Authentic art by telephone

By Felix Salmon
December 22, 2009
John Quiggin reminds me of Richard Dorment's wonderful NYBR essay on Andy Warhol and the authenticity of his 1965 Red Self Portraits. While my blog entry on the essay was basically about non-profit politics and the art market, the essay itself was largely about the way in which Warhol reinvented authenticity:

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John Quiggin reminds me of Richard Dorment’s wonderful NYBR essay on Andy Warhol and the authenticity of his 1965 Red Self Portraits. While my blog entry on the essay was basically about non-profit politics and the art market, the essay itself was largely about the way in which Warhol reinvented authenticity:

By the 1970s Warhol no longer had any sustained involvement in the mass production of his paintings. In his book about Warhol, Holy Terror, Bob Colacello quotes Warhol’s longtime printer Rupert Smith:

We had so much work that even Augusto [the security man] was doing the painting. We were so busy, Andy and I did everything over the phone. We called it “art by telephone.”

The question is when Warhol started doing this, and Dorment makes a very strong case that he started in 1965, with the Red Self Portraits.

Warhol told Ekstract to send the acetates to a commercial printer for silk-screening. Morrissey further says that Warhol spoke to the printer over the phone to give him specific, detailed instructions regarding the colors he wanted the printer to use. Both Warhol and Morrissey communicated with the printer, but Morrissey is clear that neither was present during the silk-screening process.[5] After the printing, Ekstract returned the acetates to Warhol…

Few artists in the twentieth century were as restlessly experimental as Warhol. This ruling by the board represents a complete misunderstanding of the very nature of what he achieved, and how his approach to making his work changed Western art. Innovation has to start somewhere, and it is precisely because the 1965 Red Self Portraits were made without Warhol’s on-the-spot supervision that they are so critically important.

All of which came back to me when I visited MoMA’s wonderful Bauhaus show a few days ago, and saw László Moholy-Nagy’s beautiful EM 2 and EM 3, which date from 1922-3:

Moholy–Nagy’s Telephone Pictures were made in Berlin via the processes of modern technology: Moholy–Nagy dictated the paintings’ specifications by telephone (a relatively new invention at the time) to the foreman of a sign factory. Three paintings were made, each with identical images, but in different sizes. The telephone was a new studio tool that allowed Moholy–Nagy to produce work independent not just of his own hand but of his presence. The fact that the paintings were made by ordinary laborers demonstrates his commitment to a non–elitist approach to creative work.

Maybe then it’s the very debate over the Red Self Portraits which makes them important. When Moholy-Nagy was doing something functionally identical more than 40 years earlier, no one denied that he had authentic authorship — it was all part of the iconoclastic culture of the times.

In the case of the Warhols, however, there’s a huge fight with the Andy Warhol Foundation over their authenticity — and as a result you’re not going to see any of them exhibited at MoMA or any other museum any time soon.

Quiggin says that all this obsessing over authenticity is really only important in “the market for collectibles, a class that happens to include paintings”, and I think he’s right — although clearly he’s also right that we’d see a lot less of certain Shakespeare plays (or Mozart operas, for that matter) if they were found to be written by someone else. I’m beginning to think that the only thing that really matters is when there’s a fight over authenticity. That’s always when things get interesting, after all. Maybe someone should set up a museum devoted only to disputed works!

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