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Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript #59 Andy Warhol: Sex, Death, Beauty and Disaster

Guest Dominique Lévy. Photo Matthew Magelof

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and today I’m joined by Donna De Salvo, a senior curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and its Deputy Director for International Initiatives.

A Warhol scholar, Donna has organized four exhibitions focused on the artist over the course of her career, the most recent being the major retrospective “Andy Warhol—From A to B And Back Again”.

Donna De Salvo: He didn’t invent our fascination with violence and death and spectacle. He saw that that sold. So, he’s very savvy, too.

This blockbuster show spanned his early work from the 1950s through to monumental paintings of the 1980s. It opened at the Whitney in November 2018 and is now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until 2 September.

The artist is also the subject of “Warhol Women”, an exhibition on show now until 15 June at Lévy Gorvy Gallery in New York. We’re joined today by Dominique Lévy, the co-founder and partner of the gallery, which has bases in London, Zurich, Hong Kong and New York.

Dominique Lévy: He was ahead because he was exactly where artists are not today. He was part of this buoyant community.

Before we get started, here’s your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And now, on to today’s show.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think there’s a different Warhol for different ages?

Donna De Salvo: I have to say, in doing this exhibition I came to realize that in some ways we’ve caught up with Warhol. That he was so ahead of his time in the way he used technology, in particular—and photography, which is so key to Warhol’s work—that it’s taken the digital revolution, if you will, for us to really appreciate him.

I do think that there are people who continue to resist Warhol’s work. They just think he’s a con artist. Those people are still out there. There’s a generation that knew about Warhol, was around in the 1960s and even in the 1980s, when Warhol’s star had significantly tarnished or darkened in that 1980s moment shortly before he died. People didn’t know what to do with Warhol.

I think now, there’s a younger generation that just “gets it” in some way that the earlier generations did not. That’s why I think we’ve caught up with Warhol to a certain extent. I think everyone has their own way into Warhol. He’s an artist that allows a multiplicity of meaning.

Within the critical community, there was just tremendous resistance to Warhol’s work after the 1960s. I think with the work of the 1970s and 1980s in particular, people just felt that Warhol had lost the plot. One of the gratifying things with this exhibition has been that a number of critics who came around, to a certain extent, really saw that Warhol was continuing to reinvent all the time.

He remains, still, a very controversial, provocative figure, and whether that will ever change… in some ways I hope it doesn’t. I just want people to appreciate him as a great artist.

Charlotte Burns: Maybe that’s why he stays so relevant to every time, because every generation has this debate about Warhol. The provocation of his work is perhaps what keeps him contemporary.

Dominique Lévy: I love what you said, Donna, about catching up with Warhol because I feel we’re constantly behind. I still feel we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. He’s still a very divisive artist, which came as a surprise to me in this exhibition. I feel a bit like the kid on the block talking with such an expert as Donna, but what surprised me was very much how he is mainstream. We’ve caught up, we get it. And still, there is so much controversy, discussion, questions, disagreement.

The most extraordinary part of the show was the late work and it’s always been actually a period that I’m passionate about: the 1970s and 1980s, He reinvents himself and becomes more and more conceptual, and more and more relevant. I’m so happy that it’s being rediscovered. But still, there was one criticism that people would say: “There was not enough work of the 1960s.” It’s absurd.

Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting. This brings us nicely, actually, to the subject of the exhibition at Lévy Gorvy, which is women. That shift in Warhol’s production between the 1960s—and then everything he produced in the 1970s and up to his death in the late 1980s—was very much influenced by what happened when the writer and feminist Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968. It caused a shift in the way that he approached life and mortality and his work.

You’ve said, Donna, in the past that there was a perception that after he got shot, he didn’t do anything interesting. But in fact, he went on to experiment much more freely. Dominique, the market doesn’t necessarily understand that, there’s this focus still very much on the 1960s. Do you think that’s shifting?

Dominique Lévy: I don’t know if it’s shifting enough, but I’m absolutely convinced it is and will shift even more. The way people are looking at the 1960s versus everything else is in the way that for many years people looked at late Picassos, or late de Kooning or late Matisse. I think with Warhol, it’s a constant reinvention. I think he was ahead of the curve. I think he’s one of the greatest conceptual artists. I think actually the 1970s and 1980s are so important. The 1950s and the 1960s are extraordinary and they’re part of their time, but in the 1970s and 1980s I think he takes risks and he takes his thought process to a freedom that is extraordinary. Some of the rooms at the Whitney literally made me skip a beat because it was fresh, contemporary, provocative, interesting, thought-provoking, conversation-provoking. I think that his conceptual side really comes to maturity in the late 1970s and in the 1980s with a force that’s extraordinary. There’s no doubt the market will get there: the only question is when.

Charlotte Burns: Just to put some context to that, if you look at the top ten at auction for Warhol—there’s a real concentration, as you would expect, on works were made in the 1960s, There’s only one work from the 1980s, the Sixty Last Suppers (1986), which sold for $61m at Christie’s in November 2017. That’s the only work from the 1980s in the artist’s top ten. There’s one work from the 1970s, the Mao (1972) that sold in 2015 at Sotheby’s for $48m. Other than that, the concentration is very much on the 1960s. Do you see that same thing privately?

Dominique Lévy: Yes and no. I think in the level of pricing, yes. The fact, to me—and it’s public information—that the Orange Marilyn (1964) traded for $250m, or a few disaster paintings have traded above the $100m level. Then on the other extreme of the spectrum, some of the great portraits—and we have some of these at the gallery—are less than $10m. The discrepancy is too large, it’s too big.

However, I do see a renewed interest in the late work. There was a beautiful shadow painting at Sotheby’s, the Shadow (Red) painting (1978), was a very strong price. We’ve privately had some great sales of some of the large Maos. I think that it’s happening, but I think that if you just take five minutes of looking at the discrepancy in prices to rush and buy some of these great 1970s and 1980s paintings.

