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The Art Exhibit That Got Away

August 28, 2019

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There is one thing about New York that is definitely a big plus: namely, there are always plenty of exhibits, events and places to explore in order to have a great time – for little or no money. No healthy human has to sit home and twiddle his or her thumbs! Since time flies in Manhattan I always make a point of keeping track of everything in my trusty At-A-Glance Daily Appointment Book.

BUT ONE SLIPPED BY

That said, I kept saying that “we definitely have to see the Andy Warhol (1928-1987) exhibit at the Whitney, it’s the first major American showing of his work in almost 30 years. We can’t miss it.” The exhibit dates were from November 12, 2018 to March 31, 2019 and guess what? We missed it.

I still don’t know how it happened. Then, in one of my favorite publications, Vanity Fair magazine of December 2018 I ran across an intriguing article by Mark Rozzo, titled “Andy’s Meal Ticket” which went into a lot of detail about Warhol and how he became a famous artist. This got my attention at once. I’m often intrigued by how a person or project evolves beyond all expectations. This article begins with two headline-grabbing events.

Andy Warhol looking for one of his favorite soups – photo courtesy of Vanity Fair

HE STARTED IN LOS ANGELES

Rozzo begins by writing, “On February 22, 1987 Warhol died following an operation at a New York hospital. Unbelievably, on the same day, Irving Blum, the Los Angeles gallery owner (who in 1962 had given Warhol his first solo exhibit as a fine artist) was busy preparing to ship the 32 paintings from that show to the National Gallery, in Washington, DC.

For 25 years, Blum had owned the works (each 20” x 16”) that depicted 32 varieties of Campbell’s soups. Blum had visited Warhol in NYC and took the chance of inviting the unknown artist to show the whole set at his Ferus Gallery on North La Cienega Boulevard.” It wasn’t an easy sell.

But Blum won Warhol over when he said, “Movie stars come into the gallery.” Andy replied, “Wow! Let’s do it!” Note: For years, the 33-year-old artist had made no inroads into the New York galleries.

THE SUMMER OF 1962

Irving Blum decided to display the paintings single file along narrow ledges. Blum priced the paintings at $100 each; Warhol got $50 a pop. No two paintings were exactly alike. The press went nuts – and negative. Blum took the paintings and Warhol seriously. (In 1961 Warhol gave his brother one of the few “pre-Ferus gallery” soup-can paintings. In 2002 it sold for $1.2 million). At the gallery, only five of the paintings sold.

BLUM BOUGHT ALL 32

The gallery owner (still with us at 88) persuaded the five buyers to back off. But now admits, “There was a certain amount of anger as Warhol’s prices shot into the stratosphere. But who knew that at the time?” Blum sent Warhol 10 monthly installments of $100 to keep the set intact -- $1,000 total, $31.25 a painting.

THE SUITS AT CAMPBELL’S

These guys threatened copyright-infringement litigation following the Ferus show. And then someone at Campbell’s woke up! Soon the company was love-bombing Warhol with collegial letters and FREE SOUP by the crateful. Now it has a Warhol painting of its soup in the boardroom of its corporate headquarters in Camden, NJ – where it remains today. (I love this story.)

THE SPECTACULAR PAYOUT

In 1996 Blum made a combined gift and sale of the 32 “Ferus Type” Campbell’s soup cans to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for $15 million or $468,750 per can. In 2012, Blum estimated the combined value at $200 million which, if anything, was a lowball figure. So there you go. We may have missed the exhibit but, all things considered, this is a smokin’ hot soup story.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick



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