Gloss, greed and the Warhol estate

October 02, 1994|By Daniel Grant

As movies these days seem more and more like television, nonfiction books read increasingly like magazine-format TV programs, such as "Special Edition," "Hard Copy," "20/20," "Dateline" or "PrimeTime Live." One or two accusers are trotted out, rumors and charges from unidentified "insiders" are noted, repetition and sarcasm are pervasive -- it is easy to make someone look bad, much more difficult to tell a complete story.

Paul Alexander concluded that almost everyone associated with Andy Warhol's life (1928-1987), estate and foundation is rotten -- from the pop artist's brothers (who threatened to challenge the will that left them only $250,000 apiece) and the artist's business manager (who exhibited himself in nightclubs) to the estate's lawyer (described as a "gangster lawyer"), the assistant New York state attorney general (a "virtual caricature of the bumbling government bureaucrat -- the kind of professional who can make it in government but nowhere else") and the Warhol foundation's president ("Mostly he goes to meetings -- lots of meetings, as many meetings as he can fit into a day").

Of course, Mr. Alexander has little positive to say about Warhol himself, giving only a passing nod to the artist's work but discussing endlessly Warhol's love of money, wigs and celebrities, compulsive buying, fear of hospitals and inexhaustible tolerance for sycophants. Everyone is a social climber here, using someone, or something, to achieve a status to which they were not born.

Perhaps Mr. Alexander's observations and characterizations are correct. Certainly, Warhol left a massive estate of artworks (his own and that of other artists), real-estate holdings, jewelry, cash, various collections of antiques and kitsch, a popular magazine and a name that, along with images, could be licensed for millions of dollars.

Seven years later, the foundation set up in the artist's will has squandered millions of dollars in overhead, legal fees and questionable grants, and the estate has been significantly depleted. Principal players in all this -- estate executor, foundation board, art dealers, auction houses, appraisers and Warhol museum officials -- squabble among themselves through the legal system, with conflicts often based on personal dislikes, everyone racking up huge expenses. The result, Mr. Alexander claims, has been to diminish the art and legacy of Andy Warhol. That, in a nutshell, is the "disaster" of the book's title.

The harshest criticism is saved for the Warhol foundation, a charitable institution that during a recent trial over how to appraise the estate fully "brought in witness after witness to discredit the reputation of Warhol as an artist and to question the lasting value of his work." The auction house Christie's, which desperately sought to be the venue of Warhol auction sales and claimed in the trial that the artist's work was worth relatively little, and New York art dealer Andre Emmerich, who had sold the artist's work, stated that he had a "pessimistic opinion of the enduring value of Warhol." Such comments probably came as a surprise to collectors who had bought Warhols from either the dealer or at the auction house.

There is irony aplenty throughout the story for a sharp writer. However, irony requires a light touch, and Mr. Alexander approaches his subject with a hammer.

As his tale is more about people than specific events, Mr. Alexander takes most of his shots at personal contradictions, be they important or otherwise. For instance, we read that Arch Gillies, the Warhol foundation's president, often used the expression "we can do business together," adding, "Of course, Gillies had never been in business." (The italics are for anyone who might miss the point.)

Later, we read that Mr. Gillies, "a man who had openly endorsed the fundamental right of free speech in the past, had instructed his attorney to file court papers to deny the public access to large portions of the upcoming trial."

The author also tends to repeat himself, possibly in order to make sure that readers get the point. Mr. Alexander has written on the Warhol estate issue for various publications -- New York Magazine and Village Voice, among others. Repetition often enters in where writers attempt to turn related articles into books, but book editors are paid to catch just this kind of thing.

The largest problem in "Death and Disaster" is the lack of solid attribution and documentation. Such-and-such damning information, we are told, "a [Museum of Modern Art] insider told a journalist." The Warhol foundation's legal expenses were "a rumored $300,000 a month."

The attribution of another zinger against Mr. Gillies is "a friend of his would later tell the New York Observer." In general, magazine and newspaper accounts are apparently a primary source of Mr. Alexander's research.

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