The Selling of St. Andy

The Selling of St. Andy


Published : October 26, 2006

IN 1968 Andy Warhol placed an advertisement in The Village Voice: “I’ll endorse with my name any of the following: clothing, AC-DC, cigarettes, small tapes, sound equipment, ROCK ’N’ ROLL RECORDS, anything, film and film equipment, Food, Helium, Whips, MONEY!! love and kisses ANDY WARHOL. EL 5-9941.”

Warhol was not being coy. He was firming up his position as a sociocultural commercial institution, an artist who churned out silk-screen prints with assembly-line efficiency, a magazine publisher, a television personality, a filmmaker, social gadabout and self-styled prophet, who saw the erosion of the line between art and commerce. He was intent on turning his name and mystique into a brand.

“Being good in business,” he wrote in “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” newly republished by Harcourt, is “the most fascinating kind of art.”

But even the seer in Warhol could not have envisioned the degree to which he has become commercialized. In time for the holiday season, nearly 20 years after his death in February 1987, the marketing of Andy Warhol is in full flood. “We’re seeing Warhol energy peeking out from everywhere,” said Robert Lee Morris, the jewelry designer and a former member of the artist’s circle, who has brought out a line of jewelry with Warhol motifs like the dollar sign and the Brillo logo. “We are witnessing all the ways that his reach has extended into the moment.”

Warhol’s mercantile essence, both high and low, is distilled in carpets and coffee mugs, calendars and greeting cards, T-shirts, tote bags and a style of Levi’s wax-coated jeans called Warhol Factory X, for $185. To judge by all the merchandise, Warhol is being positioned as the next Hello Kitty. There will even be a Warhol Pez dispenser. Imagine his jaw popping open to disgorge a mint.

It is “the fulfillment of Andy’s fantasy about business art” said Jeffrey Deitch, the art dealer and former Warhol associate. “I think he would have been amazed to see what has developed.”

Warhol-inspired wares are being sold in stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom and in youth-oriented chains like Urban Outfitters and high-end fashion boutiques like Fred Segal in Los Angeles. This month Barneys New York will roll out a holiday marketing campaign around the artist, including shopping bags with Warhol-like doodles, four store windows and a limited edition of Campbell’s soup cans.

“It’s a good moment for Andy Warhol,” said Charlotte Abbott, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly, noting the many recent Warhol books. “Culturally, he is still on top,” she said. “There is more of a rebellious New Yorky underground feeling coming back into the zeitgeist — or maybe it’s just a nostalgia for all that.”

Warholiana is being pitched ever younger. People in their late teens and early 20’s are apt to identify not just with the cool, affectless Warhol persona, said Irma Zandl, a youth trend forecaster, but also with Warhol the entrepreneurial go-getter.

Among the new books are “Edie Factory Girl” (VH1 Press), a photo chronicle of the artist’s relationship with his socialite muse Edie Sedgwick, and “The Day the Factory Died” (Empire), pictures from Warhol’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Christophe von Hohenberg, with text on the Warhol circle by Charlie Scheips. There is also “Andy Warhol ‘Giant’ Size” (Phaidon), a coffee-table tribute to the artist, packed scrapbook style with 2,000 images and documents.

Why Warhol, and why now? Those thrusting him back to the cultural and commercial forefront — if he ever left it — offer several explanations. “There is a longing for that era in Manhattan of self-invention and discovery, of cultural questioning,” said Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys, who is orchestrating the store’s many-pronged Warhol holiday marketing.

He described the present moment as one of “trompe l’oeil grooviness, all ironed blond hair and girls wearing Blahniks.”

“But Andy wasn’t pseudohip,” Mr. Doonan said. “He is the primordial mulch from which all cool in Manhattan sprang.”

In a celebrity-fixated society, which often equates style with substance, Warhol’s canny exploitation of fame and image are particularly resonant. “He understood celebrity and branding,” said Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. “He came from a commercial world and made it part of his art. That is why he is so relevant.”

