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What Andy Warhol Really Did

In response to:

What Is an Andy Warhol? from the October 22, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Richard Dorment’s admirably and concisely written analysis of Warhol’s art and his artistic and conceptual techniques [NYR, October 22, 2009] was much more brilliant and got closer to the essence of Warhol’s radical reinvention of image-making than anything I have read in many years.

However, I was shocked and appalled to learn how the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (est. 1987) and the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc. (est. 1995) are operating blatantly for their own self-interested purposes, ignoring by doing so Warhol’s artistic innovations, which are unique in the history of Western art since the Renaissance.

As the author of Warhol’s catalogue raisonné and a Professor of Art History at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich—previously I taught at Yale University; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University; and New York University—I have followed in detail the activities of the two institutions concerned with Warhol’s work. I have known several members of the Warhol authentication board, including Professor Robert Rosenblum, David Whitney, and others since its foundation in May 1995.

From 1968 on, I worked closely with Andy Warhol. Under his supervision, I had access to his archives and was able to make a complete inventory of his work in his studio on Union Square. I collaborated with him until his death in February 1987.

Between June 1968 and July 1970, as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hamburg, in my mid-twenties, I produced and wrote the very first catalogue raisonné of his paintings, films, and works on paper, published in 1970 by Hatje Verlag, Stuttgart (in German); Praeger, New York; and Thames & Hudson, London. My original research was funded by a generous two-year doctoral grant from the German government and intentionally did not include any commercial backing or financial support from any gallery or individuals (like collectors, art advisers, etc.).

In January 1970, before the publication of my catalogue raisonné, Warhol and I met in his Factory on Union Square to discuss which image should be used for the cover of the raisonné of his work. To demonstrate his unique reproduction technique using silk screens, Warhol showed me two paintings, identical in color and outline, of the same image, from the series Red Self Portrait. He suggested that we use one of these two paintings for the cover to illustrate his repetitive and multiple reproductions of the same image—in this case, his self-portrait. We chose the Red Self Portrait, which had been recently acquired by Warhol’s Swiss dealer and Interview magazine co-owner Bruno Bischofberger and signed and dedicated to “Bruno B.” My 1970 catalog, as well as the revised editions of 1972 (Milan: Mazotta Editore), which included an additional 406 works approved by Warhol, and 1976 (Berlin: Wasmuth), listed this Red Self Portrait as entry #169, but the work was omitted from the Zurich-based gallery Ammann’s 2004 catalogue raisonné (without any notification or query to me)—as if this painting never existed or had been destroyed.

This painting was a perfect example of Warhol’s technique of making multiple silk screens of the same image (for different colors, etc.) and was produced using the more “hands off” approach he continued with in the 1970s and 1980s. Since he often conveyed the artistic design by telephoning details to the silk screen factory, it is appropriate to compare this approach to the historically first “art by telephone” technique, developed in 1922 by the eminent Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, with whom Warhol was familiar through his studies at Carnegie Tech. (See my book The Pictorial Oeuvre of Andy Warhol, a revised catalogue raisonné with about 350 additional entries, that served in 1974 as my Ph.D. thesis and was published by Wasmuth in 1976.)

The artist had chosen at that time the unique and more modern production technique of silk screen over the traditional hand-painted ones; this new technique was a result of Warhol’s new concept of art-making and his rejection of the centuries-old theory of the artist as auteur, the unique artistic originator.

How aware the artist was of the theoretical as well as philosophical implications of his mechanical technique of art-making, using silk screening and other simple reproduction processes (rubber stamp, “blotted line”), became evident in the single published interview Warhol gave that, so far as I know, deserves to be classified as accurate:

…No one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s.”
“It would turn art history upside down?”
“Yes.”1

This concept, arrived at by Warhol in 1962—following progressive experimentation in his commercial art work of the early 1950s with rubber stamp and mono print techniques—can be declared as one of Warhol’s most significant and important contributions to Western art. Intentional and purposefully conceived, it involves a progressive sequence of mechanical image creations: from hand painting to mono prints, lino cuts, rubber stamps, stencils, single and multiple silk screens in the years 1963-1964.

This use of multiple silk screens began in 1962 with the silk screen painting Baseball and continued into 1965; it demonstrated Warhol’s mechanical process, in which the artist’s hand was removed from the execution of the work. This approach can be read as Warhol’s understanding of Duchamp’s way and method of presenting art works. Warhol’s interest lies in conceptual properties and production methods, not in the actual act of making the painting. His unique production method was in the end a fusion of photography and painting.

From 1974 to 1976 I collaborated with Andy Warhol on another book on his drawings and works on paper from 1947 to 1976, that was published in 1976 by Hatje Cantz, Stuttgart, and served as a catalog for a retrospective exhibition of Warhol’s early works on paper traveling through Western Europe.

Ever since I published the 1970 catalog in close cooperation with Warhol, I have been guided by the idea that a catalogue raisonné should be produced in close consultation with the artist. This principle, which I followed scrupulously as a young art historian, was perfectly defined by Michael Findlay in a book published in 2004:

The production of a catalogue raisonné of a living artist’s work has become a venture of a major magnitude as it has been realized in the last four decades that such a project, if conducted not by an interest-conflicted party, like a commercial gallery (owning works by the artist at hand) or the Estate not governed by a scholar, but instead by an absolutely independent scholar-historian with a profound knowledge of the artist’s work and the arts of the past century, has merits far beyond one’s immediate imagination and benefits not only the fair and balanced estimates in the market, with the galleries, auction houses and the like, but also the more detached institutions of exhibitions, museums and collectors.