Charlotte Burns: Also works from the 1950s—

Donna De Salvo: I think that some of the drawings of the 1950s are just, they’re incredible—

Dominique Lévy: Extraordinary.

Charlotte Burns: Exquisite works.

Donna De Salvo: They’re exquisite and the prices have risen, but comparatively speaking they’re a total bargain.

Dominique Lévy: They’re cheaper than most contemporary artists of today.

Donna De Salvo: Well, that’s a whole other conversation.

Dominique Lévy: Fair enough.

Donna De Salvo: But no, it’s true.

Dominique Lévy: The stitched photographs—I mean it’s, to me, a revolution.

Donna De Salvo: The stitched photographs. The thing about the 1950s work I think that’s so beautiful is you see a certain side of Warhol that is then there throughout: I don’t think it ever goes away. The reason why that work is so important is because you really start to understand the complexity of the meanings in what Warhol does. He always chooses a subject that is capable of having a variety of meanings to a variety of individuals, frankly.

Certainly the issues of sexuality in the work are really evident in the 1950s in a way that they’re never that overt again—except maybe the “Sex Parts” lithographs, the silkscreen pieces he does and some of the “Torsos”—but you never see it in as overt a way, and there’s also a kind of vulnerability in that work.

Beyond that, they’re beautifully executed. That ballpoint ink—which has got to be one of the most difficult mediums to work with—and then you see this incredible fluid line. Or the caricatures that he did in what I’ve seen as the “first Factory”—or a certain kind of precursor to it—which is this group of people that he met through Otto Fenn, the fashion designer, which was a place for a lot of gay men to be who they wanted to be and dress up. You also have this history that if you really love Warhol and you’re interested in Warhol—

Dominique Lévy: You can’t ignore that part.

Donna De Salvo: You can’t ignore that part.

Dominique Lévy: You know another feature I think that we forget to talk about often is his incredible curiosity. This is not an artist just in the studio. This is a life: this is dancers, poets, connections, conversation and I don’t think the world has even started to realize how engaged he was with his time. Therefore, when Donna says we’re catching up him, he was so ahead. He was ahead because he was exactly where artists are not today. He was part of this buoyant community and I think what we see in the 1950s in these drawings is that curiosity of where he’s going to go and explore and I think they’re very touching. I think that is also forgotten in the market.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, that vulnerability is really interesting in those early works particularly. Donna, you said, “Warhol was so much more out than a lot of people in the 1950s.” Specifically with his sexuality, but overtly homoerotic work was dismissed often, and as he moved on in his career and his art, it became more of a duality that was embedded in his work.

Donna De Salvo: Yes. He’s such a complex figure in terms of his biography because he’s a working-class kid from an immigrant family, and he’s gay. He is the American story in certain kinds of interesting ways. He’s a hard worker, he’s the first in his family to go to college, his father worked in a coal mine and died rather young. It’s the American dream kind of story, but I’ve always thought that because of that background, he’s both a kind of insider and an outsider. He’s a great social observer.

I do think in the 1950s, you can see it in the work. Now, it was out of sync. There’s this famous story of Philip Pearlstein, who was Warhol’s classmate. Warhol asked him to take these painting—and it may not be the one that we actually had in the exhibition—but Pearlstein recalls that it was of two boys about to kiss. They took it to the Tanager Gallery, which was a co-operative gallery for most of the AbEx painters. Pearlstein said they just laughed him out of the gallery. It was totally out of sync with what was going on in the machismo of the 1950s art world.

Dominique Lévy: Growing up in Pittsburgh, if you think in his teens when he is in Pittsburgh, it’s really the city in America that is the most anti-gay. He’s there and he sees a famous gay couple, Cage and Merce and he’s what, 12, 13, 14? This must have been completely transformative at the place where it’s the most closed and forbidden. So, I think what you’re saying about that constant duality goes all the way. So, he’s out—but he’s not allowed to be out. Both of these things are constantly present if we’re talking about his life. We know he’s gay, but do we really know that he had this incredible free, gay life that we have today? Absolutely not.

Donna De Salvo: No, no. I interviewed so many people from the 1950s who knew Warhol. There’s an amazing couple that they worked in advertising agency—they were both gay, obviously together—and they told me that it was the “button-down era”. So, you had to wear a suit and tie and they said they had to go along with at looking at football. It was really interesting. Warhol was this kind of sprite. He was a free spirit. He was an artist, in a way, as an individual that allowed them to be part of something they couldn’t be in their own everyday life.

What does strike me is that when the 1960s comes along, as much as those collectors of the early days—the “Skulls” and everything—wanted to be part of this, it’s not any different than today, frankly. Some collectors, they want to be part of something they think is hip—

Dominique Lévy: —But not too close.

Donna De Salvo: But not too close, inherently rather conservative. And so, he did pull that back. Where it plays out in more substantial ways is in the films: because that’s a different community, the avant-garde film world.

Dominique Lévy: He’s drawn to that community. I think he goes from one world to the other, and I think you’re so right that he pulls back and he goes in and out, and in and out. Very, very in tune and receptive as far as he can publicly push it.

Charlotte Burns: It’s sort of like with the mugshots. They’re called “The Most Wanted Men”, which is a great title, and then the Marlon Brando who’s both a heartthrob and a gay icon—

Donna De Salvo: Right, and an anti-hero.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, exactly. Then Marilyn who is—

Dominique Lévy: And a sex symbol.

Charlotte Burns: Well, yes and Marilyn is a sex symbol—but she could also be a drag queen, the way that he portrays it.

Dominique Lévy: Or a disaster painting. I think there’s a big tragedy. He paints her a few months after she died and there’s a feeling in these paintings—and the two we have in the show which by the way, haven’t been together since the Stable Gallery—the more time you spend, the more you wonder, “Is it really an icon of pop, or is it a disaster painting?” I think that fringe with tragedy, you see it all the way through.

