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North America » United States » Pennsylvania » Pittsburgh
October 23rd 2008
Published: December 24th 2011
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Tyrannosaurus RexTyrannosaurus RexTyrannosaurus Rex

The skeleton that put Andrew Carnegie's museum on the map in the early 1900s

Mattress Factory





My goal for today was to see some of the most adventurous art in existence.

This first entailed getting there.

After quite a bit of driving around and several wrong turns, I found what I was looking for, the Mattress Factory.

This museum is located in a real former mattress factory.

It describes itself as a laboratory for art.

It specializes in installation art, large scale sculpture that takes up entire rooms.

Most of the work is by artists that are not well known yet.

The museum is unique in that it provides living and studio space for the artists participating in the shows.




The show on view when I was there is called "Inner and Outer Space".

The goal of the work is to take the viewer beyond the stereotypical gallery experience into the world outside.

In one piece, the artist cut a hole in the floor of one of the rooms, and then installed a pipe with a view of the yard across the street.

It literally brings the outside world into the gallery as the work.

In another piece, the gallery is
Outside of the Mattress FactoryOutside of the Mattress FactoryOutside of the Mattress Factory

Note the fake tombstones in the facade; yet another artwork
covered in fine string arranged in patterns.

Look closely from the right angle, the string forms a rainbow.

My favorite piece was made of fiber-optic cable, arranged in a spider web pattern.

The cables projected pictures on the wall of people within the spider web.

The projections are arranged such that as people walk around and through the piece, the projections fall on them.

Observers of the work thus become an integral part of it!




The museum also has some permanent exhibits.

The most famous is by a Japanese-American artist, Yayoi Kusama.

It consists of a small room whose walls and ceiling are mirrors.

It contains some mannequins.

Both the mannequins and the floor are covered in pink dots.

This produces a series of multiple fun-house reflections (with the viewer included) that strongly reminds me of the market from Blade Runner.




The Mattress Factory is located in a neighborhood called the Mexican War Streets.

This land was first given to returning veterans from the Mexican War.

It contains several hip galleries and the sort of cafes you can easily hang out in
Cathedral Of LearningCathedral Of LearningCathedral Of Learning

"The worlds largest Keep Off The Grass sign" - Frank Lloyd Wright
all day.

That being said, the overall neighborhood is pretty rough (as the anti-drug-dealer signs on every lamppost make quite clear).

It’s best to visit the area in a group.


Carnegie Institute





My second stop was the Carnegie Institute.

Andrew Carnegie emigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh when he was very young.

He became a robber baron industrialist and created the company that eventually became US Steel.

At the time he retired, his fortune was about 5%!o(MISSING)f all the wealth in the US.

He dedicated the rest of his life to philanthropy, particularly libraries and museums, because he viewed knowledge as the foundation of a successful life.

For his adopted hometown, he gave the Carnegie Institute, an organization dedicated to the study and appreciation of natural science, art, music, and literature.

To house it, he commissioned a grand beaux arts building containing a natural history museum, an art museum, a concert hall, and a library.

The outside contained allegorical statues of the four areas promoted by the institute.

All four aspects of the institute still exist today, in their original building.

The inside contains grand
Canegie Institute EntranceCanegie Institute EntranceCanegie Institute Entrance

This portion of the facade represents science and art
halls, along with a soaring central staircase containing murals dedicated to the people and industries that built Pittsburgh.

One admission gives access to all museums in the building.




Before entering the museum, I saw the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning across the street.

It’s a very tall gothic structure that contains classrooms decorated based on different countries.

Architecturally, it dominates the area.

Frank Lloyd Wright once called it the world's largest "Keep of the Grass" sign.




The natural history museum contains a diverse collection, but it is famous for only two things: dinosaurs and minerals.

Soon after the museum's founding, Andrew Carnegie paid a record sum for the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found.

It put his still new museum on the map.

The resulting fame helped start the mania for dinosaurs that every parent of a 5 year old is now familiar with.

The story of how Andrew Carnegie got his dinosaur is worthy of a western thriller, and its available as a book in the gift shop.




The dinosaur, and many other skelletons, is displayed in an imaginative exhibit
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One of the famous dinosaur skeletons on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
that tries to show how the animals actually lived.

It also contains extensive interactive displays on how the digs took place, and how the animals were reconstructed from the bones.

