Can’t Tell ‘Em Apart at All by Lena Valencia

The film Warhol:Denied follows Joe Simon’s attempts to get his Andy Warhol self-portrait authenticated, raising questions of authorship and the definition of Art.

Simon Warhol 01

Simon’s portrait. Courtesy

First broadcast in 2003 as part of the BBC “Imagine” Series, the MUSE Film Festival presentation of Warhol: Denied seemed particularly relevant in a time when artists are using their art as collateral for their country houses.

Presenter Alan Yentrob follows Joe Simon, a film producer, in his attempts to get his Andy Warhol self-portrait authenticated by the ludicrous Andy Warhol Authentication Board, an extremely controversial group responsible for authenticating Warhol’s art. Simon, whose Warhol—which he bought in 1988 for $195,000 and had previously been authenticated by Fred Hughes, the executor of Warhol’s estate—is shocked when his painting is returned to him with a dramatic “denied” stamp on the back of it. It hangs next to a wilting house plant in the office of his lawyer, who declares that it now has only “decorative value.”

Yentrob meets with a number of former Factory members who express similar distaste for the board and some of whom are rather ambivalent toward Warhol himself. Yentrob also meets with Ron Spencer, the board’s lawyer, who refuses to explain the reason for denying the prints but hints that it has to do with how they were made: Warhol had to be supervising an assistant for it to count as authentic; it had to have been created in the Factory, etc. The doc then spirals into a more radical direction, portraying Warhol as a slave driver character who, toward the end of his life, had illegal printing “sweat shops” and outsourced all of his work, reserving all of his time for public appearances. We learn that Warhol rarely even signed his paintings, sometimes even having other Factory members sign them for him. The painting in question, Simon discovers, was made specifically for a party. According to Richard Ekstract, one of Warhol’s cohorts, Andy provided him with the acetates, and he and Paul Morrisey ran off the prints. The film poses the same questions Warhol’s work poses: questions of authorship, authenticity of multiples, and almost beats you over the head with “What is Art?” It ends with Yentrob posing the immortal college paper prompt: “Discuss.”

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The DENIED stamp on the back of Simon’s portrait. (AP Photo/Van Prooyen Greenfield)

While the documentary is a cookie-cutter tale of little guy vs. bureaucracy, the more pressing issue is that of art as currency. Warhol used his art to pay his assistants, his maids, and to finance his films. The Authentication Board is not responsible for determining what is and isn’t art, but which works have value, therefore the underlying question of Simon’s plight is, “Must it have a cash value to be considered a work of art?” Simon wouldn’t have even encountered this issue had he not decided to sell the portrait. Ivan Karp, an art dealer, is the most forthcoming about this issue, explaining that he could have used the sale of one of his denied Warhols to get his gallery out of a financial rut. Ekstrackt, who owns a facsimile of Simon’s portrait (which he “made”), has no plans to send his to the Authentication Board.

Though Simon’s run-in with the AWAB is unfortunate, when one considers that his battle is centered around the $2 million that his painting is purportedly worth (or was in 2001), it seems to cheapen his plight. The portrait loses its “sentimental value” and becomes simply an “investment.” If Simon never decided to sell the painting and kept it hanging in his London flat or his charming New York apartment wouldn’t it still only have “decorative value?” Perhaps if one of Warhol’s maids was cashing in her Marilyn, I’d be a bit more sympathetic. I don’t know. “Discuss.”

Lena Valencia is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is also BOMB’s Web Editor.

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