The Business Artist: How Andy Warhol Turned a Love of Money Into a $228 Million Art Career

An installation view of "Andy Warhol Enterprises" at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
(Courtesy the Indianpolis Museum of Art)
"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art," Andy Warhol famously said. "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." Having gotten his start as an immensely successful commercial artist selling product illustrations to advertisers and department stores, Warhol bent the American consumerist system to artistic ends throughout his career — embracing capitalism at a time when many in the creative sphere viewed it skeptically, if not with outright hostility. Now a new exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art called "Andy Warhol Enterprises" has seized upon a recent resurgence of interest in the artist's work to closely examine just how Warhol treated business, commerce, and, above all, money in his art and life.

At an economic moment when the art market is booming — with a Warhol painting selling for $63.4 million at Phillips de Pury last month — as the rest of the country struggles through a grueling recession, wealthy businessmen have been demonstrating extraordinary confidence in art as a liquid financial asset. Warhol, it could be said, took the opposite approach — he saw business as a dependable artistic asset. To discuss the ways in which the Pop artist approached this sweeping subject, ARTINFO executive editor Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the exhibition's co-curator Sarah Urist Green, who organized the show with art critic Allison Unruh.

One of the interesting things about your exhibition is that it is sponsored by PNC Bank, which is in itself a commentary of a kind on the relationship between business and art.

When I got a call from Max Anderson, our director, asking if I would be interested in curating a show in conjunction with PNC bank and the Warhol Museum, my first reaction was a little bit hesitant. But I thought, "Warhol certainly wouldn't mind having a show sponsored by a bank. He would probably have really liked it." And I love the fact that Warhol had the corporation Andy Warhol Enterprises — it has always stood out to me as a really fine example of Warhol as an entrepreneur — and Andy loved money. So I though lets do a show about Andy loving money, but in a critical, engaged way.

Did they have any part in coming up with the show's conceit?

No, this is something that we pitched to them. And they loved it. I especially thought it was hilarious that for once we would be able to even flaunt a sponsor's name and logo in conjunction with the exhibition. Whenever we were creating collateral for the show I was able to say "don’t forget the logo" and "make the logo bigger."

The exhibition catalogue shows Warhol as a shameless self-promoter, even appearing on Japanese film ads like the cliché of Bill Murray's character going to sell Japanese whiskey in "Lost in Translation."

That's perfect, right? But he was doing that from the beginning. Something we didn't have an image of in the catalogue but that was always in my mind in developing the show was the classified ad he put in the Village Voice in 1966 that said, "I will endorse with my name any of the following" and then it was just a list of all of the things he was happy to endorse, which included "anything." So he was a bit of a whore, as it were, from the beginning. One of the ideas that we have really tried to work against in this exhibition is that there was a turning point in Warhol's career — this idea that before he was shot there was a certain integrity to his work and after a turning point it all dissipated and he became a servant to celebrities and society members. I don't believe that that is true. He even said later in his career, "I was always a commercial artist."

That is so interesting because that recent biography of him, "Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol," ends when he was shot in 1968, essentially condensing the last two decades of his career into a few paragraphs, largely dismissing it as commercial work.

I know. It's a great book, it's excellently researched, has great material, but it just ends! He was shot in 1968 but he didn't die until 1987. It is really incredible that that perception persists — I mean, it is really prevalent, especially, of that generation. This exhibition is one of several in the past few years that is re-examining his later work including the "Last Decade" show and "Pop Life." These other exhibitions are looking at his later work in a fresh light. But I feel sometimes that the members of Warhol's own generation, or the people who were there, were sometimes clouded in their judgment and unable to see the irony of his later work.

I think it is so interesting your catalogue opens with a picture of Warhol sitting behind a desk. I can't think of another artist, like that, sitting behind a desk. Even Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst wouldn't take that picture.