Donna De Salvo: That permeates Warhol’s work throughout. I’ll just share something I wanted to do in my exhibition that I wasn’t able to do. My original idea, he was really fascinated with Elizabeth Taylor and he starts working on her even earlier because there’s some of the front page images that he does that predate Marilyn. He says he was working on Elizabeth Taylor and then Marilyn dies, and I have to do Marilyn. But if you think about it, he never uses any other image of Marilyn.

Dominique Lévy: Never.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting, it’s true.

Donna De Salvo: But you’ve got one from Cleopatra, and then this one here, and there’s the National Velvet (1963) that SFMoMA owns.

Charlotte Burns: There are several “Lizzes”, yes.

Donna De Salvo: There’s a lot of different ones—

Charlotte Burns: And “Jackies”.

Dominique Lévy: But where do you place Jackie there then?

Donna De Salvo: I think Jackie is in the history painting mode.

Dominique Lévy: I agree.

Donna De Salvo: Because they’re really a documentation of a particular moment in America.

Dominique Lévy: Two particular moments, in a way.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, yes, but that to me—

Dominique Lévy: The rise and the fall.

Donna De Salvo: Yes. I had wanted to do a room that looked at Elizabeth Taylor—

Dominique Lévy: Oh, that would have been great.

Donna De Salvo: —And then Marilyn, because you would have gotten this thing. But it was just impossible on some level. I must say, this is part of the challenge of doing this exhibition, I think as we all know.

Charlotte Burns: Why was it so hard?

Donna De Salvo: There are a lot of people, they don’t want to lend.

Dominique Lévy: Or they’re make it too difficult for you to borrow.

Donna De Salvo: It’s very hard. There’re some things that are in collections that they just don’t lend anymore. It just wasn’t possible. I didn’t have enough to make the case.

Dominique Lévy: But Donna, this would be such an incredible book. I think in the show, yes, but that point you’ve just made about Marilyn and Elizabeth Taylor—which I’ve never heard and thought about—could be a fabulous book and research.

Donna De Salvo: It would be really great to do. I just think there’s something really interesting there. He seems to have more of an affinity in some ways with Elizabeth Taylor because of the National Velvet (1963), there’s a narrative there that is almost a pre-cinema thing, if you think about it in a way.

Dominique Lévy: Well, she’s alive. It’s very different.

Donna De Salvo: She’s alive, yes. And then Marilyn is… of course it’s an iconic image, but it’s interesting what you’re saying about the 1960s. One of the things I struggled with in this exhibition was, you have to look at the 1960s—and you want to look at the 1960s—but then if you do too much of that, you don’t have room for the 1970s and the 1980s. One wants to have enough of a compliment of that work because it’s important work, and it’s also what the public knows in so many ways.

But when you look at the 1960s, I feel like there’s been so much said about it, too, critically. There are always new ways into it. The series that I always go back to, of course, is the disaster paintings because I just think they are history paintings and that’s why Jackie somewhat fits in with that, because it is a story of America and a horrific—

Dominique Lévy: But Marilyn too, in a way, because it’s a few months after her death and the story of Marilyn—although she’s gorgeous, and the colors, and this. What’s very strange is, if you spend enough time in front of a Warhol painting, it little by little unnerves you and makes you feel uncomfortable and you suddenly go beyond the flatness and the color. You go into the identity, the individual, the story within the bigger story—

Charlotte Burns: Behind the mask.

Dominique Lévy: The disaster paintings are like a red thread all the way through.

Donna De Salvo: Throughout, what Warhol does in his technique is a certain destabilization.

Dominique Lévy: Constantly. I felt that in your show so strongly for the first time, actually.

Donna De Salvo: That’s great, thank you. That’s one of the dilemmas when people fetishize the trophy of the Marilyn, because then they’re missing a certain point of the way that Warhol is constantly disrupting. Whether it’s the off-registration of the screen, through the color, through the scale, the multiplicity of images.

He’s not about a fixed image. He’s actually quite the opposite, and that gets at issues of identity. One of the things I think in your exhibition that’s so interesting is this idea of the construction of identity. Now, Marilyn, she’s a total—

Dominique Lévy: And deconstruction.

Donna De Salvo: And deconstruction, because she’s a total construction. They did work on her nose, she had a widows’ peak at one point. So, she’s the Hollywood studio, basically, but she’s also this tragic figure in the middle of it all. The portraits are so interesting because when he knows the person, I feel they have a different vibe to them. But then there’s some that are just the formulas, that he would get the commission and—

Charlotte Burns: I was going to ask you about the commission portraits.

Donna De Salvo: Well, it’s interesting because there was a show in 1979 of portraits of the 1970s that was curated by David Whitney. The reviews were just savage. Hilton Kramer, John Russell. It was seen as vacuous, empty, completely commercial—

Dominique Lévy: You know what would be interesting would be a show of all the unknown people. I agree with you that there’s such a different feeling from the people he knew, and you can see the connection. I find the portraits of Jane Holzer or Corey Sarmand—

Donna De Salvo: Both are beautiful portraits.

Dominique Lévy: So beautiful and we know that he doesn’t sexualize women. So, you’ll take it at another level. It’s that sort of tenderness. And then there’re some that are just so cold, the commission.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, the cold. That interplay between the tenderness and the incredibly cold.

Dominique Lévy: I think that if one would make a room of just the people he didn’t know, just the commissioned portrait, the unknown ladies—or men for that matter—I think we could have actually a surprise and feel differently. I wonder.

Donna De Salvo: It’s interesting you say that. Years ago when I was the Robert Lehman Curator at the Parrish Art Museum, I did a show called “Face Value”. It was about portraiture because it was in the 1990s and it was a time where there was a great resurgence in interest from a lot of contemporary artists with portraiture. I wanted to include Warhol, but I didn’t want portraits where they knew the sitters. I had like four anonymous—because I just thought it was interesting, exactly what you’re saying, when you don’t know who the person is—

Dominique Lévy: It takes a different feeling.

Donna De Salvo: It’s very different and you do start to see a little bit of Warhol’s repertoire of the lips, the eyes. There’s a certain kind of—

Dominique Lévy: The pose.

