BMA acquires 18 Warhols

May 05, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The Baltimore Museum of Art has purchased 15 paintings and three drawings by Andy Warhol from the artist's estate, giving it the second-largest holding of Warhol paintings among the world's museums.

The works, lesser-known pieces from the artist's later years, have an estimated worth of more than $1 million. They will be put on public view when the museum's New Wing for Modern Art opens in October. Once installed in the permanent collection, they will join the 15 other Warhol works at the BMA, many of which are high-profile pieces such as "Campbell's Soup Cans."

In making the announcement, BMA director Arnold Lehman described Mr. Warhol as "an artist whose gigantic contribution is yet to be fully understood."

The newly acquired paintings and drawings were created from 1975 to 1986. (The artist died in 1987.) They include multiple paintings from three series plus seven other paintings. The three drawings, all called "The Last Supper" and all from 1986, relate to the painting "The Last Supper" (1986), an immense 25 1/2 -foot-long Warhol painting the museum bought in 1989.

The museum bought the works in part because, "from the perspective of a curator, having a body of work by an important artist is a priority," said Brenda Richardson, BMA deputy director and curator of painting and sculpture.

The museum purchased late works for two reasons, according toMs. Richardson, who spearheaded the museum's effort to get the Warhols.

One, because they are much less expensive than early works. "In our wildest dreams we couldn't build a collection of early Warhols,"said Ms. Richardson.

And two, because 13 of the other 15 Warhol paintings the museum holds are in the realm of earlier and better-known works, including examples from such series as "Campbell's Soup Cans" (1962), "Liz" (1963), "Disasters" (1963) and "Jackies" (1964). These works are not owned by the museum but are on extended loan from the collection of Ileana and Michael Sonnabend.

Mr. Lehman said yesterday that he did not know whether the Sonnabend Warhols will eventually be given to the museum. But he said the purchase "shows a commitment on our part to the artist's work."

In 1989, the BMA purchased Mr. Warhol's "The Last Supper" for $682,000 and caused the kind of controversy here that has often surrounded this artist's work. Local talk show host Allan Prell said that "about 90 percent" of callers the morning the purchase was announced questioned it.

But Nan Rosenthal, curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery in Washington, called the Warhol "a terrific acquisition."

In 1992, the BMA became one of about 60 U.S. museums eventually invited to purchase works at a discount by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, a non-profit foundation that controls the Warhol estate. The foundation set up the purchase program "to put Warhols in the public domain in museums . . . so that the public can get access," said foundation Curator Tim Hunt. No other museum has purchased anything near the number the BMA has bought, he said.

Only the new Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, slated to open to the public on May 16, will have a larger number of Warhol paintings -- about 900 -- than the BMA.

Both the BMA and the foundation refused to disclose how much the museum paid for the works, but it was said to be far below market value. In 1991 Christie's auction house appraised the works in the Andy Warhol estate, and the Warhol Foundation is allowing museums to buy works at a 50 percent discount from that appraisal.

After a recent court battle over the appraisal, a New York judge ruled that the Christie's valuation was only about a quarter of the actual worth of the works, "so we really got them for about 18 percent" of their true value, Ms. Richardson said.

Jeffrey Hoffeld, a private art dealer and consultant in New York with expertise in the works of Mr. Warhol, said that the group of Warhols the BMA has acquired might collectively have a market value "well over $1 million dollars."

If late Warhols do not sell for the prices of early ones, it's not necessarily because they are of lesser quality. "I have an unqualified commitment to the late work," said Ms. Richardson.

Many of the late series, like many of the early ones picturing disasters and electric chairs, deal at some level with death, said Ms. Richardson.

Mortality was never far from Mr. Warhol from the time that he was shot in a 1968 attack, she said. "And if you're around this type of work for more than two minutes, it's hard to dismiss him as not having challenging and serious content."

Some do dismiss him. Roger Kimball, an art critic and the managing editor of the New Criterion, is one.

"I think he was a genius at publicity but not much of an artist," Mr. Kimball said, calling the late work consistent with the early. "The late became more self-conscious and slicker, but there was always a large element of facetiousness in it."

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