Andy Warhol is an art-world colossus whose work accounts for one-sixth of contemporary-art sales. How did that happen, and is he really worth it? Bryan Appleyard canvasses the experts
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011
Sara Friedlander, the 27-year-old head of First Open Sale at Christie’s in New York, has a startling view of American art history. “Nothing good was made in the 19th century, nothing really good was made in the 18th century and American art in the 20th century for the first three, four or five decades was very elitist.”
There was, in this view, no American Titian or Picasso, Raphael or Matisse. And then, suddenly, on July 9th 1962, there was. That was the date of the first solo show by Andy Warhol, the 33-year-old son of Slovakian immigrants. It was at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and it consisted of a series of 32 paintings of Campbell’s Soup Cans, one for each flavour—beef, clam chowder, cheddar cheese, etc. The response was underwhelming. Five sold for $100 each, but the gallery owner bought them back to keep the series intact.
Nevertheless, by the end of that year, Warhol had conquered New York, the capital of the art world, and America had the artist for which she had been waiting. “He reached a public”, says Friedlander, “that no artist was able to do before him. Because he was able to accomplish what nobody else had done and in the way he was able to influence what came after him, I think that makes him, I would guess, the greatest artist of the 20th century.”
There is nothing unorthodox about this claim. Almost unanimously, today’s young art fans adore Andy as earlier generations adored Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. “To the under-45s”, says Georgina Adam of the Art Newspaper, “Warhol is what Picasso used to be to an older generation…and, like Picasso, he has become a man for all seasons.”
This vast fan base has been reinforced by the shrewd licensing arrangements negotiated by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, established under the terms of the artist’s will. There have been Warhol skateboards, Warhol editions of Dom Pérignon champagne and countless Warhol fashion lines, including Pepe jeans and Diane von Furstenberg dresses. But, in a wider sense, Warhol’s colours and styles—especially his use of pop style—pervade the culture. Any city street shows evidence of the astonishing power and durability of his imagery.
The market backs the enthusiasm of the young. Those original soup cans are not for sale: bought by the Los Angeles dealer for $1,000, they were sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1996 for $15m, a deal that promoted Warhol to art’s first division. In 2008 a 12-foot-wide Warhol painting entitled “Eight Elvises”, made in 1963, broke the $100m barrier, putting him in the same lofty bracket as Picasso, Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Gustav Klimt. The highest auction price, meanwhile, is $71.7m for “Green Car Crash” (1963). To put these dizzying prices in perspective, Titian recently achieved his highest ever auction price—$16.9m for “A Sacra Conversazione” from about 1560. This is an important picture by an artist many regard as the greatest painter that ever lived. But the market says that Warhol is more than five times better.
Warhol is now the god of contemporary art. He is indeed, it is said, the “American Picasso” or, if you prefer, the art market’s one-man Dow Jones. In 2010 his work sold for a total of $313m and accounted for 17% of all contemporary auction sales. This was a 229% increase on the previous year—nothing bounced out of recession quite like a Warhol. But perhaps the most significant figure is the rise in his average auction prices between 1985 and the end of 2010: 3,400%. The contemporary-art market as a whole rose by about half that, the Dow by about a fifth. “Warhol is the backbone of any auction of post-war contemporary art,” says Christopher Gaillard, president of the art consultants Gurr Johns. “He is the great moneymaker.”