Warhol Sales Are in a Rut. Can Whitney Show Bring Mojo Back?
(Bloomberg) -- It arrives with a thud: a gold-colored catalog with a small black-and-white passport photo of a bespectacled, nerdy-looking young man.
The tome announces the upcoming retrospective of one of the most iconic American artists: Andy Warhol. His first U.S. survey in almost 30 years opens next month at the Whitney Museum of American Art with major supporters including hedge fund manager Ken Griffin and Bank of America Corp. Top museums and private collections around the world have loaned paintings, drawings, sculpture and films.
Donna De Salvo, the show’s curator, said she hopes it will broaden the perception of Warhol beyond that of “the man in a funny wig, who didn’t know how to paint.”
Titled “Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again,” the show includes more than 350 works, spanning his career from its beginning in commercial art, through his silkscreen innovations of the early 1960s to late-life collaborations with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
“Because he is so well known, how do you get people to think: ‘I’ve never seen that before? I never thought of Warhol that way’?” De Salvo said in a recent interview at the museum. “That was a huge thing for me to figure out: How not to reinforce just the same old Warhol."
The exhibition will open Nov. 12, coinciding with the semiannual auctions in New York. Once a proxy for a contemporary-art boom, Warhol’s annual auction sales declined 59 percent in 2017 from a peak of $568.7 million three years earlier, according to Artprice.com, though some collectors argue that the most valuable transactions have been done privately.
“It’s not a market that’s on fire, making big moves,” said Evan Beard, an art-service executive for Bank of America’s U.S. Trust unit. “It’s a little soft.”
Hopefully, it’s “a momentary dip,” said Eric Shiner, former director of the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh. “All contemporary art as we know it has to be filtered through him in one shape or form.”
One of the challenges with Warhol, who died in 1987 at age 58, is the sheer quantity of his work. The Warhol Museum includes 900 paintings, about 100 sculptures, 2,000 works on paper, more than 1,000 published and unique prints, 4,000 photographs, 60 feature films, 200 screen tests and more than 4,000 videos. Private collectors such as newsprint mogul Peter Brant and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad have significant holdings, many of which are on loan to the Whitney show.
“So many aspects of Warhol remain unknown, with him being one of the most prodigious artists ever,” Shiner said.
But the quality is uneven. Of more than 1,000 works that come up for auction each year, three-quarters are prints and multiples, with scores of lots failing to sell. About 12 percent fetch more than $5 million, according to Artprice.
A single trophy painting -- like “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)" that sold for $105.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2013 and remains Warhol’s auction record -- can heavily skew auction sales.
In the past year, at least four deals for more than $120 million were handled privately, according to Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns hundreds of the artist’s works and is among those lending to the exhibition. The top known transaction was “Orange Marilyn," which was reportedly sold by the family of the late media mogul Samuel “Si” Newhouse to Griffin for more than $200 million. It will be part of the Warhol exhibition when it travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Collectors at auctions in New York next month won’t have the chance to bid on paintings of that caliber. The most expensive Warhol on offer is “Gun" (1981-82), estimated at $7 million to $10 million at Phillips. Christie’s lists “Birth of Venus (After Botticelli)" from 1984 at $2.5 million to $3.5 million. The same work failed to sell in London in March when it was estimated at 4.5 million pounds ($6.2 million) to 6.5 million pounds.
“The more generic, repetitive material that comes to auction season after season -- that’s where the weakness is,” said Brett Gorvy, co-founder of Levy Gorvy Gallery.
It remains to be seen whether the Whitney show will boost the Warhol market.
“His influence on American culture is enormous,” said Vincent Fremont, the former executive manager of the artist’s studio. “Hopefully there’s a new audience of collectors.”
The exhibition opens with a 35-foot-wide camouflage painting from 1986 and ends with another massive painting from that year depicting the Last Supper scene through a camouflage pattern. (The auction record for a work featuring camouflage is $12 million, according to Artnet price database).
The show mostly flows chronologically. There are deft drawings of female shoes and male torsos from the 1950s, when he worked as a commercial illustrator. (Auction record for a 1950s work is $1.1 million, according to Artnet).
That early period was “foundational,” according to De Salvo. Working with art directors, he had to come up with images that captured people’s imagination right away. “He had this capacity to zero in on just the right kind of image,” she said. “He read the icons in the culture.”
It also led to a major innovation the following decade: his use of photo silkscreen.
“Illustration jobs were drying up because they were supplanted by photography,” De Salvo said. “The breakthrough in the end is the use of photo silkscreen.” (The top six auction prices are for the 1960s works).
Using silkscreen almost as a paintbrush, he depicted iconic figures including Marilyn Monroe, Mao Zedong, an electric chair and a Coke bottle. All of these will be on view at the Whitney.
One room will display 40 “Flower" paintings, including several on loan by art dealer Larry Gagosian. They’ll hang on the walls covered in Cow Wallpaper, a nod to Warhol’s exhibition design in 1965 and 1971. (Flower paintings have sold for as much as $11.4 million at auction).
Another gallery will showcase six large “disaster” paintings, including a 9-foot-tall “Lavender Disaster" (1963) on loan from the Menil Collection in Houston. (A disaster painting holds the $105.4 million auction record.)
As she did research for the show, De Salvo said she found Warhol’s experimentation following a failed 1968 attempt on his life to be a revelation. He used innovative technologies to revisit earlier images and created powerful new imagery such as the hammer and sickle, Mao and shadows. (Mao paintings have drawn the highest auction prices among Warhol’s works from the 1970s, including one that fetched $47.5 million in 2015).
The recognition of the late work didn’t come during Warhol’s lifetime. Even 30 years later, much of it remains undervalued compared to those done in the early 1960s. The 1980s works at auction top out at $60.9 million for a 33-foot-wide “Sixty Last Suppers," which sold last November at Christie’s.
“Some of his best work was done in the 1980s,” said Stavros Merjos, a private art dealer in Los Angeles. “That late work is going to appreciate at one point.”
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