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Hugh Grant, Andy Warhol and $21 million

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On November 13, a minor painting by Andy Warhol sold for $21 million at a Christie’s auction of post-World War II and contemporary art, in New York City. My use of the word “minor” here reminds me of a remark Robert Craft made about Mozart’s early music, that because Mozart was so young when he died, all of his music could be called “early.” In Warhol’s case, young or old, I believe all his art could be called “minor."

There is a certain quick-handed technical ability in Andy Warhol’s work, but as we know from almost all art that has been forgotten, simply being able to put an image on a surface isn’t enough. It’s no surprise to learn that Warhol’s early efforts as an artist were made for advertising agencies. Every time I see his interviews, I’m reminded first of an inexpressive child and second of a hip young art director. I know plenty of both, and Warhol fits the bill for both. Like many urbane, self-accepting, youthful art directors at important agencies, he had a nascent nose for the marketplace, was dismissively flippant — even unable — in conversation and was, intentionally or not, one of the great marketing minds of the twentieth century. Personal marketing, that is.

Andy Warhol, “Simply Liz”, 1963

This particular painting is based on a headshot of Elizabeth Taylor that Warhol got somewhere, which was posterized (i.e. its photographic middle-gray values are removed so that all you get in the end is total contrast, all black or all white), that image then being applied photographically to the silkscreen process and printed on linen. Then, apparently, Warhol applied acrylic paint to the printed photo-image. . . a large red splotch to Liz’s lower lip and some pink for her face. Some green splotches to her eyelids as well as identical green highlighting to portions of her hair and the same green as an overall background.

Johannes Vermeer, “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”, ca. 1662

Let’s talk about that background a little. My favorite blank wall in all of art is the famous one that Vermeer used in so many of his paintings, in a corner in one of the rooms of his house. In his painting of a young woman with a water jar, the woman looks out a window and soft light comes in, light that illuminates and is absorbed by the wall behind her. Putting aside for the moment the finesse of Vermeer’s painting of the woman herself and, especially, the clarity of his understanding of her inquiring personality. . . considering the strength of the painting in her headdress and, especially, in the carpet table-covering on which Vermeer expended so much obviously loving intensity. . . even forgetting for a while the precise, passionate rendering of the water jar and the plate on which it rests, painting that for me simply invests the two items with a sense of unrestrained joy. . . putting all these things aside for the moment, let’s look at the wall.

Vermeer painted this wall as carefully as he painted everything else. There are chinks in it and little abrasions, rough spots, protuberances and scrapes, every one of which was placed there very carefully by this most careful of artists. No one else will have ever rendered a wall with such tenderness and accuracy. It helps place the young woman in a comfortable context very understandable to us. It draws you in. It tells you a good deal about the conditions under which she lives. It provides a kind of warmth to the painting. It de-mystifies the woman herself and makes it much more possible for us to imagine knowing her and speaking with her. So it adds to your heart’s understanding of this painting. It is a real, direct and potent indicator of the painter’s wish to communicate with his viewer.

Warhol’s green background in “Simply Liz” is mono-chromatic, probably completed in a matter of a few minutes. It appears not to have been thought about in any way. There is no emotion in it and no layered variation. It bears no relationship to Ms. Taylor. It has all the interest for us of the red in a Campbell’s soup can. Warhol’s rendering of that red in his versions of the soup cans is very accurate. So I suppose you could say that he was observant in the way that Vermeer was with regard to his wall. But Warhol’s soup cans don’t move the heart, while that wall does. His red is simply AS interesting as what you can find on the original can wrapping, and that’s not much of an endorsement of Warhol’s understanding of the emotional variations achievable in inanimate objects in paintings. He doesn’t use the background in “Simply Liz” for anything.

It was hard to take a dull photo of Elizabeth Taylor, but in this, even the photo is of little interest. Also, is it a photo taken by Warhol and therefore original to him? Or did he borrow it from someone? In the music business these days, this is called “sampling." Or “quoting” as they say in the literary business. Or “plagiarism," as they say in the criminal justice system. Whichever you choose in Warhol’s case, it’s bad art, if art at all.

