Andy Warhol's days as an artist for hire

Even at the height of his success, the great pop artist rarely refused commercial work. We meet the man hunting down these gems – and hear about the paintings of Trump Tower that Donald rejected

“I can show you my latest acquisition, which I’m very proud of,” says Paul Maréchal, the world’s foremost collector of what snobs might refer to as Warhol ephemera – copies of illustrations, brochures, posters and album covers commissioned by companies and clients. Maréchal is adamant that they are “works of art”. He whips out his phone and shows me a photo of a poster for Mademoiselle, a defunct Condé Nast publication (“The Magazine for Smart Young Women”). It’s a red, white and blue map of the US, hand-drawn, with potatoes in Idaho, film reel and grapes in California and a Statue of Liberty in New York.

Maréchal’s eyes bulge with enthusiasm as he describes how he found it for sale at a little auction house in Connecticut. “I’ve known only three examples of this poster. Two of them are in a private collection in Texas,” he explains. It was a snip at $4,000 (£3,000), and will shoot up in value once he adds it to the catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s commercial work that he has spent the past two decades compiling.

A dapper French Canadian in his early 50s, Maréchal, whose day job is curating art for a corporation in his native Montreal, owns more than 700 such pieces. They include Christmas cards for Tiffany, copies of Interview magazine – which filed for bankruptcy this month after a nearly 50-year run – and a medical booklet on rheumatoid arthritis featuring an ink drawing of a gnarled hand. At the Picasso Museum in Málaga, where we meet, a major Warhol retrospective features more than 150 items from his collection, the largest group ever to go on public display.

Maréchal started collecting in 1996. At the time, he says, Warhol’s reputation was in a kind of limbo. “Art historians and collectors didn’t know much what to do with his work – was he just a society portrait painter, an artist who created two or three famous artworks, but the rest was uninteresting? So in the early years, I could buy anything, I had no competition.” That soon changed, however, after Maréchal began to publish records of what he had acquired, building a market in his wake.

Paul Anka’s 1976 album The Painter.
‘It struck me’ … Paul Anka’s 1976 album The Painter. Photograph: © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./DACS

His first find was a copy of The Painter, an album by Paul Anka. “It’s not the rarest, but it struck me.” He found himself thinking of Warhol’s notorious sleeve for Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, with its bulging crotch and real-life workable zipper, and the peelable banana on the Velvet Underground’s debut. “It just sparked a question in my mind: how many record covers did Warhol create?” He called the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “They came up with a list of 23.” But because Warhol didn’t keep track of commissions, they couldn’t say for sure. By 2015, Maréchal had discovered a further 42. It was a labour of love, and involved flipping through tens of thousands of LPs in record shops (“It’s easier now there’s the internet”).

The Málaga exhibition – subtitled Mechanical Art, an allusion to Warhol’s obsession with repetition and reproduction – presents silk-screen icons alongside the lesser-known commercial material. The Jackies are here, next to a Liz Taylor, some Maos and some Marilyns (10 of the latter, loaned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, haven’t been seen in public since 1968).

In the flesh, these are powerful, disturbing images, for all their familiarity. You are momentarily dazzled by the glamour before you remember that Jackie (Kennedy) was bereaved, Taylor had pneumonia and Marilyn Monroe was painted after her overdose. Marilyn (Reversal) in funereal black, a print made from a photographic negative, recalls the Turin shroud. In an adjacent section, the lurid Electric Chair and Car Crash paintings remove any doubt; Warhol was as interested in the American way of death as he was fascinated by the minutiae of life, the soup cans and the Brillo pad boxes.

A very Warhol Christmas … a Tiffany box of lithographed cards from 1960.
A very Warhol Christmas … a Tiffany box of lithographed cards from 1960. Photograph: © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./VEGAP, Málaga, 2018

Curator José Lebrero Stals has placed most of the commercial work in a separate room, though he insists this is not to “segregate” it, but to make it easier for visitors to “discover” a different side of Warhol. In any case, he admires the Christmas cards as much as the canvases, saying both display the artist’s characteristic mix of “sweet innocence and strong perversity”. Warhol’s 1950s illustrations err on the side of sweet innocence, unavoidable given the nature of the commissions – cards, a trade catalogue of children’s books, or a double-page spread on bags for Mademoiselle. His blobby ink lines are playful, animated, and frequently twee, conjuring cherubs, unicorns and golden slippers.

As time goes on, they become more like the art we already know, bold, neon, printed rather than hand-drawn. This reflects a curious inversion of the artistic trajectory: Warhol was a sell-out first, a successful commercial artist well before his debut solo show at Ferus gallery in Los Angeles in 1962. Having arrived in Manhattan in 1949 with a degree in pictorial design, he quickly established himself as an illustrator, making enough money in that first decade to buy a gable-roofed town house near the new Guggenheim Museum. These were the years when he hung around at the edges of the New York scene, which was still in thrall to high-minded abstract expressionism. According to art historian Louis Menand, he was described by his idol Truman Capote as a “hopeless born loser” and by one major gallery owner as “a very boring person, but you have to be nice to him because he might buy a painting”.

