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Possession Obsession

The Archive that Got Away: Exploring Andy Warhol's Collections

By Graham Shearing                           

It's a rare collector who buys at the same time both rare furniture and definitive specimens of the purest kitsch.

When Fred Hughes, Warhol’s executor, put the artist's collection up for sale, he created funds for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

In Bruce Chatwin's 1988 novel, Utz, which explores the inscrutable mind of a collector of Meissen porcelain, the writer observes that the act of collecting can often serve as a cure for depression. The Emperor Rudolph II, who lived surrounded by his bizarre and strangely beautiful collections in his castle in Prague, is a case in point. Is this melancholic Hapsburg more interesting for the state of his mind or the quality of his princely collections? Are both elements inevitably linked?

It may seem strange that these esoteric matters should, at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, surface in a discussion of the Prince of Pop Art. But Andy was a collector too, and just like Rudolph, changed the way we look at collecting. On one level he will surely be known for all time as the man who collected hundreds of cookie jars, paying a few dollars for them in street markets in Manhattan--jars which later would sell at Sotheby's posthumous auction of his stuff for many thousand of dollars. A selection of those jars will greet you at the entrance of this exhibition, which assembles a telling fragment of the whole range of Warhol's collecting obsessions.

Don't flatter yourself that the cookie jars are all you need to know about this collector. John Smith, The Warhol's archivist, has gathered together an overview of the entire collection, some 300 items culled from the 10,000 lots (plus a few items from the museum's groaning archive) sold at the legendary sale in New York. American folk art, American furniture, American photography, art deco, jewelry, Native American art, sculpture and what are loosely described as "collectibles" make up the broad categories.

Within each group Warhol is revealed as a discriminating collector. In a catalog that accompanies the exhibition, specialists enthuse over the range and quality. A sideboard, made in Philadelphia by Joseph Barry about 1820, and a matching pair of knife cases, are definitive models of their kind. A lacquer vase, circa 1925, by the French maker Jean Dunand, typifies Art Deco. A somewhat unmanly collection of jewelry (Van Cleef and Arpels, Boucheron and Tiffany), some from the collections of Joan Crawford and Helena Rubinstein, reveal a developed sense of style and a pronounced taste for fine diamonds. Nineteenth century American folk art, which Warhol started to collect at an early stage in his career, reveals a quirky sensibility: a carved and painted pine figure of Mr. Punch, attributed to "Jersey Jim" Campbell, and a painted pine shield anticipate the Pop Art movement.

These items were hoarded away in Warhol's town house. "Show and tell" (that egotistical habit common to many collectors) doesn't appear to have played a major role in the life of Warhol. At one stage, probably under the influences of interior decorator Peter Marino and the late Jed Johnson, his companion for a number of years and a noted interior decorator, Warhol "did up" his house to formal effect. Photographs survive of these immaculate, if cold, interiors. But after Johnson and Warhol separated,  the chaos of the incorrigible collector took over. Was this a parallel to the Rudolphine depression? The house became a warehouse. Few visitors were admitted.

The act of collecting was important to Warhol. It was something to do. With his friend Stuart Pivar and others, he scoured the street markets, the upscale dealerships and the auction rooms. Luckily the age of the Internet auction had yet to arrive…one shudders to imagine its effect on Andy.  In Paris, he began to collect Art Deco at a time when it was possible to buy cheaply. Silver made by Jean Puiforcat, then undervalued, was avidly sought. On all of his many travels he devoted time to antique hunting--time allocated by his business manager, Fred Hughes, another collector.

In 1969 Andy Warhol was invited to curate a strange exhibition. Raid the Icebox I premiered at the Institute for the Arts at Rice University, Houston, where his friend Dominque de Menil was director. De Menil and her husband had persuaded the director of the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Art, Providence, to allow Warhol to make a selection from the reserve collection in the museum's basement. Warhol the artist-collector interfaced with the curator. It was a radical move, and would have struck many as perverse. Warhol's interest was not in "fine" art (in fact he is reported to have despised it). Instead he displayed entire collections in chaotic arrangements, almost exactly as he had found them in the basement.  Shoes (a major subject from his days as a commercial illustrator), were a minor feature of the museum's collection, although it possessed a great quantity of them. Warhol presented them all, even in the rickety case in which they were stored. The museum curators supplied detailed labeling for each and every item. This majestic egalitarianism (which breaks all the rules of museum practice) was applied to other categories selected by Warhol…paintings, baskets, ceramics, umbrellas, etcetera. The hierarchy of "stuff" was abandoned. Andy had created an alternative museum.