Donna De Salvo: The pose, you can tell that he—

Charlotte Burns: The toolkit, yes.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, he’s got the toolkit, basically.

Dominique Lévy: He’s phenomenal with his toolkit. It’s what people criticize the most. I think it’s what puts him up there in the pantheon.

Charlotte Burns: It’s also interesting, I think, too, I had this moment—which I had a lot in your show Donna. I had it recently, randomly, at an art fair in Hong Kong. You don’t necessarily expect to have these moments in art fairs. I was looking at a Green Car Crash (1963) and I looked at it and I thought, you’re so used to seeing Warhol. There’s the man and there’s the myth, and there’s a way that he so successfully… his art percolated into the culture that’s far beyond the art world. You just know Warhol images and you just take them at face value. I’m looking at this car crash and thinking this is so radical, and shocking, and disarming, and violent, and cruel and graphic and it’s like—

Dominique Lévy: And beautiful.

Charlotte Burns: And beautiful. It’s such an amazing work. You don’t always see them with those fresh eyes, as if really understanding what it would mean if that work were made today. It would be shocking, still. It’s this engagement with the horror of mortality, with Warhol.

Dominique Lévy: So, maybe we have not caught up. Maybe we have not yet caught up. When I saw your show, Donna—which I went so many times—I kept being uncomfortable, but also stimulated, energized.

I think your reaction in front of one of the most well-known images that has been a hated, loved, bought, sold, commercially up and down. I mean, it’s a great image to take to look at the curve.

Charlotte Burns: To look at the market, it’s true.

Dominique Lévy: We’re still questioning, we’re still puzzled. What’s incredible is it’s still as fresh and relevant today. It’s so fresh, honestly it could be done by a 20-year-old today and to me that’s fascinating.

Charlotte Burns: That was what was jarring for me was like, “Oh, the Warhol.” Then you’re just like, “Hang on, this is one of the most shocking images in art. It’s up there with 17th century death—”

Donna De Salvo: Well, that’s why they’re often seen as history paintings. I think the violence within them, and also what always strikes me about most of the disaster paintings is that the people are all anonymous. We don’t know who they are.

Warhol understood something about… he didn’t invent our fascination with violence and death and spectacle. He saw that that sold. So, he’s very savvy, too, and understanding. He’s always very topical in how he does things. This is a bit of the ad man in Warhol, I think, where he understood what was already in the public consciousness usually through the news media. Of course at that time we’re talking about Life Magazine.

There was the Suicide: Fallen Body (1962) painting in our exhibition. There’s another version of that called 1947 White (1963). It was published in Life Magazine and it was called “The Most Beautiful Suicide”, a woman jumping off the Empire State Building. There they name the individual, but so many of the other ones are everyday people. There’s something about that: they’re not stars, they’re quite different and also, they’re being captured at their most vulnerable. This life or death dichotomy, you’re here, you’re not here.

Dominique Lévy: “The Most Beautiful Suicide”. I don’t think anyone today could write this. It would be so not okay to write this and there’s no artist who can write that.

Charlotte Burns: No one would touch that.

Dominique Lévy: That tells you how ahead of his curve he was and knew all these, not failures, but dangers or issues in our society. He just picked on them or focused on them.

Donna De Salvo: One of the things that was so gratifying were the number of artists that came to see our exhibition, and came multiple times.

Dominique Lévy: Young artists, you mean?

Donna De Salvo: Young artists, older artists. It was amazing. Like Bob Gober, Louise Lawler told me she came multiple times. I did a walkthrough with Adam Pendleton, which was really fascinating because his work is so engaged with screen printing, with silkscreen, and it was really interesting hearing him talk about Warhol’s technique. I think it’s because we haven’t thought about Warhol in a long time. It’s almost 30 years.

Dominique Lévy: We took it for granted for so long.

Donna De Salvo: I think so. There was 30 years since the MoMA retrospective—in 1989 was MoMA’s retrospective. There have been shows that have looked at different aspects of Warhol’s work.

But one thing I wanted to get back to is I love that you begin your show with the Before and After (1961) because I think that that is such a rich image on so many levels in terms of Warhol’s own biography, because in 1957 he had his nose planed. He had rosacea—his whole family has—where you get an overgrowth of tissue in your nose, and he had it surgically removed. Then there’s the idea of assimilation, because if you look at those two noses, it’s really interesting. What’s the before and what’s the after? So you have that going on, the immigrant experience. That’s such a rich image.

Dominique Lévy: And the belonging, the crave to belong. You know, the whole Edie Sedgwick (1965), and how he looks and admires her history and where she comes from. I think this is a man who craved to belong. I don’t know, I think a lot of the immigration and we all came here to belong.

Donna De Salvo: Well, that’s a huge component of it. I always think that in some way he reflected these twin American desires, which are at odds: our desire to innovate and our desire to conform.

Dominique Lévy: And to be part of that lineage and to be new. Coming from Europe and considering myself as an immigrant, I came here with the desire to innovate. But as soon as I moved here, it took me so long to feel I belonged. I think you constantly crave that and to me, that image of Before and After (1961) says it all for the 20 years that follows. I’m so happy you noticed that.

Donna De Salvo: Oh no, it’s very key. His relationship to women is also problematic.

Charlotte Burns: I want to ask you about this. There were some flattering portraits of women, for example, Dominique de Menil. We’ve discussed Marilyn, who’s represented in this kind of garish, harsh way. There’s a sense of reduction and there’s been so many different interpretations of this, some people—

Dominique Lévy: I don’t see a reduction, I have to say.

Charlotte Burns: I mean, reduction to lips, eyes—these objects, the sexual fetishization of a woman’s face, of the beauty. Whether that’s the mask that women are—these beautiful women in the public eye have to put on what it is.

Dominique Lévy: Even when they’re not beautiful, I think one common thread is they keep their dignity. I’m very aware of the debate about women and that’s why we wanted to narrow the exhibition to that subject. What we cannot do—and what has been done I think for the last 20 years—is try to pinpoint and be reductive. What’s extraordinary about Warhol and when you look at these portraits and when you focus on just women, is there’s nothing reductive. Yes, there’s a toolbox. Yes, there’s a way of posing. Yes, there’s the lips and the eyes, but there is so much more.

