Review of I Bought Andy Warhol

by Richard Polsky

Harry N. Abrams June 2003  256 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

            I Bought Andy Warhol is a thoroughly delightful book whose ostensible purpose is to chronicle the author’s attempt to purchase a Warhol painting for under a hundred thousand dollars.  The real story, however, is an engaging look at the world of art dealing during the lavish eighties and dismal nineties.

             Richard Polsky began in 1978 as a young San Francisco art dealer.  In contrast to the image of the Armani-clad, party-going, sophisticated urbanite, Polsky points out that “life as an art dealer is to a fair degree concerned with such mundane things as tracking down paintings lost in transit, securing proper insurance coverage, and filling out sales tax collection forms.”

            The key to any dealer’s success is relationships: with painters, other dealers, and customers.  However, what one does with those relationships is something else, since “anyone can become an art dealer—there’s no test to pass and no such thing as certification.  And because of that, everyone makes up the rules as they go along.  Since most people become art dealers because they can afford to—the vast majority come to the table with plenty of operating capital—no one has to behave.”

            And behave they don’t.  From food fights during a gallery dinner (with a poorly aimed chicken drumstick damaging a pricey painting), to the sudden disappearance of a dealer (who was later found to owe everyone millions), Polsky shares his stories with charming candor.

            Along with Jackson Pollock, Warhol was one of the few modern artists whose private life formed a part of his professional reputation, and as such, “Warhol” is perhaps the most recognized name in modern art.  Polsky notes that “he had a supernatural presence, almost like a fictional character come to life.”  And, although he is known for having spent most nights with rock stars, socialites, and the drug-addled denizens of his Factory, Warhol was prolific. 

            “When he died in 1987, he left behind approximately 4,100 paintings and sculptures.”  Never shy about his avarice, Warhol hit on a way to combine his interest in socializing with artistic commerce.  “Warhol completed approximately 1,000 portraits during the course of his career.  By the 1980s, he averaged a $40,000 sale per week of these portraits,” a practice that actually originated in 1963.

            In December 1986, Polsky’s search for a Warhol for his own collection got underway.  He hoped to snag a canvas from the period of 1962 to 1967, when Warhol created his most powerful work, the era of “the historic Soup Cans, Celebrities, Disasters, and Self-Portraits.” 

Like Salvador Dali’s, however, Warhol’s work has experienced problems with “provenance.”  After-hours assistants cranking out the silk screens and clever contemporaries creating their own “Warhols” makes buying an authentic painting fraught with financial peril.  In Warhol’s case, the problem was further compounded by his practice of not signing his work until it sold.  Given Warhol’s untimely and sudden death at 58, even veteran dealer and fan Polsky has trouble determining whether what’s being offered to him for sale is a legitimate Warhol.

            Polsky’s choice to pursue a Warhol made for interesting encounters.  Discussing the “six degrees of separation” theory, he notes that “every person in the art world is probably less than six people removed from Andy Warhol.  Basically, every participant has at one time or another either bought a Warhol, sold a Warhol, written about a Warhol, curated a Warhol show, read a book about Warhol, watched a Warhol film, viewed a Warhol in a museum, or met Warhol at Studio 54.  In theory, Andy Warhol is the unifying element in the world of Contemporary art.”

            I Bought Andy Warhol is the best kind of book: an informed, instructive, fun read that introduces you to a world you’re never likely to experience first hand, the commercial side of high end American art.  With his disarming, self-deprecating tone, Polsky tells his story with wit and grace.  Hence, even if you think a catalogue raisonné has to do with dried grapes, you’ll still enjoy the ride.

            Did Polsky end his twelve-year search with a Warhol on his wall?  I’ll let him tell you.