It is tempting to look at Warhol's private collection in the same way. The Sotheby's catalog lists everything in tidy categories, and the neat sequence of distinct artifacts curated by John Smith at The Warhol follows similar lines. It seems unlikely that Andy Warhol would have done the same. Might one suggest that his early employment in Pittsburgh, as a window dresser in Horne's department store, would have provided him with fertile material for this exhibition's presentation?

It does no harm to remember that, although Warhol was born poor, the son of eastern European immigrants, he became an astute businessman, and, as the years passed, extremely rich, allowing him to collect in the best shops the best possible quality material. Yet at the same time, it's a rare collector who buys at the same time both rare furniture and definitive specimens of the purest kitsch. Taste, for Warhol, had an all-inclusive element.  The collection of his business manager Fred Hughes pursued similar aims (and was sold last October at Sotheby's).  But Hughes could never afford to collect on the same scale as his employer, notes archivist Smith.

On one other occasion in his lifetime Warhol revealed his collecting interests.  In 1977 an exhibition pursuing similar aims, Folk and Funk at the American Museum of Folk Art, showed a small group of varied pieces of folksy Americana that Warhol had acquired. Neatly displayed, the collection may have given little idea of the lifestyle of the determined obsessive who had collected them.

Collectors of folk art are often torn between the merits of pristine condition and a well-used patination. Warhol liked the marks of use and repair that more fastidious collectors reject. He saw his collection as signifying material culture rather than fine art. This may have led curators, particularly those who encountered him at Rhode Island, to underestimate both his knowledge and his intentions.

Inevitably, this exhibition provokes a discussion of the psychological implications of the collecting phenomenon, for Warhol is an interesting case study.  Philippe Jullian, in his witty book, The Collectors (1967), hints at the foibles of collectors, and other writers treat the subject more clinically. There are books by professional psychologists who seek to pin down the subject more precisely.  But in fact the best judges of collecting are the collectors themselves; they know their obsession intimately and they respond warmly to it in others. Even if driven to it by depression, they make a happy, if competitive, crowd.

Artists traditionally make good collectors. Rubens’ collection was created on a princely scale. Warhol’s contemporary, Jasper Johns has a superb collection. And Peter Blake, the English Pop artist, best known in America for his collaged Pop cover for the Beatles’ album,  Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), recently showed his own burgeoning collections in an exhibition at London’s Morley College (2001). Entitled  A Cabinet of Curiosities, the show makes a direct connection with historic collections of the past, even though filled with bizarre artifacts picked up in London street markets. The collection evidences popular culture and informs much of Blake’s art.  It  is worth noting that it has its own "archivist" rather than a "curator."

Only part of Warhol’s collection can be seen as directly related to his art. The collection is wider than that and it takes sudden and unexpected turns. Smith has not included in Possession Obsession Warhol’s collection of work by his contemporaries, material also included in the 1988 Sotheby’s sale. Most artists collect on those lines, a kind of up-market swap-shop, and Smith hints that another exhibition dealing with that may materialize in the future.

When Fred Hughes, as Warhol’s executor, made his decision to put the collection up for sale, thus creating funds for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, he probably thought he was satisfying the requirements of Warhol’s will. With hindsight, and taking into account the substantial funds raised by the sale of Warhol’s own art in subsequent years, the decision might be thought questionable. The Time Capsules, that vast collection of material boxed away by Warhol, are the archival key to Warhol and are, in many ways, the gems of the Andy Warhol Museum. Archives, it has been said, authenticate institutions.  Warhol’s collections--now dispersed into countless museums and private holdings--might have been incalculably valuable to that archive.  But they have gotten away.  Still, at the Warhol you can sense them, and more important,  the remarkable artist who created them.  It's a rare collector who buys at the same time both rare furniture and definitive specimens of the purest kitsch.

Major support provided by PNC Advisors from the James F. McCandless Charitable Trust.  Additional support has been provided by Mr. and Mrs. Milton Fine and The Homer Laughlin China company.  Partial Funding for this exhibition was provided by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.  Special thanks to Celento Henn Architecture + Design and Kendra Power Design & Communications, Inc. for their very generous in-kind assistance.


Good Fridays

March 22, 7 p.m.

Allen Kurzweil lecture

Allen Kurzweil is a well-known contemporary novelist whose works frequently revolve around the worlds of collecting, archives, and history. He has written one of the lead essays for the catalogue being published in conjunction with Possession Obsession and his latest book was named on The New York Times “Notable Books of 2001” list.

March 29 and Saturday, March 30, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Pop Swap

Area pop culture memorabilia collectors and vendors will set up in the museum’s entrance gallery to display and sell items from Warhol’s era. Items include clothing, small furniture, books, movie star collectibles, and other items associated with American pop culture, creating a scene in the spirit of Possession Obsession.




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