When is a Warhol not a Warhol?
Warhol After Warhol Richard Dorment Picador £20
Books that open with mysterious phone calls are usually thrillers. Richard Dorment’s new book kicks off with just such intrigue. And yet, even though it involves a great deal of detective work, Warhol After Warhol is not a work of fiction.
Dorment has written a deeply researched and convincingly argued account of an art scandal that is both highly informative and cracks along like a Dick Francis novel.
It was 2003 when Dorment’s phone rang and a ‘well-spoken, polite… voice’ asked for his help. The caller turned out to be a movie producer and art collector called Joe Simon. He wanted Dorment, who was then the art critic of The Daily Telegraph, to examine a couple of Andy Warhol pictures: Red Self-Portrait and a work Simon called a Dollar Bills piece.
A one-time groupie at Warhol’s New York Factory, Simon had paid good money for these pictures. Now, 16 years after the artist’s death, he was being told by the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board that they were phoneys. Simon was convinced that the board had refused to authenticate the pictures he owned because it wanted to inflate the price of those pieces owned by the artist’s estate.
The heart of the book is an account of the case that ensued when he took the Authentication Board to court. It was, says Dorment, ‘an epic battle’ that helped create a new discipline for the legal profession: ‘art law’.
In essence, the case came down to how involved Warhol had been in the creation of Simon’s two works. That the Red Self-Portrait hadn’t been signed by Warhol was the board’s chief line of defence. As for the Dollar Bills canvas, even though the board acknowledged it had been ‘signed, dedicated and dated by him’, nonetheless ‘the said work is NOT the work of Andy Warhol’. As Dorment notes, this has to be ‘one of the strangest sentences ever used in connection with a work of art’.
Warhol After Warhol is as terrifying as it is thrilling. There’s something Kafkaesque about the board’s machinations – at one point they encourage Simon to let them reassess one of his canvases, even though they have already decided to again reject the picture out of hand!
Still, for all the excitement and anger one feels reading the book, there is something missing from Dorment’s page-turner. It is a question that haunts much of Warhol’s work: just how involved was he in any of it? Warhol once told an interviewer that he ‘want[ed] to be a machine’. He got his wish. Like Tony Hancock in The Rebel, he could knock off a gallery’s worth of pictures in an afternoon.
A lot of the time he wasn’t actually doing much of the productive work. Warhol would come up with an idea and then get a team of assistants to carry out his instructions. Indeed, on more than one occasion he told a journalist that one or other amanuensis was really responsible for his work.
To be sure, Warhol was being facetious. But he was also hinting at something Dorment swerves away from. The fact is that nobody can say for sure exactly what was Warhol’s specific contribution to any work that bears his name.
Warhol did more to challenge the idea of individual authorship than any of the postmodern critics who adore his work have done. In the end, this might be his real contribution to art history: he subverted an entire discipline by pulling the rug on its most basic beliefs.
Warhol always said he had nothing to say. Richard Dorment’s fine book has an awful lot to say, but it won’t convince anyone who thinks Warhol’s work worthless to modify their opinion.
dmg media (UK)