Andy Warhol was nothing if not controversial in his lifetime. To his critics, led by the late Robert Hughes, the artist of soup cans and car crashes, prophet of celebrity culture and pioneer of the hands-off business approach to art, was a moral reprobate and aesthetic fraud. Even his friends and defenders gossiped about his manipulation of people.
In death he can still stir sleazy dramas that say something about the modern world. In a tangled and surreal succession of lawsuits, Warhol’s legacy is unravelling even as his prices escalate.
Last year the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which was created according to the terms of Warhol’s will after his death in 1987, announced that it is to sell its entire remaining collection of about 20,000 works. The foundation is funded by sales from a legacy of Warhol’s art that originally numbered nearly 100,000 pieces: from the proceeds it created the Andy Warhol Museum and provides grants to artists.
The foundation says the selloff of its remaining Warhols will allow it to concentrate on grant-giving. It is no longer in the business of authenticating Warhol paintings and prints, another job it had taken on.
However, in a powerful investigative article for the New York Review of Books, the art critic Richard Dorment suggests connections between the planned sell-off, the closure of the Warhol authentication board and a series of legal disputes about what is a “real” Warhol work.
Warhol’s paintings are more expensive than ever before â no wonder the Andy Warhol Foundation thinks it’s a good time to sell. Yet it remains a mysterious decision â why dissipate an entire legacy like this?
Dorment’s article insists there is more going on than meets the eye; but beyond legal debates, what struck me most is what his detective work reveals about Warhol.
There is a poison at the heart of Warhol’s legacy. It is this: most of his works from around 1970 onwards were made in off-site studios that he never visited. He simply sent templates for the paintings and prints to be made from, and signed the finished works when they were sent to him.
This was a logical outcome of the idea he hit on in the early 1960s, of making paintings using silkscreened images. Warhol started by parodying factory methods, and went on to rely on them.
That’s why authenticating his art is difficult. It was easy for those off-site studios to produce extras on the side. Some of these copies have obviously fake signatures. Others are ambiguous â hence the lawsuits from collectors who get works disattributed.
Warhol’s prices today are phenomenal. But how authentic are those “masterpieces” that sell for millions? Is there even such a thing as a genuine Andy Warhol?
What you see is what you get, said Warhol. He was joking, as usual.