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Book Review: I Bought Andy Warhol, by Richard Polsky

by Gordon Fitch

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I Bought Andy Warhold (cover)


I Bought Andy Warhol
Richard Polsky, Bloomsbury, 2005

I Bought Andy Warhol is a curious book. It was written by Richard Polsky, who is (or was) a small-to-medium art dealer and gallery owner, and the ostensible organizing principle of the book is the author's search for his very own Andy Warhol painting, not as an item of inventory, but to keep for himself. The title is an obvious takeoff on the title of the movie I Shot Andy Warhol which achieved fame, or at least art-house showings, a few years ago, but it bears little resemblance to that epic of love gone wrong. Although Warhol does make a cameo appearance in the book, it is really not much about Andy Warhol or his artistic work, and much more about the world of celebrity and high finance into which which he helped convert the business of making and selling art. The real subject of the book, then, is the author's adventures going through the mills of the big-ticket art trade in the later 1980s and early 1990s.

Polsky does not give us a lot of backstory, but just guessing from clues, it appears that he came from a reasonably well-off background, had a normal middle-to-upper-class education (good school, college, frat), and went into art both as a practitioner and a dealer after that, with enough success to keep at it, or at least the dealer aspects of it. He eventually opened a small gallery in San Francisco. He is not devoid of artistic sensibility, but he does not display passion about it; he is not exactly square, but he's not quite cutting-edge hip either. He doesn't trip over his ego. His writing isn't dazzling, but it's quite effective.

As a book of adventure and comedy, then, the book moves right along; it's certainly entertaining. There is gossip, although nothing as hilarious and salacious as the Andy Warhol Diaries. There are characters and eccentrics, parties and power lunches, wealth and status are seen up close, and a certain amount of art passes by in the background. The characters, mostly other art dealers and collectors, along with a few artists, are the real focus of the book, and events revolve around them. Periodically, the author remembers his quest; at other times, he's just trying to do business and, after the crash of 1987, to stay afloat. (He does succeed, but not without cost.) Most of the people he deals with seem to be fairly nasty: rude, boorish, ignorant, petty, some of them sociopathic. Some of them play golf with business executives! Art, or at least the competition to buy what's in fashion, seems to bring out the worst in people, or maybe the worst people. But we knew that already.

For an artist, especially one trying to make a living by means of art, or in fact for anyone concerned with the constitution of the art world, however, the book will be more interesting than a light read. It casts light on how we live.

The world of the fine arts, especially painting, is rather different from that of almost any other sort of art, because it is driven almost entirely by the tastes and choices of very wealthy people who might have the time, at least, to know something about what they're doing. Popular music, movies, fiction, and the like are of course produced by gigantic corporations under the control of magnates and elite corporate apparatchiks, but they are seeking to please the taste of a broad public; other arts, "serious" music and poetry for instance, unsupported and unrewarded by the folk, belong entirely to bureaucrats, politicians, or academics.

Given its peculiar socio-economic context, in painting and sculpture the notion of a work of art crosses over from the realm of the spiritual, aesthetic or amusing to the realm of the collectible, comes to be about things which are to be collected not for their beauty or utility but their rarity and repute. Consequently the atmosphere of the fine arts world varies considerably from the worlds of other arts; there is a much greater emphasis on innovation, uniqueness and hipness, because these are what make items more collectible. Plus, the bourgeoisie have long since developed an addiction to being épatéed. It's a far reach from days of Titian and Tintoretto, who seem almost like folk artists in comparison with the contemps, or even Van Gogh, laboring away in the fields to paint pictures for the Common Man. The artist is supposed to do something astounding every day, develop an unmistakeable style, live a shocking life as well if possible, and withal be faultlessly fashionable &mdash thus endowing his (it's usually a man) work with a bankable aura.

Still, those who collect art have particularly chosen art to collect, rather than stamps or real estate. There must be something particularly about art that attracts them, rather than mere celebrity or rarity. What are they after? Fortunately, perhaps, the author doesn't reflect on this; he's too busy dealing (although he does spend a bit of time taking Polaroid pictures of bits of old movies on television, maybe trying too hard to out-Warhol Warhol). He's not writing as a philosopher and doesn't get bogged down in such concerns.

However, as someone who has spent a lifetime at least on the periphery of the art world, I find it a very interesting question. Millions of people in America make art; two or three hundred thousand take it seriously enough to try at least sometime to achieve professional status, that is, make enough money to live on just doing art; several thousands teach, illustrate, keep day jobs, wait and hope; some hundreds make an uncertain living; a few dozen are superstars whose works sell for millions of dollars. At the high end, the system is strongly affected by the idea of investment and the acquisition of status through wealth and hipness, a high degree of tension between innovation and conformity: the winners are those who are at once authoritative and revolutionary, who conform in an original way. Since Picasso, and especially since Warhol, celebrity and public relations have been an important component, perhaps the most important component, of art-world success. One has to wonder if there is any there there.

And so one of the most remarkable aspects of the book and the world it describes is not something present but a absence &mdash an general absence of feeling, aesthetic, emotional or whatever, for the works for which such huge sums of money are exchanged. True, works (generally those commanding great prices) are described with various superlatives, is said to be "good" or "top-level" but there is often no reason, intuitive, rational or emotional &mdash perhaps I should add magical &mdash for the assignment of the adjective, other than the fact that somebody else thinks this or that is "good" or "top-level" or paid a lot of money for it. People are simply too busy evaluating a work based on their prediction of how others will evaluate it to have important feelings about the works itself; or, if they do, they keep their feelings concealed. It seems as if a bus driver gets more, experientially speaking, out of going to a fence show in Weehawken and picking up a nice floral to go over the couch. Certainly there is quite a disjunction between the apparent motives of those who make the art and profess the faith, and those who buy it at the high end. The further down the economic food chain we go, the more actual interest we seem to find in the art as art.

It's no surprise, then, that art at the high end of the price and status spectrum is focused on formal and conceptual properties. As Andy Warhol said, "There's nothing behind it. It's just what you see." He should know. Success in art is another abstraction, the winning of a game of strategy. Those who only serve the Muse are outside this temple &mdash barefoot.

But while some may despise or resent this system, we have to recognize that it makes it possible for far more people to survive in the field as independent creators or fabricators than, say, writing fiction, even when we include those who grind out nurse novels, because industrial methods have been applied to the other arts and thus almost anyone can buy a book or a DVD; the work of the most talented, most celebrated, and best-connected dominates the shelves of bookstores to the commercial detriment of all other across the nation and the world. In the fine arts, the unique, hand-made object still rules.

However, celebrity fine art is a curious niche and one that may disappear before too long. Marching up from the lower orders of pop culture, a huge wave of artistic work advances, in the form of graffiti, comics, animations, videos, and visual electronica, that is free or nearly free. It is not all kitsch or junk (although a lot of it is) — some of it would have had the Dadaists jumping all over Zürich with joy. These people do not have big money, and they're not likely to get any of it to speak of, but they're clearly having a good time, and the folk seem to appreciate their efforts as much as they do the exalted stuff in the museums &mdash in fact, they're getting in on it. Maybe the future belongs to them. I gather that the author has gone on to writing books about how to do what he used to do. A sign of the (oncoming) times?




March 17, 2007