Circuslike Warhol auction may play a useful role after all. Visitors came to gawk and to purchase items from one of the most astonishingly eclectic collections of quality and trivia assembled in recent years. But the auction of Warhol possessions, for all its circus atmosphere, may in time serve as a means whereby Andy Warhol and his art may be seen in a truer and more balanced light.
New York — THE current wave of Warhol mania rose to new heights during the just completed 10-day auction of his personal effects at Sotheby's here, and promises to continue, only somewhat abated into early summer. The reasons are simple: a profusion of Warhol exhibitions, lectures, panel discussions, books, and a major museum film retrospective - all devoted to his work, personality, and importance.
The auction, however, takes pride of place. Nothing quite like it has ever been seen before. Not only was it huge - roughly 10,000 items in 2,526 lots - it realized dramatically more than Sotheby's top pre-sale estimate of $15 million, and it drew far greater crowds to both the viewings and the 16 separate auction sales than had been expected.
They came as though to a circus or sideshow, to gawk and to purchase items from one of the most astonishingly eclectic collections of quality and trivia assembled in recent years. It included toys, antiques, fine art, jewelry, Indian artifacts, kitchen crockery, a wide variety of popular collectibles, and such individual items as a 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow sedan, a Japanese suit of armor, and a personalized Campbell's soup dish.
For once, the possessions of an art-world star drew the kind of adulatory attention previously accorded only such show business types as Elvis Presley and Liberace. Photographs of 12 of Warhol's 175 cookie jars graced the front page of the New York Times April 15 weekend section, and then, 10 days later, all 175 of them sold for a total of $247,830 - or over $240,000 more than Sotheby's had expected it to be.
But that was only the beginning. Even before the last sale, which is ending today, it was obvious that Warhol's magic touch had once again found its mark, and that he had, even in death, captured the imaginations, and emptied the wallets, of a remarkably large number of people.
That, however, should come as no surprise. It was Warhol, after all, who had, thanks to a talent for self-promotion that bordered on genius, parlayed his 1960s reputation as Pop Art's first big star into genuine superstar status of mythic proportions by the mid-1970s. And who had, by the early 1980s, firmly established himself as one of the most glittering members of New York's cultural elite.
And he had done it by the simple procedure of being seen everywhere, and always in the company of the best people, and by proclaiming (or, rather, having his champions proclaim it for him) his belief that the banal, if treated in a banal fashion, could become art, proved him to be the truest, the wisest artist of the latter half of the 20th century.
Along the way, of course, he also made a name for himself as an avant-garde filmmaker, a society playboy often photographed with rock, film, or sports stars, the publisher of a successful magazine, and a social prophet who predicted that, in the near future, everyone would be famous for one 15-minute period.
He was, in short, a celebrity of the first order, someone whose pronouncements were always taken seriously - even when they made little sense - and whose comings and goings were faithfully reported in the popular press.
In the art world itself, however, things were a little different. Art professionals, although hesitant to air their doubts publicly, began to have more and more reservations about his current artistic worth.
Although few denied his historical importance as a key figure of the 1960s, hardly any, from roughly 1975 on, were willing to take his recent work altogether seriously.
To some he was little more than a clown, to others, little more than a social gadfly who had decided that being seen and photographed almost nightly with celebrities was much more worthwhile than being an artist.
Even his most ardent champions began to admit that Warhol as an artist had his flaws - although at the same time they insisted that his decline in art world status was due primarily to a bad press and to a general misunderstanding of his true qualities and intentions.
He was, they insisted, an innocent at heart, a creative figure of such intuitive depth and range that his every utterance was a revelation of what art and society were all about and where they were headed.
Deprived of any real physical evidence of his ``genius,'' his supporters closed ranks around him and proclaimed him a prophet, a seer, the one individual who knew precisely the temper, the truth, of our time, and whose art and sayings, as a result, were of crucial cultural significance.
Small wonder that his celebrity status grew from year to year, and that the well-publicized sale of his personal effects would draw so much attention.
By the time Sotheby's galleries opened for viewing on April 16 (after traveling shows of choice Warhol items had been seen in Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Cologne), a large portion of the American public knew of the auction.
No matter where one turned, one was certain to see a story on Warhol's fancy East Side mansion and photographs of the clutter his possessions had created in it. Articles described the most exotic or trivial items, waxed eloquent on the rarity of an antique table, the great interest expressed in an Art Deco watch fob, or the expected high sales price of a Roy Lichtenstein painting of a cat.
Within a few days, however, a noticeable change in the public's - and more important, the art world's - attitude began to take place. To the public, Warhol began to seem more and more like a purely show business type, a Liberace, for instance, than a serious and important artist. And to art professionals, including several who had so enthusiastically proclaimed his greatness, he was beginning to prove a real embarrassment.
The turning point came roughly halfway through the auction. Quite suddenly, everyone except for a few die-hard collectors, had had enough. The saturation point had been reached, and although the publicity and the adulation would almost certainly continue - at least until the current cycle of Warhol exhibitions, books, and symposiums had run its course - it seemed fairly certain that the myth of his genius and profound significance as artist and seer had peaked and was in very real danger of entering into a decline. Hype and puffery, in other words, had once again done their worst.
Or, perhaps, they were merely serving as the impetus for a necessary and long overdue corrective, as a means whereby Warhol and his art will hopefully soon be seen in a truer and more balanced light. If that should prove to be the case, then everything about this circuslike auction will have been worthwhile. If not, then it will at least have thrown a harsh spotlight once again on the lunatic fringes of the big-time auction world.
Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.