To see that we’re still having a debate today about, was he a misogynist? And why were feminists so upset and was he objectifying and reducing? To me it goes back to the larger debate that we still are having about women artists, women writers. Why is it not all obsolete? I think we can’t reduce what we can’t pinpoint because I think with Warhol, the same way you talk about that car crash and all its facets, I would like people to talk about the way he portrayed women with all of these facets too.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s all there. I think that reduction is there at the same time as that complexity, as that idea of a mask and that duality that we’ve discussed in other facets of his—

Dominique Lévy: But more interesting maybe, and Donna may want to say a bit about that, is his incredible relationship with women. Strong woman that inspired him, mothered him, smothered him, all through his life his relationship with women is complex, but incredibly strong.

Charlotte Burns: It’s that duality of conforming and innovating. There’s the desire to idolize and worship and then control, I always feel, in Warhol women

Donna De Salvo: You think about the number in the films, let’s say, Candy Darling or Jackie Curtis. You do have transgender. We used to use the term drag queen, now we say transgender, but who often emulate or portray an image of women that tends to the more let’s say, garish. That’s also part of what’s going on.

Warhol loved surrounding himself with beautiful women and beautiful boys. He’s an equal opportunity obsessive. It’s interesting in the 1950s, so many of the drawings, of course, are of these very beautiful boys that he would have come to his house and they would pose. One I really loved was the Christine Jorgensen, who was an early transsexual, which I just thought it was such a cool image because it has two different buckles on the shoe.

Dominique Lévy: At that moment, especially.

Donna De Salvo: At that moment, right? There was also tabloid flurry about that. So that’s why I think the 1950s is an interesting moment to see that relationship to women or the women that are not just to him, they’re gay icons within the community. I think as you were saying, like Marilyn, definitely Elizabeth Taylor, they function on so many different levels and I think that’s why—

Dominique Lévy: Judy Garland comes there too.

Donna De Salvo: Judy Garland. You get into this gay, straight. That is where Warhol—the destabilization of identity—

Dominique Lévy: And it’s so fluid.

Donna De Salvo: It’s very fluid.

Dominique Lévy: That’s another key word, fluidity, with him. Everything is this but it’s also that. It’s masculine, but it’s feminine. It’s star, but it’s tragic. That fluidity is very unnerving. Especially when you look at all the woman, that fluidity. That’s why we’ve put “Ladies and Gentlemen” in the show.

Donna De Salvo: “Ladies and Gentlemen” is the particularly problematic series. There’s a great essay in our catalog that Glenn Ligon wrote about “Ladies and Gentlemen”.

Dominique Lévy: Very provocative essay.

Donna De Salvo: It’s a provocative essay. One has to be careful, also, in looking backwards at the time, but it’s also a complicated relationship with the Italian collector who commissioned it. He didn’t want beautiful drag queens or transgender. He had this different kind of idea.

I like Glenn’s essay because he deals with the complexity of race, because as we know, there are very few people of color in Warhol’s works. Now, in part, that was the art world and the world. It was a different time. But the “Ladies and Gentlemen” series is… I’m always a little careful about not wanting to be negative about how Warhol portrayed the individuals because he was using them as models, they were paid—

Dominique Lévy: Absolutely, and that’s why I felt that Glenn Ligon essay was a bit too reductive, again—

Charlotte Burns: For people who haven’t read the essay, do you want to tell us the gist of it?

Donna De Salvo: Well, he takes on some of the issues of these people who were then rendered anonymous where in Warhol’s work, he for the most part is dealing with the famous. Now, I think what has been recovered is that each of these individuals really were extraordinary in their own right. And we included the names—

Dominique Lévy: —And enjoyed that and enjoyed coming.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, and yet had hard lives. Some worked as prostitutes. So, they were outsiders in a certain way. For instance, Marsha P. Johnson was a very major gay rights activists, very involved with Stonewall. So, you start to see—

Dominique Lévy: And idolized today. Looking back.

Donna De Salvo: Very much, very much idolized today. I think that at that time, Warhol… They were models, they were interesting as individuals, but their individuality is not the subject of those works.

I do think what Glenn does get to, because he talks about this idea of color and colored and he appreciates—

Dominique Lévy: But he raised the issue of respect, in a way. I think at the time, the immediacy of it all—what you said earlier, when we look back it’s a bit dangerous because suddenly we’re questioning was Warhol really respectful or disrespectful with concepts that we’re looking at today. I think when he was doing this, there was an immediacy that we have to keep mind. And so, I found that essay controversial.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, but one of the things I think is important is not to turn everything into a Warhol love-fest.

Dominique Lévy: True, very true.

Donna De Salvo: Because I really think it’s important that Warhol has detractors—and that’s why we reprinted Barbara Kruger’s essay “Contempt and Adoration”.

Dominique Lévy: It is a great title for an essay as well.

Donna De Salvo: She wrote that right after Warhol died and I asked if she would something for the catalog. She says: “You know, I’ve written it.” And so that’s why we reprinted it.

Dominique Lévy: It’s so strong today.

Donna De Salvo: It’s a really amazing piece.

Charlotte Burns: Do you want to tell people a little bit about that? It’s such a powerful essay, as well.

Donna De Salvo: She sees Warhol, and this is in general the way her ethos works, is that there’s a certain kind of exploitation that she sees in the way he worked with people in the Factory. There’s a cruelty in Warhol. There’s a cold stare. That’s why it’s so complicated.

Dominique Lévy: Is it cruelty or is it cynicism?

Charlotte Burns: Both.

Donna De Salvo: I think it could be both, but I see it more as a coldness.

Dominique Lévy: Me too.

Donna De Salvo: There’s something, there’s complexity. This thing, for instance—

Dominique Lévy: Detached. He’s so detached that he becomes cold.

Donna De Salvo: Well, a social observer has to have that detachment.

