WARHOL, COPIES & FAKES

THE CONSTRUCTION OF AUTHENTICITY AND AURA IN ARTEFACTS

 

BY CATHY MULHALL

As we walk into the exhibition, the face of Andy Warhol greets us, silver hair stuck out at gravity-defying angles, eyes slightly off-centre, mouth open in an ambiguous expression—maybe confusion, shock or, perhaps, boredom? Flat blocks of colour in a camouflage pattern change hue under disco lights, which switch from red, to green, to blue. I try to take in both the three dimensionality of the man in the photograph and the flat blobs of colour which assert the reality of the flat surface of the print. I’m left hovering somewhere in between two worlds; the ‘real’ surface and the ‘fake’ world of the photograph. This is 1987s Self Portrait No. 9, a reproduction of an original held by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Does this copy tell us any less about Warhol and his practice than the real print would? Would the real print react to the lights any differently, or bathe us in a more authentic aura of artistic genius?

These were my thoughts as I entered Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses, a recent exhibition at Melbourne’s Jewish Museum of Australia (JMA). As I walked through the show, I thought about the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ and how the value of objects is perceived differently when they are put in a gallery. Art museums tend to value ‘real’ artworks over ‘fake’ copies. Warhol’s artworks, while conceptually undermining the authenticity of the aura of the original, sell for millions if they have a proven link to Warhol, and are thus valued more highly than those which don’t have the aura of genius. On the other hand, history museums place value on the story an object can illustrate; even a copy of an artwork will be valued if its physical history, or the image it depicts, is linked to a significant person or story. In both cases, the context of the gallery or museum is essential in constructing an object’s authenticity. As well as this, the experiences, memories and knowledge visitors bring to exhibitions add another layer of complexity and meaning to an object’s aura. Within exhibition and museum spaces we are expected to learn from viewing objects which, if viewed outside of these special buildings, may not be seen as special, or ‘auratic’, at all.

The exhibition which prompted these musings was divided into two parts, stylistically separated as ‘art’ and ‘social history’ exhibitions. The first room displayed the ten framed prints of the ‘Jewish Geniuses’ in all their glory, hung on plain white walls, with an information panel about the subject of each portrait on a wall opposite. The second room was designed as an interpretative space, allowing us to not only have ‘intimate access to a range of original Warhol works’ (photographs, some screen prints, screens playing his 1980s television show Fifteen Minutes of Fame), but also to enjoy the social history of Pop art and the Warhol aesthetic. This section included ‘prop’ reproductions (or, to stick to our theme, fakes) of Warhol’s most famous works, including commercially available wallpaper and stickers. There was even a space where visitors could photograph themselves in front of a life-size photograph of Warhol with celebrities at Studio 54, and post this on social media for their own fifteen minutes of fame.

Warhol’s art practice challenged the assumption that artworks needed to be divorced from the mundane commercial world to be considered valuable. Warhol’s art is often analysed through the theories of Walter Benjamin, a twentieth century philosopher who defined and challenged the notions of ‘aura’ and ‘the original’, by analysing mass produced art like film and photography. Benjamin proposed that if an image can be captured exactly and reproduced multiple times, the power of the original work of art is diluted, becomes re-contextualised, and is eventually destroyed. When art is created to be mass-produced and widely and cheaply disseminated (as is the case with photography, film or recorded sound), the authority of the original becomes meaningless; the original event was simply an ephemeral moment in time. Benjamin believed the value of a work would be surpassed by the value of the image it communicated, available to be enjoyed by the masses. The fame of the image would take the aura away from the physical artwork (a direct product of the artist’s hand) and be embodied by the image instead. The distinction between an authentic original versus a fake reproduction would therefore became absurd. Warhol’s practice of creating multiple, mechanical copies of the same image, his focus on every-day consumer goods, and his mimicry of a mass-media, commercial aesthetic, follow Benjamin’s logic.

Warhol deliberately distanced himself from creative expression when manufacturing his artworks by using existing or mechanically-produced images. He attempted to create works which had nothing to say about himself personally, but would allow the aura of the famous image to take centre stage, by reproducing it over and over. Warhol’s use of the silk-screen process allowed him to create hundreds of prints of the same image, where individual differences stemmed from printing malfunctions, not deliberate artistic intent. Early exhibitions featured multiple repetitions of a familiar image: Campbell’s Soup Cans, Elvis printed against a silver background, hardwood replicas of boxes of Brillo soap powder. The representation of these consumer goods, using the visual language of advertising within an art gallery space, caused anxiety among art critics. Where was the originality or creativity in these artworks? Could they be called artworks at all if they were not the manifestation of an original vision from the artists mind? Were they fakes, or were they more real than the real things they were depicting?