Warhol is also the subject of “Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film” by Ric Burns, an exploration of the artist’s life broadcast on PBS last month. He is a looming presence in “Factory Girl,” the much anticipated Weinstein Company film starring Sienna Miller as Ms. Sedgwick, which is expected in theaters next spring.

It is hardly surprising that Warhol, a graphic artist who first drew notice for his wispy illustrations of rose-color court shoes and who worked as a window dresser for Bonwit Teller in Manhattan, is the inspiration as well for a proliferation of fashions and accessory lines. Besides the Levi’s jeans, which are printed or embroidered with famous Warhol art images, they include shoes by Royal Elastic and a collection of plastic Day-Glo colored watches by Seiko.

The candy-color Warhol aesthetic has spawned a makeup collection by MAC. Introduced last August, it is inspired by Ms. Sedgwick, whose gamine look was defined by spiky lashes, white lids, pink lips and translucent skin.

The artist’s hold on the popular imagination also stems partly from his carefully cultivated bad boy pose. Gaunt and chalky, he disdained the wholesomely conventional, not troubling to hide his pursuit of young men, persistent club-crawling or pill-popping. “He was subversive, the real thing,” Mr. Doonan said, adding, “Subversive now is to be a hedge fund manager who owns a Warhol.”

Mr. Doonan professes a special affinity with the artist, whom he calls “the patron saint of retail,” a name that finds its way into the Barneys holiday catalog, “Happy Andy Warholidays.” The store’s Warhol-theme holiday marketing includes shopping bags covered in Warhol-like doodles of shoes, doves and tree ornaments.

“This is a huge deal for us,” Mr. Doonan said, pointing to a series of Warhol windows being mocked up last week at a studio in Midtown. They depicted periods in the artist’s life: his fashion illustrator years, the Factory period with Ms. Sedgwick, Warhol as social butterfly in the 1970’s and 80’s — “from Liza to Basquiat,” as Mr. Doonan put it, “and from Studio 54 to Area.”

Warhol’s compulsive collecting is represented by an enormous shelving unit in the shape of his head. “It will be packed with the detritus of his extreme hunting and gathering,” Mr. Doonan said. “Everything from button-filled jars to soup cans.”

Barneys wares, licensed by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, include a denim trucker jacket with a Warhol portrait on the back ($275), a hooded sweatshirt with a banana print ($176) and limited edition Campbell’s soup cans with reproductions of Warhol labels.

Joel Wachs, the president of the foundation, said revenues from some 40 licensees have quadrupled in the last five years, generating about $2.25 million in royalties in the current fiscal year. Proceeds go to the Warhol endowment, which supports the arts.

Retail sales of licensed merchandise in the United states are between $40 million and $50 million, said Michael Stone, the chief executive of the Beanstalk Group, the licensing agency for the Warhol Foundation.

Tricked out in a silver wig and signature red-rim glasses, Warhol turned himself into a recognizable product, paving the way for other artist brands. Art world figures like Mr. Deitch point to the success of Damien Hirst, whose London restaurant Pharmacy reproduced his well-known installation of the same name, and on a populist level to Thomas Kinkade, whose charm bracelets, candles, gaudy greeting cards and calendars are sought as collectibles.

But Warhol’s chameleon personality may well make him the ideal candidate for branding. “Licensing is all about creating a perception and leveraging that,” said Martin Brochstein, who writes The Licensing Letter, a trade publication. In Warhol’s case, there is so much to chose from. “Some people see a silver-haired guy, others the Campbell’s soup can or Andy the bon vivant,” Mr. Brochstein said. “If you play into enough of those facets, then there is a market.”

Warhol also speaks to a new generation of artists, who invoke his spirit, marketing raincoats and sneakers as artworks. Those in Mr. Deitch’s stable, for instance, sell skateboards, wallpaper and figurines, most tagged at under $100.

Last June, Mr. Stone of the Beanstalk Group attended a licensing trade show in New York. Some 300 artists were represented, he recalled. “I guess there are a lot of people looking for that pot at the end of the rainbow.”