Dominique Lévy: But then it’s not cruelty.

Charlotte Burns: It’s true of Truman Capote, as well.

Dominique Lévy: But then it’s not cruelty.

Charlotte Burns: I think it can be both.

Donna De Salvo: I think it can be maybe both. There’s an exploitation that goes on, especially, in I think, the 1960s in the studio. One thing that’s really interesting, which I had never realized myself was something my colleague Clare Henry—who curated all the film section for the show—told me, that the majority of the people in the studio at that time were Catholics.

Charlotte Burns: So interesting.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, it is interesting. If you look a lot of Warhol’s films, or Ondine who plays the Pope, there’s this profound confession that’s going on. It’s really interesting.

Dominique Lévy: I never thought about that.

Donna De Salvo: Well, they’re all acting out, it’s a cinéma vérité. These films are unscripted. They’re highly improvisational. And you get this… Ondine, what’s the scene? I think it’s in Chelsea Girls (1966) where he is just really brutal actually to a woman actress and it becomes almost violent at times. He’s angry at her and he’s saying, “I’m the pope”, and it’s rough. There’s violence. In the films you see it more clearly.

Dominique Lévy: But we’re also at a moment where it is violent. I think, again, by looking back we put that violence onto him. But I think that the street life and the Factory life and the nightclub life and everything that’s happening with women’s rights and the postwar area, it is a quite violent moment. The march in Paris, streets are violent—

Donna De Salvo: It’s kind of crucible.

Dominique Lévy: You look all through the world, it’s an extraordinarily free moment, but with that freedom—to break free—you have to go through that violence. I think he embodies that. He’s one of the actors of it, but I’m not sure he’s the perpetrator of it and I constantly struggle with that.

Donna De Salvo: I think that he allows these things to happen around him.

Dominique Lévy: Yes, I would agree with that.

Donna De Salvo: I think he created an environment where people could do these things. And for some people it was too much, and they flew out the window, things like that. I think what you’re saying about that 1960s moment, of course, is it’s a much rougher moment than we realize. That’s why the disaster paintings—and of course there’s the Race Riot (1964) picture, which is such a searing image. Okwui Enwezor wrote an incredible essay. I feel so privileged that he wrote that essay. It’s just a lesser world without him. He had so much more work to do. But I can’t tell you how much it means that he wrote that essay.

Also, of course, Warhol’s challenging the Hollywood system. He is saying it’s not all these nice narratives and they don’t all tie up at the end in a bow where it’s all resolved. So much of it is—

Charlotte Burns: It’s about the splintering.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, and also it’s becoming the end of the Hollywood system.

Dominique Lévy: Completely.

Donna De Salvo: That kind of star system. They have more people who have agency and their own production companies, and Marilyn is probably the last of that generation.

Dominique Lévy: Yes. Even Elizabeth Taylor actually makes the passage to the other side.

Donna De Salvo: To the other side.

Dominique Lévy: It’s true. You might be right. I think that the late 1960s, early 1970s, we still haven’t realized how violent this period was. We look at it about freedom and excitement and we all wish we were 20 in that moment, and that experience. But I think there’s a violence that, actually, I feel for the first time we’re feeling now.

Charlotte Burns: That’s what I was going to say, I think it’s more the sense that progress is not linear progress, that things are cyclical. It’s not like we’re looking back from a much more advanced moment in culture where women are much more elevated in our society than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dominique Lévy: And yet still.

Charlotte Burns: This is exactly what I’m saying.

Donna De Salvo: And yet still, exactly.

Charlotte Burns: That’s what I’m saying. You’re still having women’s bodies being discussed as if they shouldn’t have their own autonomy, as a matter of governmental debate. These things feel so relevant to me because I don’t feel that we have progressed that far.

Donna De Salvo: Change is slow and there are certain things that have changed, but then there’s also these steps backwards. Then you think about—

Dominique Lévy: Enormous steps backwards, I think.

Donna De Salvo: Well, now we’re really an enormous step backwards. But you do see, also, the complexity of the United States. We’re deeply conflicted. I think that’s there, but of course, the current moment is one we might not have ever predicted: a difficult, difficult time. But the 1950s, the beginnings of desegregation and desegregating the schools and also how violent that was. That’s why that picture of the Birmingham race riots is like, there it is.

Dominique Lévy: He really belongs to the tradition of what I think we miss the most today, is people that break the form just by their curiosity and their thirst for a wide culture, wide conversation, a wide discussion. He comes from that lineage. That’s why I’m always scared a bit when we look back too much and reinterpret, because I think he was so much a key figure of his time all the way through. And in the way he looked at women, I think it’s very clear.

Charlotte Burns: I think it’s a flip side of the coin though. If you want him to be a relevant artist and we can say, it still feels so violent to look at the car crash. It’s still so complex to think about what Marilyn means or anything—choose a Warhol and talk about how complicated and relevant it is, and fresh. Then we’re reinterpreting that through our eyes and the only way to do that is to do that the whole way around. There’s always an element of if artists are to stay current, you can’t keep them in their time.

Donna De Salvo: I think great works of art allow that to happen. My test has always been, if you go back—I love seeing certain works. I must confess, one of my favorite works is the Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.

Charlotte Burns: I love that work.

Donna De Salvo: I love that work. Every time I see it, I’m just drawn to it. It’s this beauty and death. It’s a very sensuous painting. I have my favorites that I go back to over and over. Every time I see them, I have a new read on it.

Dominique Lévy: They’re always relevant.

Donna De Salvo: Because they’re always relevant.

Charlotte Burns: And you change, too.

Donna De Salvo: That’s what a great work of art is. John Chamberlain once told me this great story. He said he would go to de Kooning’s studio and there was a painting de Kooning was working on. John told me that he said to de Kooning, “Oh, did you change that painting?” And he goes, “No, you’ve changed.”

[Laughter]

Donna De Salvo: I just thought, “Yes.”

Dominique Lévy: That says it all.