Oh, no. You have seen pictures of them at their desk in their studios, maybe sitting with desks or papers or tables behind them, or maybe at a computer, but not this — in such an officious role! I love that photo. It hasn't been published very much, and it was really important to us to include it. There is actually another version of this photo that is backed up a little more and it shows that, to the right of the telephone, there is a TV facing him.

The essays in the catalogue present Warhol as this businessman sitting behind a desk, running Warhol Enterprises, concocting a new moneymaking scheme every day, wearing a tie, and flying by Concorde. And it certainly worked: the final valuation of his estate was $228 million.

That's correct, though I'm not sure exactly how the Warhol Museum came to that figure. I am pretty sure that it is the valuation of his work at the time of his death plus all of the other art work he collected, because he had quite a collection of decorative art and some work by other artists, as well. Also, it includes his real estate holdings.

So, just like any other CEO.

Exactly. In the exhibition we have a portfolio that says "Andrew Warhol Enterprises Inc." on the front and it sort of goes through the value of his estate in 1965, and lists artworks that he owned — some small Rauschenberg works and other items. But he did amass quite a bit of wealth in his days. Even in the 50s, in the first decade of his career, he did amazingly well as a commercial artist. So he was very well off even before he became famous.

What was he like as a boss?

[Laughs] As a boss? Well, we interviewed Vincent Fremont in the catalog and that is one account of many accounts, but at a certain point in my research it became unhelpful to read the accounts of everyone who worked for him. The people who were very close to him seemed to love him, like Pat Hackett [Warhol's secretary]. While they had not an uncomplicated relationship with Warhol, they certainly had extreme fondness for him. But then you read accounts like Bob Colacello's "Holy Terror" and you see a different side but one that is cited often, the flip side of Andy Warhol, where while he could be incredibly encouraging to other people, to other employees, other artists, he was also pretty cruel in certain regards as well.

What fascinates me is that while he presents this image as a business man — "the business artist" — his own management of his affairs was much more like an artist. He hardly paid anyone except with drugs, or parties, or the occasional lunch money.

Part of Warhol's brilliance at an early age was getting people to help him for free. In the 50s he would have these coloring parties where he would invite his friends to Serendipity 3 to help him hand-color his blotted line drawings, and he had his mother help him as well. He certainly had paid assistants, too. All of his films made it look like people in the factory were just sitting around, but he was certainly very good at getting people to work for him for free, and I'm sure it was mutually beneficial. It turned from the "Factory" into the "Office", and his staff members grew as his life progressed. But he certainly did know how to run a business and get the most out of his employees.

Did they have health care? Or anything like that?

I don't know, but there is a great Warhol quote: "Employees made the best dates. You don't have to pick them up and they are always tax deductible."

It is funny to think about how much of a chaotic mess his workplace was.

Well, you see the time capsules, and you get a small glimpse of his business life because the time capsules were basically his sweeping off his desk every so often and putting it in a box. And if you go to the Warhol Museum archives and you take a peek in those time capsules, it is really astounding the amount of stuff that almost anyone would throw away that Warhol kept.

What stands out in your memory?

Ticket stubs, taxi receipts, small notes about his finances. If you look in his diaries, you will see that the "Andy Warhol Diaries" actually originated because his accountant wanted him to track his daily expenses, and then it expanded from there. But it will say "taxi, 3 dollars" and so on. That is in the "Andy Warhol Diaries" that Pat edited. He would call her in the mornings and she would transcribe his day-to-day activities for many years. And some of them... I mean, it's funny, but pretty tedious at a certain point. He will say who he went out with the night before, who was at Studio 54, et cetera. They also found in the time capsules over a thousand dollars in cash that he just stuck in one of the boxes. I tried to get that for the show, actually, but I think they gave it to the Warhol Foundation.

