Christie’s $30m -$40m ‘Warhol In A Fright Wig’ Out of Step
If big is beautiful this is big. But since when has big equaled good? This series of self portraits are clearly one of Warhol’s low points. The red-on-black silkscreen on canvas which is offered at Christie’s New York in May with an estimate of $30m (18.1) – $40m (£24.3m) is a step too far. The work measuring nearly 3m squared was completed shortly before his death in 1987, at a time when Warhol was exhausted, running short on ideas and the public had lost interest in his work and celebrity.
The Warhol market is currently overinflated and this is clearly a painting being touted to the untrained eye. If indeed it realises this ridiculous estimate, It will likely be bought by dealer Larry Gagosian on behalf of a certain type of Russian or Middle Eastern collector who can’t differentiate between a good and a bad Warhol. It is thought that the painting belongs to Jose Mugrabi the person responsible for pushing the Warhol market in the first place. He has been buying his work since the 1980s and is said to own over 800 paintings by the artist. The Wall Street Journal reported, “The Mugrabis are doing whatever they can to keep Warhol prices high, including occasionally overpaying or overcharging for the artworks”.
A similar painting was exhibited in Tate Modern’s excellent 2009 ‘Pop Life’ exhibition. This was a show devoted to the excesses, commercialization and exploitation of the Pop Movement covering the late period. It is rather ironic that a painting from this series would be valued in the same league as a prime Warhol from the 1960’s.
Auction houses base their estimates on prices achieved for similar works in past sales . In 2007 the market was turned upside down when a similar late self-portrait, owned by fashion designer Tom Ford, realized $32.5 million. There is no reason why lightning should strike twice.
The painting is one from a series of seven executed in this oversized format. All were first exhibited in London at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery. At the time of the exhibition the gallery owner deemed the works intense and difficult. Other examples of the series are in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Warhol Foundation museum Pittsburg .
By this stage, in Warhol’s career everything he created was inflected by his own celebrity. He produced self-parodies like the ‘Fright Wig’ series however most of his work was devoted to recreating pastiches of his past glories or paintings like his portrait of the artist Joseph Beuys executed in glitter-paint. Warhol had so clearly run out of steam that he latched onto the next big thing, Jean–Michel Basquiat, hoping that a collaboration would kickstart his diminishing career.
In 1986. The d’Offay exhibition coincided with the artist’s untimely death. Some writers, such as art historian Robert Rosenblum, observed that Warhol was addressing one of the great themes of art history, that of the aging master taking, perhaps, a last look at himself, with a “melancholy introspection” like that of the “great late self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.” Indeed, these were to be his final Self-Portraits, now recognized as being among the most moving works of his career, so Christie’s tell us.
The artist died six months after the exhibition, in February 1987, of complications following routine gall bladder surgery. These last examples appear to be desperately reaching the end of his apparent endeavour to present himself as a credible”consumer brand”, now perhaps past its prime. They are hollow on a large scale and no more revealing than the original Polaroid snap shot from where the image originated. This series is not Warhol at his best, but just another example of Warhol going through midlife crisis, a great artist who like Dali had lost all direction, struggling to reclaim his earlier triumphs and lost glories. Many have looked back on the work with a blind nostalgia, hoping to find a spark of his earlier works. I find them spookily empty and void of any serious content or meaning.
Christies has already got their spin-doctors to hype the painting as ‘Warhol’s last great Self-Portrait’. It is in their interest to do this. The painting will headline the Spring Post-War and Contemporary Auction season, in New York, at their Evening sale next month. The press has reported the sale of this work worldwide.
It has been Promoted by the auction house as; “An art-historical landmark, the monumental painting is poignantly underscored with the theme of a fleeting lifetime”. In 1986 when the work was first exhibited it was nicknamed ‘Warhol in a Fright Wig’. it was marginalized by his contemporaries and made little impact on the public. I think this view still holds water.
Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s International Co-Head, Deputy Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, oozes: “With his unique ability to fuse painting and photography into an unforgettably iconic image, Warhol condensed all the recent themes of his art in this magnificent Self-Portrait into a single splash of color set on an inky black background. Expressive of the brief nature of both life and celebrity, this haunting self-exposure speaks powerfully of human existence and the dark, ever-present simplicity of death. It is a rare event that a work of this grandeur and stature comes to the market and with all other examples in museums, it will be the last chance that buyers will have to bid on a work that shifted art history.” Warhol painted only seven large scale self-portraits in 1986 (makes you wonder, how many he painted in other years?). All of the other versions are in museums or in foundations open to the public.
The current record price for a Warhol self-portrait is $32.6m (£19.8m) set last May in Sotheby’s in New York.
The painting wil go under the hammer on 11 May. Good Luck!