The Irony of Andy Warhol
Andrew Warhol performed phenomenally last year. We say this without reservations and keeping in mind the likes of Picasso and Giacometti, who have hogged the limelight in 2010. Compared to Picasso's $106.5 million and Giacometti's $104.3 million, Warhol's $ 63.35 million (his painting of Elizabeth Taylor, titled Men in Her Life) may sound a petty sum.
By the standards of a Picasso or a Monet, Andy Warhol's beginnings were modest. In the first place, he was not even considered a 'fine artist' when he began. He was, what prudents will describe as 'a commercial artist'. Warhol began his career producing magazine illustrations and advertisements for fashion houses. Yet, less than 50 years since his first one-man show, and less than a quarter of a century after his death, he is the most commercial artist of the fine-art world, a position confirmed by last November's sales at the great auction houses in New York.
At the beginning of the week, Philips de Pury sold his 1962 painting Elizabeth Taylor, Men in Her Life for $63.35 million the second-highest auction price for his work while at Sotheby's the following day Coca-Cola (1961-62) went for $35.4 million. Close on its heels at Christie's, Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable), didn't quite meet the low estimate of $30 million but nevertheless reached a respectable $23.6 million. A smaller painting, Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato), exceeded its high estimate, selling for $9 million, while at the same sale, Oh... Alright, a 1964 painting by Roy Lichtenstein, a contemporary of Warhol, in the high-threshold dot effect set a new record for the artist at $42.6 million.
Compare this with let's say a Monet or a Matisse. A Monet water-lilies painting sold for not much more than a third of the price fetched by Warhol's Elizabeth Taylor screenprint, while Matisse's 1934 portrait of Titine Trovato failed to attract a single bid, though its estimate ($8 million) was $10 million lower than the price that was being asked for the painting two years ago.
Is rarity losing out to prolificity? Warhol after all produced some 10,000 works. Of course, other artists Tintoretto, Picasso and Dalí, for exampleshared that trait, but the method, and very often the subject, of Pop Art is rooted in mass production and in popular, rather than rarified, points of reference. One could argue that Rembrandt in his time did produce a lot from his studio. But compared to Warhol, it was cottage-industry, whereas Warhol had the factory to himself.
Andrew Mickie, writing in the Wall Street Journal has this explanation to offer. “Whether the current dominance of Pop Art is followed by a … shift to some new, or rediscovered, genre or not, its current prices have some interesting implications. If there is an aesthetic lesson, it is that the primary reference points of Western culture are no longer dependent on tradition. Knowledge is no longer required of the narratives, histories, myths and values of classicism, the religious tradition or even theories of art that underpinned notions of artistic merit even through the first wave of modernism and arguably as late as the intellectual abstraction of artists like Rothko, Pollock or de Kooning. Pop Art's references demand no more than a visit to the cinema or the supermarket.”
Mickie also shares some insider's information from the bidding floors. “In market terms, there are Pop Art works important for their rarity, originality or quality, such as Warhol's giant prints of Marilyn, Elvis and Mao, and his car crash pictures or Lichtenstein's comic-book paintings. But much of what one might call the diffusion market in contemporary art seems to rest on the taste of a very few collectors, such as Peter Brant, Philippe Niarchos and Steve Wynn, and on dealers, such as Larry Gagosian and Jose Mugrabi, who are strongly committed to particular artists. Indeed, Mr. Mugrabi, who sold Men in Her Life… bought a Jackie for $1.65 million and a Marilyn for $4.45 million later in the week.”
The conclusions are obvious. Rarity is no more a reference point. Finesse is. And the appreciation of art is becoming more and more democratic. After all the aesthetics of a tomato tin can or a bottle of coke does not lie in the interpretation of their 'form' but in the interpretation of what they 'suggest'. That suggestion of equality where more money cannot get you a better bottle of coke is what matters. That to appreciate a Monroe or a Taylor, all you need is to be aware of the matinee idols that your fathers and grandfathers worshipped. That democratisation of the collector's perspective is all one needs to appreciate art.
And the second conclusion establishes once more the need of a patron. A Warhol piece could never have fetched the price it managed on the bidding floor if characters like Larry Gagosian and Jose Mugrabi weren't present to outbid the more classical composers. And that is where the irony of the apparent democratisation of a Warhol or a Lichtenstein lies. The very perspective that they stand for may be democratic, but the appreciation and the responsibility to popularise that line of thinking lies exclusively in the hands of the elite.
It's a lot like what happened in France during the French revolution. A Rousseau may not have been royalty, but in social standing, he was no less than a Louis XIV or a Mary Antoinette. Yet he was instrumental in bringing about one of the greatest socio-political changes of the 19th centurya change that has since been the mainstay of many modern nationsnamely democracy.
Appreciation, and spread of any new school of thought will for ever lie in the hands of the better informed.
And, in some strange way, the better informed, in every age has always been the elite.