When people describe the Factory as the site of counter-culture experimentation and wild parties, it's easy to forget how literal a factory it was. He mass-produced the Campbell Soup boxes, lining them up row by row and finishing them in an assembly line process. It's mind-boggling to see photographs of them being made and count how many of them there were in just a single batch. Even those beautiful small flower paintings. Looking at one hanging on a wall, it has so much presence and power, but in photographs from the Factory you can see they were manufactured on a similar scale to an Ikea bed lamp.

Right. And that is something we hope to portray in the book and in the show. We are focusing on Warhol as a businessman and entrepreneur, but his works have an incredible power and iconicity all of their own. And when they are lined up, they take on a different resonance, and if you have seen the installation photos of his shows of his box sculptures, you will remember them stacked up with people squeezing in between boxes to get by. But the Factory was an actual factory to begin with — it was a textile factory he converted into a studio. It really was the perfect setting he needed for his large-scale production. When people think of the Factory, I think they think of it filled with people, but it was really mostly Warhol and Gerard Malanga, and occasionally a few other assistants. But you see in those photos in the books, Warhol on the floor working on these — they had hand-painted backgrounds and, yes, they were silkscreened — but they certainly were labor-intensive in a certain way. And with the box sculptures, the boxes were created by cabinet makers and delivered to the Factory, where they hand-painted the sides, and silk-screened each side. So it really was a Factory. It was an art factory.

Where he was the foreman.

Yes, the foreman. But he was always involved. And the couriers from the Warhol Museum said when they were here that you can always tell when Warhol had stretched a painting himself — and I have read that elsewhere as well — because he used as few staples as possible.

His money paintings have always struck me, because the frank depiction of the bills is such a bold reminder that money — as a symbolic image executed on paper — is essentially art to begin with.

That is a thread we certainly wove throughout the show. It is shocking, and I think historically the works had been paid less attention to because it is shocking and because people tend to get uncomfortable when art and money are brought up. In reading some of the reviews of the "Pop Life" show at the Tate, there were several comments about how the curators didn't really address money in the show, and here we really wanted to make it clear from the very beginning that Warhol was completely unafraid of bringing to your attention the fact that art is a commodity, that it has value. He wasn't afraid of expressing that and forcing other people to acknowledge that as well. And the dollar sign paintings in particular came at a time when he was really being harangued as a sell-out. I think it is immensely interesting that at that very point he came out with these very brash depictions of money, which also came to symbolize the decade, as a sort of a keen recognition of that criticism.

So often his most seminal artistic decisions seem to have been prompted by other people's suggestions.

Of course, yeah. He got people to work for him for free and give him ideas.

That is kind of one of the real mysteries or ambiguities of his work, I find. There is a famous line that goes a long way towards capturing this, that people told him what to do, and in doing it he did what he wanted to do all along.

Well, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable that he very blatantly took ideas from other people. But in the example of Muriel Latow giving him the idea for the dollar paintings, he then paid her $50 — for the idea of painting money. Which I think is hilarious, but really also a very progressive technique of appropriation, and it is a tactic that artists and non-artists are using in life more and more as our world gets increasingly media-saturated and the idea of curating is bleeding out into other areas. The idea of identifying the most salient symbols and ideas of the day — to do that you have to pull ideas from other people. And I admire Warhol for looking to others for ideas. To me his genius was in identifying the good ideas. He didn't do everything they suggested.

Warhol loved vulgarity, from the camp of his movies to the overtly commercial side of his art, reacting to accusations of selling out by really becoming this consummate 1980s figure and shoving it in people's faces. So many artists abjure this kind of commercial side as being antithetical to spiritual or philosophical content. Warhol, somehow, by whatever fluke, was able to transcend that business component to create a resonant commentary on his time — even at his most commercial, or maybe especially at his most commercial. For instance, there's Arthur Danto's whole idea that the end of art arrives in the form of a simple fake Brillo box. Do you think that Warhol had a brilliant insight into the subject of commerce? Or was it just so big a subject that a lot sticks to it?

