Andy Warhol is probably best known for his Marilyn Monroe screenprints or his Campbell’s soup cans series, but he stamped his artistic imprint on quite a number of genres. He made dozens of movies (including Chelsea Girls and Sleep), founded Interview magazine, managed The Velvet Underground for a bit, and even coined a phrase—“15 minutes of fame”—that's still used today. And though his penchant for obsessive documenting and collecting is also well known, his particular fascination with scents might not be.
Warhol’s range of interests was both oddly specific and seemingly random in scope. He had large collections of Art Deco silver, Fiestaware, World’s Fair memorabilia, Hollywood publicity stills, crime scene photos, and dental molds. For nearly 30 years, from the early ‘60s until his death in 1987, he saved all of the seemingly inconsequential ephemera from his daily life—fan letters, newspapers and magazines, photos, business and personal correspondence, announcements for poetry readings, exhibition catalogs—in cardboard boxes he referred to as "Time Capsules." But perhaps one of the most unusual of Warhol’s collecting projects was his "Permanent Smell Collection." He had an affinity for smells, which he described in his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again):
Another way to take up more space is with perfume. […] I switch perfumes all the time. If I’ve been wearing one perfume for three months, I force myself to give it up, even if I still feel like wearing it, so whenever I smell it again it will always remind me of those three months. I never go back to wearing it again; it becomes part of my permanent smell collection.
Warhol admitted he had a habit of sneaking away during parties to see what the host’s preferred scents were. He wrote that he wouldn’t snoop through any of their personal effects, he was just "compulsive about seeing if there’s some obscure perfumes" he hadn’t tried yet himself.
Later, Warhol reflected on the (arguably underrated) power of smell, as well as a scent’s ability to be a time capsule in and of itself:
Of the five senses, smell has the closest thing to the full power of the past. Smell really is transporting. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting are just not as powerful as smelling if you want your whole being to go back for a second to something. … The good thing about a smell memory is that the feeling of being transported stops the instant you stop smelling, so there are no aftereffects. It’s a neat way to reminisce.
Warhol seemed to regard the wearing and collecting of perfume as an art form, a form of documentation, and a way of exerting more control over atmosphere and near-total control over nostalgia. Warhol began amassing his collection of semi-used perfumes in the early '60s. "Before that the smells in my life were all just whatever happened to hit my nose by chance," he wrote. "But then I realized I had to have a kind of smell museum so certain smells wouldn’t get lost forever."
By 1975, the year Philosophy was published, Warhol described his scent collection as "very big," though he wasn’t specific about how many bottles it comprised. We do know, however, that Warhol’s perfume connoisseurship continued for the rest of his life—he made several mentions of perfume throughout the Andy Warhol Diaries, which he stopped writing just five days before his death in 1987.
But what became of Warhol’s perfume collection? Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum, which calls itself the “global keeper of Andy Warhol’s legacy,” is the largest museum in the nation dedicated to a single artist, and it houses not only pieces of his famous work, but also an archive of his personal effects and many of his smaller-scale and lesser-known projects. (For example, the archives contain 3000 of Warhol’s audiotapes, presumably from the era when he compulsively recorded all conversations and referred to his ever-present tape recorder as his "wife.")
Warhol’s "Permanent Smell Collection" still exists, at least to some degree, according to museum spokesperson Jessica Warchall. "Warhol’s perfume collection comprises hundreds of hygiene and perfume products," Warchall told mental_floss in an email. "The products, from Warhol’s personal collection and from several 'Time Capsules,' are held in the museum’s archives." Among the semi-used perfumes in the museum’s archives are Halston spray cologne, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet eau de toilette, Braggi International cologne, Ma Griffe by Carven, Paris by Yves St. Laurent, and Devin cologne by Aramis.
Warhol speaking with Elizabeth Taylor, who was also a connoisseur of perfumes. Getty
Warchall also pointed out that Warhol represented his love of perfume in his visual art, including commissioned silkscreens for both Chanel and Halston, as well as other earlier works such as a 1950s drawing titled "Cat with Perfume Bottle," a 1953 ink drawing called "Perfume Bottle," and a 1962 work titled "Perfume Bottles and Lipstick."
Eventually, this lifelong obsession with scents became a little more permanent than even Warhol might have intended. At his burial, a friend rushed over and tossed some copies of Interview magazine into his open grave—along with a bottle of Estée Lauder Beautiful.