Donna De Salvo: It kind of says it all, but great works of art actually allow that. It is a test sometimes when you see some things multiple times and you go, “Hmm, I don’t think so.”

Warhol shifted the paradigm. He shifted the conversation. And I think that’s why we’re still grappling with him. Love him or hate him. He’s still there to be grappled with.

Dominique Lévy: So, you’re contradicting yourself. We haven’t caught up with him.

Donna De Salvo: No, we haven’t caught up with him. Catching up. I hope I never totally catch up with him, there’s still more work to be done for all of us.

Charlotte Burns: Well if you did, we wouldn’t get more exhibitions out of you on Warhol and I think it’d be great to look forward to what will come next.

I wanted to ask you a little bit briefly about the market. We spoke about it a little bit in the difference in prices. There’s a sense at public auction that the market has gone softer for him. I know we’ve seen some massive prices over the past couple of years nonetheless, but it feels like within the market, people are waiting for a big event to sort of—

Dominique Lévy: —I have to disagree with that. I think the quantity has gotten less, so maybe that’s why suddenly. Try to find a gorgeous Flower painting today. They were in all auctions. Try to find a beautiful Dollar Sign. I mean, we’re looking constantly because we have requests. I think the quantity has diminished so drastically in the last five years–

Charlotte Burns: With works from the 1960s?

Dominique Lévy: No, in general works for Warhol. It would be interesting to see how many works sold five years ago. I think the going down of just the number of available work. So, I think that’s the first thing. People think, “Oh, there’s no more Warhol. Must be that the market has quieted,” and I just think is that there’s more collectors and people are keeping it. That’s one.

Second, I think that it’s a market that we understand better with the coming out of catalogue raisonnés and exhibitions and we’re realizing that it’s not—it’s a lot, but it’s not a mass production. If you look at Picasso and you look at Warhol, you still think it’s a complete, manageable group of work, in terms of quantity. I think that also has made people want to sell less and keep.

If I look at the transactions that I know of or that we have been involved with in the last three years, I don’t think the market has softened. I think maybe the market is more selective. I think the market has temporarily focused maybe on the 1960s, but I think in the last 24 months there’s been transactions at prices higher than any work at auction.

If you have the right work, the demand is there. Where I think there’s a shift that will happen, or is happening, or is about to happen is in the late work. Donna’s show is a revelation for a lot of people. And what happened to your Shadow (Red) painting? What was it, five years ago at auction was also a surprise. The show downtown at the Calvin Klein space by Dia of all the “Shadow Paintings” is for so many contemporary collectors or classic collectors is like, “Oh my gosh, I forgot.” So, do I see that the market has softened? No. Do I see that there’s more demand and less supply? Yes. I just would put a caveat. I think we’re just about to witness a big shift in the 1970s and 1980s. And also, last but not least, there hasn’t been much great work coming at auction.

To me, he’s the greatest 20th century artist. He is the one by definition that will pass to generation to generation. I think our great grandchildren will be collecting Warhol in a way that they might not collect other American postwar artists. I hate talking about investment, but I think if there’s one artist where you can be safe, it’s Warhol and therefore I don’t see that softening in the market.

Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting when you talk about collectors perhaps overlooking the later works—because overall what we’re seeing in the market is this kind of consolidation around key names, around key moments and less experimentation, less broadening of horizons. It may seem that it’s inevitable that of course people will have to understand the overlooked value in 1970s and 1980s works, and 1950s works too. But the market doesn’t seem to be in that moment. Generally, there seems to be more of a kind of fixation on the known knowns.

Dominique Lévy: Yes and no, because again, it’s just a question of time. Look what happened to late de Koonings, look what happened to late Picassos. It just takes that magical market moment for the wide market to follow—

Charlotte Burns: To catch up. Right.

Dominique Lévy: But it will, it has to. Even the fact that we call it the late work. If you think about it for a second, what does it mean, the late work? You get to a place of maturity? Freedom, expensiveness? I’m a big fan of the late de Koonings and when you see what he’s done in 1981, it’s extraordinary. I don’t feel like calling that the late work. Same for a Picasso in the 1970s.

Charlotte Burns: It is actually more an issue of middle age. That’s when you have so many more pressures on you. You have money troubles, you have this, your relationships. You reach a stage: young is easier. Older is easier. The middle is just sticky.

Donna De Salvo: I adjusted my way of talking about that work and with Warhol, the 1970s and the 1980s.

Dominique Lévy: So, what did you—

Donna De Salvo: I call it the later work.

Dominique Lévy: That’s nice.

Donna De Salvo: Because he’s an artist who died at 58. So, when you talk about Picasso or other artists that lived well into their 80s or 90s, late work makes sense. But in Warhol’s case, it’s the later work, it’s not really the late work.

Dominique Lévy: I love the idea of later, I think we should adopt it as of now.

Donna De Salvo: To me, one of the moving things with our exhibition or exhibition was realizing that you’re in that last room—which was of course very highly selective what I choose there—but that this is an artist whose project ends because he dies. Yet you see him pushing forward in very formal ways in terms of the pictorial ideas of space. He’s using his toolbox of the camouflage, which has a kind of relationship to abstraction, but also has its own representation or meaning within it. You’re just thinking, “God, this guy was kind of just getting going again.”

You have to see it as the career. I think that is part of the challenge when people focus only on certain works from the 1960s because you—it’s like this is the only thing that guy ever made. And it’s so not that.

Dominique Lévy: Reductive. 

Charlotte Burns: He was endlessly innovating.

Donna De Salvo: It’s just so not that.

Charlotte Burns: And like you say, in other media—

Donna De Salvo: Listen, I think one of the great discoveries are these the screen prints of the sunsets—which, you know, people saw them in the exhibition, and they said, “What are these things? I’ve never seen them before.” I told people years ago, I said, “You should buy one of these things cause they’re like $20,000 and it’s a unique silkscreen.” Now, you might pooh-pooh it because it’s a print and it’s not a painting, but they don’t exist anywhere as paintings and they’re so extraordinary beautiful. He’s the greatest colorist of the 20th century. People see him along with Matisse and I think that’s quite fair to say. They are absolutely an innovation.

