Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Possession Obsession (or...Andy Warhol Collects!)


On a lark the other day, during my desk shift and as part of the relentless pursuit of doldrums-distractions that takes up a third of my day, I looked up words that interested me in the catalog for subject matches. This, along with the "customers who bought this also bought" on Amazon, is one of the ways I nose out overlooked books with which I might just need to fill my silly head. The subject "Zelda Fitzgerald" brought the usual returns, no new material to sift through there. "Vintage" turned up a book or two I put on order, one about Trader Vic's and another about a model turned secondhand clothing store entrepreneur. One of my favorite search terms, "Warhol", however, came up with a book I'd never heard of. How! How after a years-long obsession with the Factory and Warholiana (which is obviously what I'm going to name my first girl child) had I missed Possession Obsession?

The companion print piece to a 2002 Andy Warhol museum exhibition, Possession Obsession wasn't as heavy on catalog and pictures as I might have liked, but as I delved into the text, I was VERY interested in the subject of one of the 20th century's most recognizable artists also being a first-rate pop culture collector. And by collector, I don't mean dilletante-ish dabbler in fine arts and ceramics. While his collection certainly contained top notch examples of very fine items, what's surprising is the scope and varied content of his interests. Before celebrity collectors like Quentin Tarantino were snapping up grindhouse movie posters and tv-tie in board games, Warhol, with comparable zeal, bought Bakelite 30's and 40's bracelets like "penny candy", according to one contemporary article.

Aaaaand cookie jars? One installation at the AWM exhibit boasted more than A HUNDRED 1940's and 50's cookie jars, only the tip of the "Andy's Stuff" iceberg. The dining room of his three story brownstone in New York, pictured in the book as it was shortly after his death, is filled to the gills, Hoarders style, with unopened boxes of vintage chalkware, stacked on French Art Deco tables, chest high. A man after my own heart! Or a cautionary tale of what would happen if anyone ever gave me obscene amounts of money to do with what I liked.

Photobucket Photobucket

Above, I found an early 70's article from New York magazine detailing some of Warhol's collecting habits. A typically piquant quote from the article (click for a full sized image), straight from the horse's mouth, is with regard to a Emile Jacques Ruhlman table and chairs:

This elegant dining set is, according to Warhol, "used furniture. It was stuff we used for a movie we were making in Paris a couple years ago. Now we use it as a conference table and for the lunches we bring in every day [...] We eat here out of paper boxes with people like Bertolucci and Sylvia Miles and big producers like Grimaldi."

This probably has as much to do with Warhol's ever-vigilant eye on his public image as it has any connection with truth. I mean, I'm sure he does have lunch with Bertolucci at that table, but the "it's just an old table to me, I'm not the type to appreciate an object's worth" ruse is not sticking. Later, Warhol proclaims, "I always haggle over prices and never pay promptly," which the profile writer quickly counters with "Actually, he never dickers and he pays up immediately." The gulf between how one wants to be perceived as doing, and how one does, is especially wide with him-- presenting himself as a full trademarked, brand named celebrity in the pre-digital age, capable of self-promotion on a level I don't think the art world has seen before or since, it makes you wonder, what could he have done with a Twitter feed and a Youtube account? Doesn't it?

As you can see from some of the items from the Soethby's catalog (above), Warhol's major collecting habits included:
  • the aforementioned Art Deco period (unpopular amongst fellow scavengers at the time, Warhol loved the geometric design aesthetic of the movement and scooped up many examples for the scrap salvage price)
  • American Empire furniture
  • early American folk art (of the weathervane and hand-carved figure varieties that make auction house appraisers' collective jaws drop on Antiques Roadshow)
  • Native American pottery, rugs, and blankets, and of course
  • Kitsch collectibles (that weren't particularly collectible at the time-- Fiestaware, Hall china, Hull pottery, wind up toys, etc)
As far as numbers? From a 1988 NYT article: "During an obsessive shopping spree that lasted several decades, Warhol acquired 175 cookie jars, 313 watches, 57 Navajo blankets, 210 Bakelite bracelets, 1,659 pieces of Russel Wright pottery and 170 chairs." Top that, killer!

Is it a little crazy that the collector in me goes "Now THAT'S a collection!" not "What would a reasonable person need with 170 chairs"?

A group of art world academics examine the collection in a series of essays, peppered with reminisces of shopping trips by acquaintances, that make up the real heart of the book. One of the key lamentations of my fellow Pop Art eggheads is the dissolution of the collection at auction after Warhol's death in 1987. One likened it to scattering the contents of King Tut's tomb to the four winds-- without the unifying context of being an objected loved, purchased, and displayed by Andy Warhol, many of the items are returned to the commonplace. In another article from the early nineties', one collectibles dealer wailed that after the Warhol auction, the astronomical prices fetched by relatively pedestrian examples of his famous cookie jars (in one case, north of $40,000 for a lot of FOUR items) had driven up the market. The mix of the mundane and the extraordinary is what makes the collection so human-- but in that instance, you KNOW the buyer was looking for "four cookie jars owned by Warhol", not the mass-produced jars themselves.

One essayist, calling Warhol less a collector than an arranger-of-particular-items, quotes Helen Appleton Read on the subject of "the ensemblier": "The ensemblier is not the interior decorator, but an artist or designer who designs a room or interior with materials he commands."

Can I have that done in needlepoint and hung above my couch? I mean, seriously?

The items below weren't owned by Andy Warhol, but represent pieces by designers he collected. Consider it a gallery of "in the style of Andy Warhol collecting".

Your crib sheet for designers (and further research on this GORGEOUS style, if you like):
  • Jean E. Puriforcat
  • Archibald Knox
  • Jean Dunand
  • Pierre Legrain
  • Emile-Jacques Ruhlman
  • Carlo Bugatti
  • Joseph Hoffman
I knew nothing about these designers and now I'm more than a little in love. If only the items were still at bargain basement prices, as when Warhol found them in the 60's!!

Anyway, I was just bedazzled by the idea of someone like Warhol collecting with the same fish-eyed, lovestruck sense of consumer consumption as the rest of us-- the 'if you like it, get two!" school of thought writ large. Check out the book or the articles for more info, or, if you're an aspiring Warhol neophyte, may I suggest Bockris's top notch biography, The Andy Warhol Diaries, Jean Stein's Edie and Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello. IN-DISPENSIBLE.

And because I can't help myself:

Have a great Tuesday!!


  1. Wow! Who knew that Warhol was a serious knick knack collector? Makes me feel better about my own far-flung taste in junque. I always knew I was ecclectic, just not on that Warholian scale...at least not until I have an Egyptian chair or two! Thanks for this fabulous post!

  2. I love Warhol- such a visionary. It's always interesting when you see lil peaks into their personality beyond just a painting.



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