In Warhol’s art, everything can be found on its surface. Metaphor, depth, profundity. . . they’re not there. Marketing cynicism abounds. Warhol’s famous inability to express himself, his mono-syllabic interviews and extraordinarily facile non-statements, which were the very essence of his profundity, can be found in abundance in his art. Abundant emptiness. Abundant inexpressiveness. Abundant shallowness.

So you can ask with reasonable purpose why one should care anything at all about a piece like “Simply Liz." Like it’s title, the work has only a few prosaic syllables, and those reside graphically in the view we have of Elizabeth Taylor. But this image is actually just a headshot of a lovely woman with a nice smile. Like “The Mona Lisa." “The Mona Lisa," of course, is better painted, while Liz’s smile is actually interfered with by the inept smudging of it by Warhol. In “The Mona Lisa," Da Vinci gives us a face we will always love. In “Simply Liz” Warhol intentionally ruins whatever small importance Elizabeth Taylor’s considerable beauty had for him.

This painting was offered to the Christie’s auction for sale by the British actor Hugh Grant. He had bought it some years earlier for $3 million, and the press claimed that he had been offered a guarantee by Christie’s of $20 million dollars for the sale. This means that, were the final offer from someone to be, say, $17 million, Grant could turn that offer down and accept the $20 million from Christie’s, who would then become the owners of the painting. This is a common procedure at auction houses with famous works of art owned by famous people. It’s not a bad investment by the art house, and it jacks up the publicity –- and the buying fervor — for the piece in a quite real way.

When I was walking through the lobby of Christie’s on my way to view all the art for the sale that evening, I happened to spot Grant in the very middle of the lobby, natty in jeans, a white dress shirt worn outside the belt and a navy-blue sport jacket with a wool scarf around his neck. He looked like a Silicon Valley investment banker in conversation with a few attractive Christie’s employees. This was an urbane, sophisticated and very friendly-looking New York moment. It was also extraordinarily manipulative of the press and the public, so public a meeting in so central a place, where buyers and journalists alike could see that something important was afoot.

And ultimately “Simply Liz” did sell for $21 million dollars. A tidy profit for everybody. Well done, Hugh.

The real art here is in the managing of the press buzz by the auction house, the painting’s previous owner, other dealers or representatives of individual buyers and the art press. It’s a classic case of the assertion, loudly and boldly, by unscrupulous business interests that a particular piece is of genius status, when it so demonstrably is not. The piece, as bad as it is, is of no importance. I would imagine that few involved in this sale cared at all about it, and that makes sense. Why should they?

Not a lot of the art that was for sale at this auction was very good. I saw a couple of very wonderful De Kooning abstracts in which his famously violent brushwork seemed more open-hearted than usual and very soulfully thoughtful. Also a nice piece by Ed Ruscha, “Burning Gas Station," in which the industrially prosaic contemporary station finds some sort of wild heart in the flames that are attacking it. A few others. Some really remarkable color photos of large interior spaces by Thomas Struth. The marvelous painting of “Ib and Her Husband” by Lucien Freud. Not much else. By the end of the evening, the total dollar figure for everything sold was $325 million. All of it through the efforts of assertive sophisticates making grandly exaggerated claims for the artistic value of work that was, in all but a few cases, doggedly ho-hum.

“Simply Liz” is a journeyman attempt, quite do-able by any high school student, to manipulate a bad photograph of a prominent movie star. It has no vision, and minimal artistic worth. Warhol’s personal involvement in its making – emotionally, I mean – was negligible, as proven by the result. As a manipulation of a marketplace, though, filled with marketing people looking for a quick and large sale — the way Warhol always was — it’s an inestimable prize.

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About Terence Clarke

  • Gerda

    I completely disagree with you on the artistic merit of ‘Simply Liz’.

    When the picture was made in 1963 Taylor would have been at the top of her career, a screen goddess in an age were celebrity came close to royalty. Warhol’s stark colours and style serves to erase the glamour of stardom. The “inept smudging” around her mouth, a circular segment, looks like a, simplistically drawn, wide smile. It serves to point out how demure Liz’z own smile is, so demure that it is almost non existent.

    To me the picture seems to ask: is she really happy? Is fame really that great? Aren’t we all just the same in the end, starkly and simplistically drawn.