many of the freshmen who had never been exposed to a naked female body. Andy's face grew paler than usual, and a coed whose easel was beside his thought he was about to faint.

One of the first assignments for a large charcoal drawing was a still-life composition of a stool and an easel with a drawing board leaning against it. Andy thought more in terms of outlines than tones, and he found it difficult to master a light touch with the charcoal necessary for the subtle shades of gray between black and white. Hilton's admonition was, ''Don't put lights in the dark areas and darks in the light.'' Andy found the necessary discipline a constant struggle.

But it was perspective that became the bane of his freshman year. He did not subscribe to the class motto, ''If it's tiltin', see Hilton,'' preferring instead to enlist the aid of his classmates.

I recall responding in front of a stairway on the ground floor of the Fine Arts Building; ''Look how you can see more of each step below eye level, and how the treads disappear above the eye level.'' He saw itbut couldn't do it.

Andy also experienced difficulty with the course in color, which dealt with the elements of hue, value and intensity, and how to control and manipulate them. It was taught by the department chairman, Wilfred Allen Readio, a faculty member since 1921, whose crewcut gave him the aspect of a sergeant to 17-year-olds like Andy and me.

Readio enjoyed toying with the class in order to make a point, as he did in assigning us to look at a sunset and paint it (no easy task, given the soot-laden skies over Pittsburgh). When our handiwork was tacked up on the wall the following week, Andy's was wrong -- and so was everyone else's! There was no problem with the blended transition from yellow to orange, red, green, blue and purple; we had simply failed to darken the value of the hues as they ascended from the horizon.

Large Munsell Color Charts were mounted permanently on the wall, and during the semester we were expected to match particular color chips with tempera paint, create optical illusions and experiment with the five categories of color harmony. All of this presented problems for Andy.

The second term of our freshman year became extremely competitive; the rat race was brought on by the department chairman's startling announcement that some 300 war veterans had applied for admission to the department, and though the school had never enrolled a midyear class, it had decided to do so now. Fifteen of that number would begin in a special section and continue through the summer, then be absorbed into our class in the fall, when we would start our sophomore year together. In order to accommodate the veterans, the low 15 from among us would be dropped at the end of the semester.

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