Before watching this documentary I have always thought of Andy Warhol as an artist of the people – meaning accessible and filled with pop culture references. Now I am not blaming him for the seeming injustices that are happening with his art now that he is deceased, but if what I saw in the BBC documentary presented by Alan Yentob is even somewhat true it has soured my whole outlook at his art.
The story begins back in 1989 when an American film producer living in London named Joe Simon bought what he believed to be an authentic Andy Warhol self-portrait. He paid $195,000 for the self-portrait. When he went to sell the Warhol 17 years later he found he could not because the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board decided it was not genuine. And so the battle for Joe Simon began.
Joe Simon if nothing else is a very persistent man. Not willing to just give up after the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board denied his Warhol was genuine he has sought the counsel of a lawyer and also pursued British presenter Alan Yentob until he agreed to look into his situation. Once he decided to at least look into it Yentob’s interest was piqued when he saw the secretive and inconsistent nature of the decisions by the Board. A documentary was born.
Owning a piece by one of the most popular and influential artists of the 20th century is a big deal. Joe Simon was trying to sell his self-portrait for $2 million in 2006. Simon’s piece, which was painted by Warhol in the summer of 1965, was authenticated by Fred Hughes six years before the Board was created. After being rendered worthless courtesy of a “Denied” stamp they affixed twice in red on the back of the piece that leaked through to the front, the self-portrait is now not sellable no matter what. It is now hanging in the office of Simon’s lawyer in New York City.
The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board is one of the most secretive organizations in the art world that there is. They and they alone seem to have the power to decide whether something is a real Warhol or not. The members of the Board are appointed by the Warhol Foundation. None of the present members are very highly regarded or well known in the art world. Working in complete secrecy they don’t even have to explain their decisions. There is no room for debate which is strange in the art world as it is all about debate. Over the course of the filming of the documentary Alan Yentob asked members of the Board to meet with him, but all refused. Only the Board’s lawyer, Ronald Spencer, would agree to an interview and he pretty much just tows the line.
Part of the problem is the way that Warhol worked. He favoured mass production and numerous assistants. Early on in his career he had stopped hand painting his work and began to mass produce them at The Factory with the aid of assistants. Using silk screening, Warhol blurred the lines between fine art and printing. On top of the fact that he produced a lot of art this makes authentication tricky. According to art experts it is a difficult thing to authenticate art done so mechanically. Even people who worked with him like Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s manager for 10 years, and Ronnie Cutrone, Warhol’s painting assistant for 10 years, disagree whether the artist was hands on or off. It becomes even more complex when Sam Green, a man who curated Warhol’s first retrospective, states in an interview with Yentob that Warhol even delegated the authenticating signatures on some of his art to Green. Curiouser and curiouser.
Andy Warhol: Denied gives anyone curious about how the art world works behind the scenes. If we are to believe everything this documentary shows then you’d have to come out of it thinking it is a chaotic place. Not only do you learn about the authenticating process of art you also learn a lot about how Andy Warhol worked. The Factory seems like an interesting place with all the assistants working (in sometimes dangerously toxic conditions) to churn out a large quantity of pieces. Also you learn that Warhol did not really pay for things rather he traded his art for whatever equipment, supplies or even legal aid he needed.