The importance of an unique, embodied aura of an artwork developed as early as the nineteenth century. Romantic sensibilities described the aura of an artwork as palpable; one could be immersed in it, transported by it, absorbed by it. The opulence of nineteenth-century museum and gallery spaces combined with the sombre, ritualised behaviour expected of visitors framed the objects and artworks on display as valuable and auratic. In the art galleries of the twentieth century interpretation was kept to a minimum so the works could speak for themselves, without the moralising capitalism of the Victorian age interrupting. By the 1950s art theorists such as Greenberg celebrated the aura of art as autonomous, due to the liberation of art from the need to have a patriotic, religious or moral purpose. However, art galleries were still spaces which conveyed wealth, exclusivity, and upheld a system of privilege and intellectual superiority. Understanding a gallery as an exclusive, intellectual space, it becomes clear that the perception of Warhol’s works as art was incomplete until they were placed into a gallery context and consumed by an audience. The photographs used by Warhol came from magazines and photo-booths. The pop-culture subjects of the works themselves held no special meaning other than a fleeting aesthetic appeal, and the everyday objects (a can of soup, the cover of a newspaper) would not be considered special or extraordinary when encountered outside the gallery. The aesthetic language of advertising used and perfected by Warhol was usually considered a technical skill, not an artistic one. However inside an art gallery, audiences interpreted them through the paradigm of art theory and Warhol’s artworks have become some of the most valuable pieces of art on the planet.

During the 1960s a philosophical movement developed to counter Greenberg’s theory that modernist art was an unmediated expression of an artist’s aura. This movement questioned the assumption that the art gallery was an objective space. The status-quo of the art establishment (personified by art dealers, collectors, critics and curators, and located in galleries and museums) had already been challenged by the Dadaists in the 1920s and 1930s. The use of ready-mades attacked assumptions of what an art object could be. Brian O’Doherty, writing in the 1970s, used the Dadaists as an example of how avant-garde artists were absorbed into the mainstream by being exhibited, critiqued and therefore justified by the art gallery. When critically acclaimed and conceptually justified as art, these subversive artworks became a desirable commodity for art collectors, and therefore established and preserved their influence on the art world and art history narratives.

A similar process made Warhol’s originally subversive works part of the modern art establishment. Artist Daniel Buren’s analysis of the triple role of the museum can explain the process which turned these mass produced images into valuable art pieces:

Aesthetic: The museum is a frame which inscribes and supports a work as art. People walk in expecting to see art and interpret what they see as art. Therefore, this is how Warhol’s reproductions were analysed (positively or negatively), by collectors and critics.

Economic: The museum gives a sale value to what it exhibits, and art is conceptually deemed valuable by the museum. Thus, it gains and ‘earns’ its exposure as art. The prices paid for Warhol’s art only rose over his career, as his works became an essential part of any modern art collection.

Mystical: The context of the gallery projects a mystical, meaningful aura onto the object, which lifts it above the mundane. Not only were Warhol’s reproductions seen as art, they were (as his fame and prestige grew) seen as important, cult objects. The mystique which Warhol wrapped around himself only made his works more magical and desirable.

Jean Baudrillard extended this idea of the famous artist further: he noted that a Warhol ends up representing not the object it depicts, nor the aura of these objects, but the aura of Warhol himself. Due to the prolific reproduction of his famous aesthetic, a Warhol print becomes an ‘unconditional simulacra’, a copy that references itself before all else, and becomes ‘more real than real’. The logic of this theory suggests that a ‘fake’ reproduction of a Warhol artwork would be just as powerful as a real one, as it is the image, not its physical manifestation, which holds the power. Despite Baudrillard concluding that Warhol’s works are ‘without aura… without value… a pure visual product’, the amount of money that changes hands over these ‘fetish-objects without signification’ suggests the lure of a ‘real’, and thus ‘auratic’, Warhol artwork is still powerful.

Recent scandals surrounding Warhol fakes bring the reality of the aura of these into question. It is extremely hard to quantify what makes an ‘authentic’ Warhol. Warhol’s participation in the art-making process could range from conceiving the idea, choosing an image to work with, determining composition, handling silk screens, or simply setting up a camera and encouraging his friends to interact with it. He often left some or any of these steps to associates or assistants. Although Warhol produced hundreds of copies of the same works, he didn’t sign each copy. A high-profile court case over the authenticity of the so-called Red Portraits was the catalyst for the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts closing their authentication board in 2011. A lawsuit was brought against the board by dealer and artist Joe Simon-Whelan, who failed to get his copy of the 1965 ‘self’-portrait of Warhol authenticated. According to Simon-Whelan and Warhol’s former manager Paul Morrisey, the portraits were created at Warhol’s instruction through Morrissey. They assert the image, taken in an automatic photo-booth, was chosen by Warhol. Morrissey was then instructed to have an external company create and duplicate the prints from an acetate given to him by Warhol. However, the Authentication Board refused to confirm the Red Portrait series were ‘true’ Warhols. Other copies were similarly rejected, including a print signed by Warhol himself, which the board said could have been ‘dedicated’ to the owner Anthony D’Offay by Warhol, but did not prove his involvement in its production. D’Offay was offering the work to the Tate Modern at the time and its purchase using public funds without official authentication would have been wildly unethical. The ‘authenticity’ of Warhol’s works is still essential to their value.

