This article appeared in The Age 23 April 1988
The many spoils of Andy Warhol
Today Sotheby’s in New York stars auctioning the amazing collection of the late Andy Warhol. ELISABETH WYNHAUSEN took a tour of his house.
“I believe that everyone should live in one big empty space.” The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from ‘A to B & Back Again’).
We might have known he didn't mean it. In the last 13 years of his life, Andy Warhol lived in a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After his death last year, the place was found to be crammed with stuff. So much, stuff, in fact, that the people at Sotheby’s, counted up to find that there were 10,000 bits and pieces, including: furniture, sculpture and paintings, glass as sliver, diamond brooches and Bakelite bric-a-brac, advertising signs, cocoa, cookie jars and eggshell-lacquer cigarette cases.
Warhol, who was famous for being famous, may be recalled in the end as a pack rat. He shopped for three or four hours a day, and he appeared to have kept everything, even the Famous Amos cookie tins in which he hid his Cartier brooches and his Fred Flintstone watches. Whole rooms of the house were full of the things he had bought, many still piled up in boxes which had not been unpacked.
There were Picassos in the closets and a sprawl of boxes on the staircase. As a collector of the purest, or the most pathological, sort, Warhol was not inclined to display his treasures.
Barbara Diesroth, the head of Sotheby’s Art Deco and Art Nouveau department, saw the place as it had been when Warhol was alive. Going back to list the contents of a room where she had at first noticed the legs of a fine old table, Diesroth told me, “We found a Dunand lacquer desk, a Dunand lacquer bookcase and a Bugatti rocking chair. The things were covered up. Everything was stacked one on top of the other”.
The prospect was daunting, but Diesroth had seen worse. Sotheby’s last held an estate sale of such magnitude after heiress Mabel Dodge died 12 years ago. It took six months to catalogue the stuff in the Dodge mansion. “She liked dogs and she had thousands of sculptures of them. That was a nightmare.” In contrast, Diesroth said, going to Warhol’s house “was a lot of fun. Every corner you turned there was something else”.
By the time that I saw the place last week, most of the spoils had been shipped off to the auctioneer’s warehouse in Manhattan. The people on the tour conducted by a Sloane Ranger from Sotheby’s included reporters, votaries of the downtown art mart and little old ladies in tennis shoes, all of whom traipsed through the house with the muted respect reserved for the marriage of art and money. Naturally, Warhol’s presence hovered over the scene like a fairy godmother.
No single individual had done more to blur the distinctions between art and business, and I could see him smiling his wan, disembodied smile at the notion that Sotheby’s (the company which recently managed to sell poor Van Gogh’s Irises’ for $53 million dollars and change), was about to dispose of his stuff. He had, meanwhile, made a reappearance on television, the medium his art imitate in its effect. “Is art important,” someone asked him during a program repeated on public television in the US last month. “Not unless it’s, you know, combined with something else,” Warhol had said, in the anaesthetised tone of voice that had become his stock-in-trade, like the dead white hair or the mask of ironic cool.
Until I went to his house, I had found it hard to image him doing anything as definitive as crossing the River Jordan, not least because he had been so, well, lifeless, when he was alive. But going into the place was like being walled up in a tomb. In clearing it out, the people from Sotheby’s had re-arranged things, to give the dead, decorous museum finish you see in photographs in glossy magazines. It was startling, in its way: Warhol, who in his short-lived subversive phase was the strategist of Pop, had lived in a place done out with the neo-classical cornices and columns, gilded plasterwork and damask-covered recamiers that would have appealed to your great-aunt, if she was conservative in her tastes.
“This is the private side of Andy Warhol”, burbled the Sloane Ranger. “just a couple of his friends came here during his life.” Upstairs, in the sitting room at the front, a painting by Jasper Jonhs hunger over a big mirror-fronted cabinet covered in sharkskin. “It’s different,” someone murmured.
Polite Americans say “its different” when they have had an experience they would just as soon forget, but believe me, this was different, except that the thing had a twin, on the other side of the room. I would have thought that you couldn't give them away, but our guide said that they were expected to fetch between $25,000 and $40,000 each.
Oh, of course, I should have mentioned money. Sotheby’s guesses that the sales of Warhol’s effects will fetch up to $15 million. Everyone keeps saying that the figure is conservative. They keep saying it because the sales have been promoted to encourage feverish speculation in glosses like ‘New York’, a magazine for those who think of shopping as a creative act.
‘New York’ quoted any number of people from Sotheby’s who found any number of ways to say that just because the little guy acquired 10,000 things (including job lots of sharkskin-covered cabinets, department store mannequins, wastebaskets, airport, chairs, Indian tomahawks, Ronald McDonald glasses and Japanese suits of amour, along with the big-ticket items and the folk art) doesn't mean he wasn’t discerning.
Barbara Diesroth said something of the sort to me too. “You can compare it to an 18th Century English gentleman’s collection. It had a little bit of everything.”
When he was at home, Warhol moved between his bedroom and the basement kitchen, because every other room was filled up with stuff. Up in the dark bedroom he slept in a mahogany four-poser. On top of it, he hid the cookie tins with his diamond and sapphire trinkets. The painting that used to hang across the bed was a sentimental 19th Century work titled ‘Two Little Girls with Red Dresses and White Pantaloons’,.. “and that,” said the Sloane Ranger, straight –faced, “is what he woke up to every morning – a folk painting of two little girls…”
I wondered about the prurience of the remark, and quickly dismissed it from my mind: as Warhol himself would have been the first to point out, business is business.