Andy Warhol’s Return to Lower Manhattan
Thirty Are Better Than One
Through July 30, 2023
By J. SCOTT ORR, May 2023
Pop art patriarch Andy Warhol lived most of his adult life in a posh single-family townhouse on E. 66th Street in Manhattan's Upper East Side. But it was in Lower Manhattan that he spent most of his time producing silkscreened masterstrokes at the Factory and engaging in the area’s rampageous nightlife.
So it is perhaps fitting that the latest New York showing of Warhol’s work would take place on an otherwise undistinguished street in the East Village, not far from address he made famous: the Union Square Factory, the St. Marks Place discotheque he briefly commandeered with the Velvet Underground and the studio he lent to his latter-day friend and collaborator Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Thirty Are Better than One, the new exhibit presented by the Brant Foundation, opens May 10 at 421 East 6th Street. The show is drawn largely from the rarely-seen private collection of mega-collector Peter M. Brant and features works from across Warhol’s oeuvre, from clinquant renderings of celebrity footwear created in the 1950s, to classic celebrations of 1960s consumerism and the ubiquitous branding by Campbell’s and Brillo, to polaroid portraits of artists, actors and other luminaries of the 1970s and 1980s.
“It’s nice to have this in this neighborhood where it’s very pleasant…Jean Michel Basquiat lived very close by and many, many other artists lived within 1,000 yards of here. So it's a great space for this work,” Brant said in unveiling the show for journalists last week.
The exhibition presents a sweeping catalog of work from four decades of Warhol’s illustrious career, tracking his ascent from commercial artist to world class glitterati phenom. It takes viewers through the heady years of soup cans and chromatic portraiture, but also gives service to creations that came both before and after the pop art revolution.
The journey begins with Sam, an ink blot and watercolor rendering of a cat, created in 1950 shortly after the young artist moved from his hometown of Pittsburgh to New York. The piece is quite likely based on one of the two or so dozen felines that shared the 66th St. home with Warhol and his mom, Julia. Warhol’s cat paintings were later collected in his 1954 self-published book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, which was accompanied by Julia’s calligraphy.
Another early work, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, is a watercolor, gouache and ink rendering of a donkey on a tri-panel, folding screen. It was created in 1954 for a window at Tiffany’s during a period Warhol was working, and succeeding, as a commercial artist. Brant said Warhol preferred to bury this part of his biography, but noted that other iconic American fine artists of the day, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, were likewise engaged at times.
The exhibition includes a dozen glittery celebrity shoe pieces made with gold, copper and other metal leaf between 1950 and 1957. The footwear of Elvis Presley, Mae West and others is imagined in this series that draws on Warhol’s experience creating advertising content for show manufacturer Israel Miller.
Representing the latter-day Warhol is a series of portraits of Jesus at the Last Supper, rendered in silkscreen ink and synthetic polymer in 1986, one year before the artist’s death.Warhol, a devout but private Catholic for most of his life, allowed his religion to creep into his work toward the end of his life in the Last Supper series, a 1984 series called Details of Renaissance Paintings and in a body of work discovered after his death.
Among the more prototypical Warholian works represented in the exhibition are a pair of pieces that were among the first acquired by Brant: Campbell’s Soup Can (Chicken with Rice) (1962) and Shot Light Blue Marilyn (1964). A sister piece to Brant’s Marilyn, the iconic Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, sold last year at Christie’s for $195 million, the most expensive 20th century artwork ever to sell at auction.
Another seminal piece, White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) (1963), is a 12-by-6-foot work made up of 19 identical silk screen images of a horrific car crash that occurred on the New Jersey Turnpike. The piece was described by Sotheby’s as “a monumental altarpiece for the modern age” that “stands amongst the most radical and haunting artistic achievements of the 20th century.” Brant bought it last year for $85.4 million.
Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable) (1962), which Brant acquired at auction in 2017, was the first to introduce the iconic soup can to Warhol’s oeuvre. The work was featured in an article in Time magazine, which served to introduce Warhol and pop art to the mainstream masses.
Soup Can With Can Opener – from “a series that changed the face of 20th-century art,” according to Christie’s – shows the can opener just about to pierce the can’s top. The other works in the 11-piece series show the can’s top being wrenched open.
Brant took time to point out his first ever Warhol acquisition, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), a drawing in crayon and pencil that predates the creation of the classic silkscreened soup can works for which he is best known.
Together, Campbell’s Soup Cans and Can With Can Opener mark the early days of Warhol’s obsession with the quotidian objects of daily life in 1960s America, his fascination with consumerism and ubiquitous branding, and his way of at once celebrating and denouncing banal commercialization. The Can Opener piece was last seen in New York as part of “Andy Warhol: A Retrospective” at MoMA in 1989.
The show ably races Warhol’s career while at the same time reflecting on the remarkable collecting career of Brant, one of the world’s foremost collectors of the pop art legend. Brant, who began buying Warhol’s work as a teenager in the 1960’s, became a Warhol pal, eventually becoming publisher of Warhol’s Interview Magazine and a collaborator on two Warhol films L’Amour in 1973 and Andy Warhol’s Bad in 1977.
“I started collecting his art about a year, a year-and-a-half, before I actually met him. He wanted to meet me because he heard this kid was buying some of his paintings and so…I spent a lot of time in the late 60s the early 70s with him,” Brant said during the press opening.
Brant bought the E. 6th St. location, which features 7,000 square feet of exhibit space, in 2014 for $27 million to add to the foundation's flagship location in Greenwich, Conn.. Originally designed as a substation for ConEd, the building was home and studio to famed artist Walter De Maria from the mid-1980s until his death in 2013. De Maria, by the way, was in a band called The Primitives with Lou Reed and John Cale before the latter two went on to form the Velvet Underground and collaborate with Warhol.
The work of Warhol, who died of cardiac arrhythmia at 58 in 1987, has hardly lost its luster and, in fact, continues to gain both value and momentum in the collector world. Last year, according to artprice.com, Warhol was the world’s top-selling artist with a total of $590 million. Some 2,100 Warhol’s sold at auction in 2022, trailing only Pablo Picasso, with 3,400 works, and Salvador Dali, with 2,500.
Thirty Are Better Than One is open Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and runs through July 30. Tickets are available at brantfoundation.org. WM