Another recent case of Warhol dis-authentication is based on a dubious claim on behalf of the owner of several Brillo Boxes, and possible copyright implications. In 2011 dozens of Warhol Brillo Boxes once owned by dealer and Moderna Museet director Pontus Hulten were reclassified as ‘posthumous’, when it was revealed they had been made as ‘exhibition copies’ in 1990. Hulten lied when the boxes were originally authenticated, claiming they were made in 1968 at the remote direction of Warhol for an exhibition held in Europe. When the boxes went on display again in 1990 Hulten had dozens of new copies manufactured. Hulten claims that as the 1990 copies were effectively authorised in 1968 by Warhol, they were therefore authentic. The Warhol Foundation did not go so far as to label them fakes but were forced to re-classify them as posthumous, as Hulten’s claim could not be disproven.

Disputes about Warhol himself breaching copyright also question the authenticity of artworks created in a medium where reproduction is an inherent necessity. In his early career, Warhol regularly appropriated images without seeking copyright permission or acknowledging the original creator. However, it only took a couple of cases in the early sixties for Warhol to change his practice and seek permission before using images. Photographer Patricia Caufield sued over Warhol’s use of her photograph of hibiscus flowers in his 1964 work, Flowers. Caufield was the focus of some snide comments by some of Warhol’s defenders, who claimed that she was an amateur, not a ‘true’ artist like Warhol. However, press photographer Charles Moore had also sued Warhol in 1963 over the use of his famous image of Jackie Kennedy after JFK was shot, in Warhol's work Jackie. Unfortunately these two copyright cases were settled before they got to court, so the legalities of Andy Warhol’s appropriation were never publically debated. Although America’s copyright law covers artists for appropriated art in some instances, cases hinge on aspects of individual creation (ie. do they transform the work in a significant way?) and how and why the works are altered. As well as providing precedents for other contested cases of appropriation in art, these cases may have provided an interesting discussion on where the true artistic expression lay within these images, and exactly where Warhol’s mark (or aura) was situated. Was the aura generated by the images used, or by Warhol’s fame?

Now, back to the exhibition…

Copyright restrictions played a large part in the design of the Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses exhibition. The expense of borrowing or even licensing reproductions of works directly from the Andy Warhol Foundation forced the Jewish Museum’s curators to be creative, employing ‘fakes’ (cheap, commercially available reproductions), in a way art galleries probably wouldn’t consider. A tower of limited edition 50 Years: The Art of Soup Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans released by Campbell Soup Company and the Andy Warhol Foundation (purchased by the JMA on eBay), were displayed on a plinth. Pillows of metallic silver fabric were suspended from the roof as a homage to Silver Clouds, and a pile of cardboard boxes with non-descript red, white and blue logos were a prop substitute for the iconic Brillo Box. Had the curators received the authority from the Andy Warhol Foundation to reproduce exhibition prints or to construct boxes with an authorised Brillo image, would they have conveyed the aesthetic of Pop art any better? These objects might be incongruous in an art gallery where the authentic ‘masterpieces’ are expected, but fit nicely into a social history museum, where everyday objects are often used to illustrate wider themes and social phenomena. The power of the fake pop images and their aesthetic were arguably just as visceral, aesthetically pleasing and emotionally nostalgic as the real thing.

This brings us to the stars of Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses, the portraits of 10 Famous Jews of the 20th Century. There is no doubt of these works’ authenticity. By the time Warhol created them in 1980 he was running a well-oiled and profitable art business. The prints were released in numbered sets, with limited painted versions to follow. However, when the works were first shown they were criticised for being phoney and without substance. The same methods that had worked for Warhol in the sixties were becoming stale, lacking the aura of revolution which was felt in his prints of the 1960s. His choice to depict Jews was criticised as well. It was called offensive, provocative, and exploitative of Jewish culture, despite the works being created in close collaboration with members of the American Jewish community. However, since their unveiling in Miami in 1980, they have been exhibited as a celebration of Jewish culture. Jewish museums around the world have bought the prints and paintings, thus validating their importance, and have exhibited them together as a springboard for discussion about what it means to be Jewish and how Jewish identity is created. As museum theorist Eileen Hooper-Greenhill explains, ‘The tangibility of artefacts makes abstract notions tangible’. Warhol once expressed a similar sentiment. ‘The moment you label something, you take a step—I mean, you can never go back again to seeing it unlabelled’. Here, 10 Famous Jews of the 20th Century make the intangible notion of identity real. 

Is the aura of Warhol’s artworks fake? Personally, I believe the aura of an artwork is situated in an intangible realm between the physical artwork and the image, the viewing space, the artist’s or image’s fame and the viewer’s own experiences and ideas. The aura emerges from all of these realities, allowing a tangible manifestation of intangible thoughts and feelings. Art is never just art. An original work will always be faked and reproduced. It will always have life outside of its original. No version is less real than the original, as they lift the work above its original form, and diversifies its aura into millions of contexts and individual realities.

Cathy Mulhall is an Art History and Museum Studies graduate working with copyright in museum collections. She occasionally tweets as @Cat_Mulhall.

Photograph by Noni Zachri, taken at the Andy Warhol—Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2016.

Photograph by Noni Zachri, taken at the Andy Warhol—Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2016.

Noni Zachri is a conservator of paper and photographs, martial arts fan, and amateur photographer.

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