Obsessed with repetition … one of the famous Marilyn Monroe works.
Obsessed with repetition … one of the famous Marilyn Monroe works. Photograph: Daniel Perez/EPA

The transformation was swift, and total. By the mid-1960s, he was the doyen of the city’s avant garde. He branched out from painting, becoming a film-maker and music producer, despite a total absence of experience in those fields. By 1969 Warhol was ready to try magazine publishing. According to long-time editor Bob Colachello, he co-founded Interview so he could get press tickets to New York film festival premieres, continuing an obsession with celebrity that first manifested itself in the letters he sent to Capote while still a child in Pittsburgh.

Initially an esoteric film journal, Interview changed direction in 1972. It would now cover fashion, interiors and, above all, famous people. In doing so it defined a new template for popular magazines – and one whose slick nonchalance stood in stark contrast to the likes of Mademoiselle.

Although there is talk of it relaunching in September, Interview arguably did well to outlive the man most closely associated with it. “I think that the legacy of Interview magazine is really the legacy of Andy Warhol,” says Patrick Moore, director of the Warhol Museum, who lent dozens of pieces to the Málaga show (“We have 10,000 works of art, so we didn’t have to take anything off the walls”). For Moore, it was best understood as one more limb of the “integrated business” the artist created around him.

“If you appeared in Interview you may have appeared in a film that Andy was directing, you may have had a commissioned portrait. Artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who are unabashed in terms of their embrace of money and commerce, really wouldn’t exist without Andy.”

Maréchal provides his own example of the 360-degree service: “I remember for instance Miguel Bosé, the Panamanian pop star, Warhol did a record cover, the interview for Interview magazine, he also interviewed him on Andy Warhol’s TV”– a cable show broadcast in Manhattan in the early 80s. Bosé didn’t get a full-scale portrait, perhaps because, at 26, he didn’t need one. As Moore explains, “Andy, as with most great portraitists, was not ashamed to give a facelift as part of the process.” He would take a sitter, “put white pancake makeup on them, overlight them, and all of the wrinkles would go. And he might give a little snip around the jawline as well – so everybody looked fabulous.”

The commercial activity seems to ramp up as the years go on. There is, for example, the garish tie-in for Absolut Vodka from 1985. But it’s an illusion – in an issue of Playboy from 1962, Maréchal has unearthed a Warhol advert for Martini, complete with gondoliers. Fine Art Andy and Business Andy were always one and the same.

Were there any red lines, then? “I think that there was a lot that he wouldn’t stoop to,” says Moore. “Warhol was very discerning. You know he would associate with a lot of things, but the work itself was always very well done. He always had people around him who made sure that the actual realisation of the work was quite beautiful.”

New York scenesters … Warhol meets Donald Trump with a polo pony, in 1983.
New York scenesters … Warhol meets Donald Trump with a polo pony, in 1983. Photograph: Mario Suriani/AP

Moore supplies a footnote about one 80s scenester. “He did a portrait of Trump Tower, and we own two of them, and Trump never paid for the paintings and they got sent back. So they were commissioned – and Trump never paid. They’re quite dark. I feel they’re very sinister. You would’ve thought it would’ve been a portrait of him or his wife, but no, it’s a picture of Trump Tower.” (Warhol’s diaries state that the artist did eight drawings of the Tower in the hope that they would lead to a commission, but “Mr Trump was very upset that it wasn’t color-coordinated” and backed out. “I still hate the Trumps because they never bought the paintings I did of the Trump Tower,” Warhol wrote on 15 January 1984.)

Maréchal is realistic about Warhol’s ability to say no. “Warhol never declined any commission. Or very rarely. I’ve heard of one – a movie poster, I don’t remember the name, but the actors were unknown, so that probably did not entice [him] to create.”

We return to the huge fortune Maréchal has amassed – just like Warhol – by being obsessive, having a brilliant eye, and creating his own market. In any case, he claims he’s not in it for the investment opportunity, despite stretching every paycheck to fund the hobby. Later on, he seems to have second thoughts. “Because I’m 52 years, I’m at the point where I’m asking myself: what am going to do with this? Am I going to donate half of it, sell half of it, enjoy the money or not, keep it together? It’s a questioning each and every collector goes through during his lifetime. But no, I don’t want to disperse. I could sell everything I’ve collected because the books will always remain as a trace of that collection. But it’s not enough for me. Like when I started – I wanted to touch, to see. I had to buy every record cover because I wanted to see the inner sleeve, the credits. For every work I need to have [it] within my hands”.


David Shariatmadari

The GuardianTramp

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