What Makes a Warhol a Warhol?

Art critics and business bloggers ponder the continued value of Andy Warhol's many works

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Andy Warhol, no stranger to controversy in life, continues to provoke lawsuits and economic discussions from the great beyond. Since last year's art market crash, some have started to wonder why Warhol creations are still so valuable. Furthermore, how does one determine a genuine Warhol, when many of his works carry little trace of personal handiwork? Here are some of the more intriguing musings on display:

  • Value in a Saturated Market  The Economist notes that Warhol's "tendency to make more work than his collectors could possibly buy flew in the face of art-world etiquette." With so large an oeuvre, value among Warhols is largely determined by subject matter, although "rarity" and quality of the materials play a part as well. But Warhol dealers may also have a role in determining Warhol value. One dealer and his progeny "bid on Warhol at auction with such regularity that they are sometimes accused of manipulation. Art-market insiders, however, prefer the term 'support.'"
  • Value and Authenticity: What Is Authenticity in Mass-Produced Art?  Art critic Richard Dorment courts controversy in a New York Review of Books piece dedicated to examining a new lawsuit brought against the Warhold authentication board. He accuses the board of inflating Warhol value by de-authenticating select Warhol pieces; the board has denied the authenticity of works signed and dated by the artist. Dorment writes that "throughout the 1960s Warhol was personally involved in choosing, mixing, and applying the paint in most of the silk-screened works. But it was also his frequent practice to delegate the manual task of silk-screening an image onto canvas to his assistants." In a way, Dorment argues, the works that Warhol himself did not touch were his greatest contribution to art. Yet, paradoxically, "the single most important thing you can say about a work of art is that it is real, that the artist to whom it is attributed made it." Herein lies the problem:
It is precisely because the 1965 Red Self Portraits were made without Warhol's on-the-spot supervision that they are so critically important. They are the kind of transitional works museums and collectors particularly value because they show Warhol groping toward the working method he would adopt in the following decade, when his participation in the creation of his own paintings was often limited to choosing the image and signing the picture.
  • A Matter of Intent  A reader, art dealer, and Warhol owner Richard Polsky responding to Dorment's article writes that he can "vouch for the fact that it is all about artist's intent." When Warhol "gave permission for [a] painting to be created" and "turned over the acetates for it to be printed," the criteria for authenticity, Polsky suggests, were satisfied.
  • Abundance Creating Value  Felix Salmon, business blogger with an academic background in art history, argues in fact that the very "ubiquity" of Warhol pieces "is a necessary part of the forces driving the values." He calls it one of the "economic paradoxes of contemporary art" that "the most expensive artists ... are also the most prolific." The tremendous quantity of Warhols creates a "vibrant and liquid market" with transparent prices, giving buyers "confidence in the value of what they're buying." It also "helps to create a very strong foundation from which the value of masterpieces can be extrapolated." Salmon wonders why photographers have not grasped this concept, instead choosing, "almost as though ... suffering from an inferiority complex," to limit their work.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.