Beyond these secondary benefits such an enterprise with carefully, systematically conducted research allows the artist himself to review his genealogy of stylistic developments from the very early beginnings up to the present day. A published catalogue raisonné may assume a regulatory function in the artist’s relationship to the gallerist, the auction houses and the collector. In the end, the catalogue raisonné represents a public consciousness of an individual’s oeuvre in a detached non-promoting manner and allows a fair and reasoned comparison with the ever increasing and globalized art production of our days. It also guarantees and fortifies in a much fairer way the parameters of intellectual property.2

While researching the 1970 catalogue raisonné, I inspected the original records and personally consulted individual collections belonging to galleries and collectors suggested by Warhol. These included the Leo Castelli Gallery, which exclusively represented the artist worldwide and in New York City after 1964, and the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery (run by Castelli’s former wife) in Paris. Other galleries and collectors (such as Elena Ward of the Stable Gallery, Emile de Antonio, et al.) are listed in my book, Andy Warhol (1970). They offered records concerning Warhol’s works that I could draw on for my books. This information was approved by Andy Warhol before publication.

Indeed, Warhol’s technique of mechanical reproduction is one of the most important advancements in artistic techniques of the entire twentieth century, comparable to the invention of the mimetic painting style with its central perspective by artists of the Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And this achievement gives him—until this day—an exceptional position in modern art, marked by the uninterrupted inflation of prices for his paintings in the commercial market. In consequence, it is, of course, crucial to acknowledge Warhol’s unique contribution to the development of contemporary art and filmmaking—the rejection of authorship as an essential feature of authenticity and originality.

Subsequently, Warhol and I had a debate over two weeks on the merits and importance of his early hand-painted works on canvas (1960 to 1962), which the artist had hidden away in his attic and nobody had seen before I discovered a tiny photograph of one of them in a fashion magazine. Finally, one day, Warhol came with Polaroid photographs that he had taken of these paintings in his attic and handed them over to me for publication in my catalogue raisonné.

Warhol expressed his wish to have these photographs of his so-called “early works” published in my book, to contrast with the later, more mechanically produced, silk-screened works he created after 1962. No photographic documentation existed of the “early” paintings until I published them, with Warhol’s authorization. All such details, included in the catalog at his request, were significant to Warhol, since he intended to clarify the evolution of his artistic position and his avant-garde concept of questioning the six-hundred-year-old tradition (since Giotto) of the imperative notion of authorship.

As a scholar of art and film history, I believe that my close and exclusive cooperation with Warhol gives me the authority and the right to make official and public statements about the authenticity of the artist’s conceptual intentions and his technique of art-making and—last but not least, his important avant-garde films as cinéma d’auteur, produced between 1963 and 1968 (before the almost fatal shooting accident in his studio).

In 1987, Rizzoli published A Picture Show by the Artist, the last project I collaborated with Warhol on before his untimely death in February of that year. Not only had Warhol granted me the copyright for the images used in the 1970 raisonné and its revised 1972 version, but for all of the books which we worked on together.

Finally, I should make a personal statement about the confusing and dubious incident caused by the Andy Warhol Authentication Board, Inc.: its denial of the painting the Red Self Portrait, dedicated to Bruno B, which Warhol and I chose together for the cover of his first major scholarly book publication with the catalogue raisonné in 1970, in which it was listed as entry #169. (In my catalog it was dated 1964, the year Warhol first used the image, but the Red Self Portrait inscribed “to Bruno B” was actually created in 1965.) This appalling decision certainly does not demonstrate any scholarly rigor on the part of the Andy Warhol Authentication Board.

Today one of the two paintings with this title listed in my catalogue raisonné, the Red Self Portrait, was intended to be a gift to the Tate Modern in London, but is not yet included in the museum’s collection. Irritating—how history can be distorted by pure and plain commercial interests! I had both of those paintings in my hands in early 1970: this painting, which Warhol signed and dedicated to Bruno B, and a second Red Self Portrait from the same series.

When, in 1986, Warhol came to London for his show at Anthony d’Offay’s gallery, he signed in d’Offay’s presence one copy of my 1970 book in two places: one signature was across the dust jacket, which reproduces the “Bruno B” Red Self Portrait eight times. The other was on the book’s half-title page. It is important to realize that Warhol and myself—as I described above—together chose the “Bruno B” Red Self Portrait for the cover of the book. Warhol’s signature across the “Bruno B” image on the dust jacket gives further unequivocal evidence that Warhol still in 1986 not only was authenticating the work itself, but remained proud of the painting, as well as of my early catalogue raisonné (then sixteen years in print), which had proved so many times before to be a very reliable source.

It is hard to believe that Warhol would have signed my book and the image of the “Bruno B” Red Self Portrait if there had been the slightest doubt in his mind that it was not “his work.” The combination of the dedication on the back of the painting with the choice of that image for the cover of the catalogue raisonné, together with his endorsement sixteen years later of the image by signing across it, leave no room whatever for any doubt as to the authenticity of the work and the artist’s intention.

To deny a painting chosen by the artist for the cover of his first scholarly publication when that work is signed and inscribed to the artist’s longtime dealer is an act of folly and gross misjudgment. Art scholarship does not consist of the theories constructed after the artist’s death by those who never knew him. Its bedrock is the body of work that the artist authenticated—beyond a shadow of doubt—in his lifetime.

Rainer Crone
University Professor of Art History
Ludwig Maximilian University
Munich and New York

  1. 1

    Gene Swenson’s interview with Warhol, “What is Pop Art?,” Artnews, November 1963.

  2. 2

    Michael Findlay, “The Catalogue raisonné” in The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts, edited by Ronald D. Spencer, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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