Dominique Lévy: The idea of color is so essential and is one that we also don’t have not looked completely in.

Donna De Salvo: I just have one question for you, Dominique. When did you first get this idea to do “Warhol Women”?

Dominique Lévy: I got very upset a year ago when my children asked me, “Why are we doing Woman’s Day?” Anytime I get to an interview in the art world it’s always about a woman artist, a woman dealer, woman this, woman that, and it’s been something that I want to think about.

And on the other side, Warhol is a key pillar. I started my career with Anthony d’Offay. Warhol was there. My first trades as a gallerist were Warhol, and he’s been a key figure.

I think the idea came up approximately a year and a half ago when I said to Brett [Gorvy], “You know, it’s time to just zoom in into that: who is the artist that has looked at women all the way through from a male gaze, even if it’s not a sexual gaze. A gay male gaze. Where we can look at women with looking at who they are and what it is about.”

It was just a sort of putting down a question—more about actually Warhol in one way, completely passionate about him. Then on the other side of, “but let’s look at women in a completely different way”. It felt very timely for that.

Charlotte Burns: When you said you felt upset being asked about Women’s Day—

Dominique Lévy: I think it’s obsolete. Have you heard about a man painter? About a man writer? There’s a tendency to talk about women and my hope is that when we look at that portrait gallery, you don’t so much talk about who each of the women are in a personal way, but you talk about womanhood seen through the artist. We have to advance that to a place where, you know, let’s have a Woman’s Day but then let’s have a Man’s Day

I just feel these conversations seem to not be evolving and especially with art and artists. It’s about the art and it’s about the artist. Whether he’s a man, or a woman, honestly. But it’s about the art and to me that was just—

Donna De Salvo: Most artists just want to be seen as artists.

Dominique Lévy: Exactly.

Charlotte Burns: Donna, I have one final question for you: which is, whenever you curate an exhibition, I’m sure that there are so many possibilities that you have. This idea of the path taken—at the end of that path, you must have ideas then for the next ones. So, of all the threads that you didn’t quite manage to get in one place, what would you do next? What are the questions that you would take forward for the next way of thinking about Warhol?

Donna De Salvo: Well, there were definitely things I left on the cutting room floor, as it were, and I do think there’s more to do on particularly the 1970s. I think that that’s such a transformative decade for Warhol with painting. The “Hammer and Sickle” series, which I think is one of the great, under-appreciated series. I think it’s one where Warhol—so many ideas about abstraction are played out. They’re highly lyrical.

There’s this new book that’s come out that was generated by Stanford, called “Contact Warhol”. The Warhol Foundation was looking for a place to give all of the contact sheets for Warhol. The total number of images on them is like 120,000 and they went to a few institutions, asked for proposals and Stanford was the one they chose. They’re all online, by the way. You can look at any one of them.

I think that’s going to lead to a whole new kind of thinking. Within those, you see Warhol not just taking photographs of the rich and the famous and the Studio 54. You see him doing what he did in the 1950s to a certain extent: street life, people in New York. There’s a much more of looking at the world, but the everyday quality of the world. I have to say, I’m kind of fascinated by that. I think there’s a lot in there yet to really now be researched and thought about. And it’s maybe a counter to what we tend to focus on with Warhol, just the kind of glamor and the demimonde and all of that.

But he was a guy you could see walking on the street all the time, and he was taking pictures all the time. Maybe it’s the more human side of Warhol that will come through, through those photographic images that are him out in the world recording.

Just the very nature of what photography allows, the directness of it. It’s him. It’s him and the camera. He’s constantly photographing. I’ve started to go through some of them. I mean then there’s the issue of what he chooses to use and stuff. But you kind of get this almost photojournalistic quality in them. So, I don’t know.

I will say, I do have one project that I hope I can figure out. I have about 50 interviews of people from the 1950s, all of whom now are deceased. I have two interviews with Warhol that I’ve yet to publish. So, my hope is to finally do a book of all of this. I hope I can do this in the next couple of years or so.

Charlotte Burns: That’s a great idea.

Donna De Salvo: All these scholars are saying, “You have this material and you’ve never fully published it.” And I go, “Yes, you know…” You forget, you get to a point—you do all this work and suddenly I’m like, oh, I’m a Warhol expert? When did that happen? I’m just a curator, you know?

Dominique Lévy: You’ve graduated.

Donna De Salvo: Yes, I’ve graduated. But I do have this material and I would like to get it into the world with an intro and probably someone running a foreword. Because it speaks very much to the social history of the 1950s, which many people just have no idea about.

Dominique Lévy: Because we’re focusing so much on the 1960s.

Donna De Salvo: We’re focusing on the 1960s and also what it was like for so many of these gay men to be in a time which was so different. Fortunately, times have changed, some things still need to change more, but it’s such a different sense—and it’s really the time of Rauschenberg and Johns. It’s a coded language. Ken Silver wrote an amazing essay in the show I co-curated with Paul Schimmel years ago, called “Hand-Painted Pop”. It’s called “Modes of Disclosure”, and it speaks so much about that generation. Even going back to say Marsden Hartley: Hartley’s images of the German officer, this coded language that you had to be able to read.

Charlotte Burns: Dominique, you have a thread dangling that you want to explore? The Warhol show, did it lead to any other—

Dominique Lévy: I mean, as I said earlier, when we finally installed the show I suddenly thought, “I wish I had a fourth floor to put all the anonymous—”

Donna De Salvo: I love that idea.

Dominique Lévy: Right. Yes, it really hit me that that will be a show I’d like to do. I don’t even know who they are, where are these paintings, but to just do something completely anonymous that has nothing to do with fame would interest me next.

Charlotte Burns: They’re aligned.

Donna De Salvo: I think you should do it.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you both so much for being our guests today. This has been really great.

Dominique Lévy: I had such a good time, actually.

Donna De Salvo: Thank you.

Dominique Lévy: Thank you.