It makes almost every other exhibit I’ve seen on the subject seem dull by comparison.




The mineral collection is displayed in a series of black, floor lit rooms.

The samples on display are large, and there is a wide variety of them.

The displays describe their properties, chemical composition, and crystalline structures.

The highlight is a display of over 200, organized by chemical classification.

There is also a special display of minerals found in Pennsylvania, and the history of mining them.

Prominent in the list are limestone, iron ore, and coal (the three ingredients for Pittsburgh's most famous product).

One of the factoids in the display is that during World War II, Pittsburgh produced more steel than all of Germany!



When it was founded, the art museum was empty.

Andrew Carnegie wanted to fill it with the masterpieces of tomorrow.

To that end, he organized the Carnegie International, a recurring juried art fair of the best
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Not all impressive skeletons are dinosaurs, as this one shows
of contemporary art.

The museum’s permanent collection would be bought mostly from these fairs.

This fair is the second oldest event of its type in the world (the Venice Biennale is one year older).

In practice, the juries, like those at other art fairs at the time, were conservative and most of the art in these shows was academic.

Much avant-garde art that later became considered masterpieces was never shown.

Eventually, the museum trustees starting buying art of proven merit on the open market, and the museum developed a comprehensive collection.

It’s displayed in strict chronological order, which allows comparison between works from different movements.




The art museum's most unusual feature is the hall of architecture.

It contains wax casts of the facades of famous European buildings.

A hundred years ago, every art museum in the US contained casts like this, and they were the primary way architecture was studied.

Eventually, plans and models dominated teaching, and most cast collections were destroyed.

The Carnegie's collection is the largest one left.

It’s now a fragment of history, and worth seeing for that reason alone.

Hall of mineralsHall of mineralsHall of minerals

The impressive minerals room at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Carnegie International






The Carnegie International is still held, and it was on view while I was in Pittsburgh.

My main focal point for organizing the trip was the rafting, but hitting this show was the clear second priority.

The theme this year was "Life on Mars".

The name comes from a British TV show (which has had an American remake) about a detective who wakes up one day in the early 1970s.

The culture is so different, he might as well be a Martian.

The name has an unintended extra meaning in Pittsburgh, because there is a town thirty minutes north that really is called Mars, Pennsylvania.

The goal of the show is to display work that makes people think about current culture and the human condition in much the way the detective had to.

As the fliers put it "are we truly aliens in our own world?"

It’s a very ambitious theme, and the relation to some of the artwork is tenuous at best.

The show still has a great deal of good work in one place, though.

It took me almost three hours to get through the entire show.
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Iron ore, limestone, and coal; the basic ingredients for making steel




The highlight for me was an installation by Thomas Hirschhorn called "CaveManMan".

It postulates a future reality where civilization has collapsed.

This particular cave is filled with the remains of human civilization.

It consists of philosophy books (the artist is a big fan of radical philosophy, and believes it’s the only thing that can save civilization), empty soda cans, pornography posters, and aluminum foil.

Future humans in the rooms are represented by models made of aluminum foil.

The walls are made entirely of cardboard and duct tape.

It’s an incredibly intricate work which took a long time to make.

Another highlight is a series of crystal globes strewn around a gallery.

Each of them contains a piece of paper.

They represent the artist's ideas, journeying into the void.

There are works by other artists on the gallery walls, so people need to step around this work in order to see the rest of the show.


Pittsburgh Dinner





After the Carnegie, I went to the Harris Grill for dinner.

This restaurant serves American comfort food, the type also found in chain restaurants.

This particular cafe
Carnegie International entranceCarnegie International entranceCarnegie International entrance

Entrance to the Carnegie International contemporary art show
parodies that experience with snarky humor.

The menu makes people laugh out loud.

For example, instead of the red hearts usually found on low-fat items, it marks the extra high-fat entries with a red ambulance.

All of the item names are bad puns.

Most of them are sexual double entendres.

One item is called the "Worstest Dessert Ever". It consists of deep fried Twinkies topped with ice cream.

Naturally, the only liquid worth drinking a place like this is Pittsburgh's own legendary Iron City Beer.

It’s an American style larger that is what Budweiser would be if it actually had taste.

After dinner, I quickly fell asleep, because I had a long drive the next day.


Additional photos below
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Carnegie Museums lobby

The impressive lobby of the Carnegie Museums, with its murals of Pittsburgh industry


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