an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Thomas Sokolowski Dies at 70: Incorrigible Warholian, Thrice Museum Director

As I learned when I visited the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, in 2010, the late Thomas Sokolowski, its then director, could do a dead-on impression of the spacey speaking style of his museum’s eponymous artist, whom he had known personally and whose work he deeply appreciated. He had enlivened tours of the museum with his personal reminiscences of Warhol’s era and its cast of characters.

Sokolowski died Wednesday at the age of 70, after suffering an aneurysm (as reported in this obit by Marylynne Pitz in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Thomas Sokolowski fronts a band of Elvises at the Andy Warhol Museum in 2010
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Tom was an enthusiastic promoter of all things Warhol, diligently overseeing the task of unpacking the artist’s 610 “Time Capsules” of unsorted stuff, opened, carton by carton, to be carefully examined and catalogued.

Warhol’s “Time Capsules” at the Warhol Museum in 2010
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I was amused to see the eclectic contents of one of those Time Capsules (including the front-and-center invitation to a 1974 Whitney Museum show) arrayed in a case at the Whitney’s recent Warhol retrospective in New York:

Sokolowski stepped down from his 14-year directorship of the Warhol Museum in 2011. In 2017, he became director of Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick, NJ—the post that he held at the time of his death. I always wondered if his sudden, unexplained departure from Pittsburgh had anything to do with what I had described as “a strong contender for Most X-Rated Show in the museum’s history (as confirmed to me by Sokolowski).

That 2010 exhibition (which I saw), titled Dirty Art: Andy Warhol’s Torsos and Sex Parts, included not only Warhol’s relatively unshocking paintings of genitalia but also his unsparingly explicit, small black-and-white snapshots of men in his studio, caught in acts of oral and anal sex (his “Cocks, Cunts, and Assholes series,” as Warhol had described it).

Whatever caused him to leave the Warhol, there were no reservations or equivocations in yesterday’s warm post-mortem tribute to Sokolowski by Rutgers Chancellor Christopher J. Molloy:

Tom’s enthusiastic personality, sense of humor and—above all else—passion for the arts quickly became the essence of the [Zimmerli] museum. Tom was a dynamic thinker whose intellect and knowledge of art history inspired the Zimmerli board and the associated Rutgers community.

Under his ambitious leadership, the museum acquired many significant works of art, including, most recently, the collection of the former Jersey City Museum that features both contemporary and historic art that represents the importance of immigrant communities in the cultural life of New Jersey. An exhibition featuring highlights from this new acquisition will open in January 2021.

Nine years ago, I had written this about the Jersey City Museum:

Many small, embattled art venues, like the Jersey City Museum, own collections that should, according to professional guidelines, not be sold out of the public domain to defray debts. If the worst occurs, such institutions should make every effort to find a home for their holdings in other public institutions, preferably in the same geographic area [emphasis added].

Thanks to Tom and Rutgers, that has now happened.

Sokolowski’s first museum directorship (1984-96) was at another university —New York University’s Grey Art Gallery & Study Center. While there, he became a founding member of Visual AIDS, the art activist organization that organized the first Day Without Art in 1989. As quoted in that organization’s tribute to him yesterday, he made the following observation at the Museum of Modern Art’s observance of the second Day Without Art in 1990, regarding another scourge that then plagued our country:

I look out at you tonight and see many of my fellow members of Visual AIDS, and feel an inordinate sense of pride and gratification…and hope. Hope even in the face of the AIDS pandemic. The many images produced and exhibited for Day Without Art are not expressions of guilt or penance, but rather of struggle and courage.

This will continue…

…as will Tom Sokolowski’s influences on cultural life and social justice.

an ArtsJournal blog