Andy Warhol once gave a skeptical friend a silk portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Keep it in your closet, Warhol said, “It will be worth a million dollars one day.” Perhaps he underestimated himself, given the price recently reached by other Marilyn Warhol silkscreens. The Wise Man Shot Blue Marilyn is now the most expensive piece of art of the 20th century, reaching $195 million at an auction in New York.
The backstory of the Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is as striking as its price tag. In 1964, Dorothy Podber, an artist and provocateur, walked into Warhol’s Factory studio, pulled out a gun, and shot through several portraits. Four years later, Warhol himself was shot and nearly killed in the Factory, which could only add to the mystique of the bullet-scarred photographs.
The portrait deserves the cliché “cult”, but there is a far more obscure portrait that lays claim to being Warhol’s most interesting and defining work. I can offer for your consideration “Che”, which was based on a newspaper photograph of the corpse of Che Guevara in 1967. In many ways, this is a classic portrait of Warhol, created using his instantly recognizable silkscreen method and exploring his usual themes of fame, death and mass production. Why is “Che” so interesting? For some time after its creation, Warhol had no idea about the existence of the picture.
Warhol liked to play with ideas of originality and authorship. His images of Marilyn Monroe were based on a publicity photograph taken by Eugene Kornman, converted by technicians into acetates and screens. Warhol’s assistant, Gerard Malanga, usually installed the screen and applied the Liquitex paints. Some of Warhol’s work is even “signed” with his signature stamp. In principle, the entire process, from photography to signature, could have taken place without Warhol touching the work. Obviously, this was part of Warhol’s idea.
“Why don’t you ask a few questions to my assistant Jerry Malanga?” he teased reporters during interviews. “He painted a lot of my pictures.”
It took a young man in love to bring this view of authorship to its logical conclusion. In the summer of 1967, Malanga left the Warhol studio in New York with a one-way ticket to Rome. (This story is delightfully told in Alice Sherwood’s new book. Authenticity.)
Malanga was crazy about the Italian muse, but Warhol offered to send money if Malanga needed a ticket home. However, when Malanga asked for the promised funds, Warhol did not respond. Malanga then decided that he could also screen-print a Warhol-style photograph of Che – a large one on canvas and several smaller prints on paper.
Malanga wrote to Warhol again, noting that unless he heard otherwise, he would assume that Andy agreed with it. He went on to note that Warhol would certainly not object to paintings being sold as “Andy Warhols”.
Warhol did not respond, and soon Che’s portraits were on display in a commercial gallery in Rome, people began to suspect the truth, and Malanga faced a lengthy prison sentence for forgery.
Malanga’s next message was a telegram. He begged Warhol to intervene: “I WILL BE IN THE ITALIAN MUNICIPAL PRISON WITHOUT Bail. . . PLEASE HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME! ”
Finally Warhol answered. “CHE GUEVARAS ARE THE ORIGINALS,” he wrote. “HOWEVER MALANGA IS NOT AUTHORIZED TO SELL, PLEASE CONTACT ME BY LETTER TO REGULATE ANDY WARHOL.”
Alice Sherwood states that this is “an important moment in the history of art and authenticity”. I agree. The Malanga paintings were created in the same way as many of Warhol’s most famous works, and by the same person: Gerard Malanga. The circumstances of their production suggest that they are not, in fact, Warhol paintings, however, Warhol claimed that they were one telegram, not only turning fakes into real ones, but taking possession of them.
Did Sherwood describe an act of forgery here? False advertising? Malanga stealing the Warhol brand? Warhol stealing Malanga paintings? Conceptual art of the highest order? I’ll leave it to the philosophers, and since Che’s painting was subsequently destroyed, the art market will not be able to express its opinion.
From an economist’s point of view, it may seem strange that Warhol’s paintings are so highly valued, given that he made so many of them. But he seems to have anticipated a 21st-century approach to products like digital goods that are cheap or free to copy: use the ubiquity of copies as a way to create demand for a premium version.
These are limited edition sneakers, signed first editions of the Harry Potter books and, of course, digital artist Beeple’s Every Days: The First 5,000 Days, which is free to anyone with an internet connection but made $69.3 million. dollars. for an identical image, accompanied by a cryptographic token that asserts uniqueness. Beeple, like Malanga, seems to have surpassed Warhol. But since Warhol himself once said: “Good business is the best art,” he would certainly approve.
Written and first published in Financial Times May 20, 2022.
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