Well, I think a lot sticks to it [laughs]. I think that his art — it has been said before, and he said it himself — that his art was a mirror. And I think it was a mirror for the times that he lived in and created his work, and it continues to be a mirror for our times today. That is why his work continues to be relevant. But I think for a lot of people it is not transcendent at a certain point, and I think that is very much tied to the idea that Warhol's work stops in 1968. I also think there is a bias within the art world toward his death-and-disaster paintings and his darker work because it feels more avant-garde when, in fact, I feel that his more overtly commercial work is more avant-garde. Throughout his life he really had this ability to create a balance, and I think for some viewers it became out of balance often. But he was always offering people options. When he was making very commercial work, he was always making anti-commercial work. When he was making almost unwatchable films in the 60s, he was making Elizabeth Taylor paintings. The hope is that in evaluating an entire life's work — which is an endless task for an artists like Warhol — that you begin to see the entire body of work's transcendence. And see how the works that feel less transcendent on their own acquire that feeling in consideration of the whole life's work. 

In his later work, where he was really churning out portraits for celebrities like O.J. Simpson and the heads of banks, what was the radical work that he was doing at the time to balance it out?

You can think about the shadow paintings, which I feel are a really interesting comment on abstraction. Those have been on display at Dia:Beacon, recently, and a lot of places. I feel that those are something that people really latch on to, as well as his "Last Supper" paintings nearing the end of his life and his revised interest in hand-painting through collaborations with Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. It's work like that that I do feel creates a balance. However, I also think that his re-visitation of products and his product paintings of the 80s, there is a critical aspect to them that a lot of people overlook when he came back to Campbell soup and some of his iconic images of the 60s. When he revisited them in the 80s, a lot of people said, "Oh, it's just for a dollar," but I feel that in a way he was part of the Pictures Generation wave of the 80s and he was appropriating his own work. Which is how I choose to interpret it — that he was really a part of that movement, in a way.

Appropriation art, 2.0. Was there any real discernible difference between his earlier product paintings and his later product paintings?

Yes. You can see a difference in format, and some of the Campbell soup paintings he did in the 80s were just in black and white, much more simplified. But as I see it, his early paintings, his iconic pop paintings of the 60s, have become so incorporated into our cultural landscape that they were then ripe for appropriation. I think that is what gives them their difference. Of course, the painting style is different, his application of paint is different, but the format gives it away as well.

His vision of the studio as a factory has been heartily embraced by many artists — most prominently Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Murakami — who adopt a businesslike paradigm in the way that they conceive of their work and how they bring it out into the world. Do you find them to be doing something that advances upon Warhol's discovery, or is it just a way to make art more expeditiously?Or is it just derivative?

With people like Hirst and Koons and Murakami, I think that their work is also a commentary on the commingling of art and commerce in the same way that Warhol's was. So the content of their work is certainly important and I feel that is dealt with very directly and shows Pop life, but there a lot more artists who now work in the "factory" kind of setting whose work does not necessarily relate to these kind of ideas — blending and fusing art with commerce — so I think that their work is advancing the dictum in a way because they are doing different things with it. But I think that a lot of different artists now work in the factory way even if they are, say, painting large figurative canvases. The idea of art as a business and as a career with assistants is not unusual at all anymore.

Intriguingly, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese contemporary art was just getting started, Warhol was taken up as this almost visionary icon. Now there really are artists working in figurative painting — Zhang Xiaogang is one of the more commonly cited ones — who run gigantic studios and teams of people. In these situations, the artist's hand becomes less important to the work, but unlike with Warhol there is no commentary inherent in the process, which is both problematic and interesting.

Yes, that is an interesting connection. I used to work at a gallery that sold contemporary Chinese art right when the wave was starting, and I think that the factory model was surely present in, say, the Renaissance, but the reverence to originality still has such a strong hold that the mere idea of a factory turns people off. I think with Warhol — and he acknowledged the reverence to originality, in a way — his silkscreen paintings, while being  copies, were also each original. The backgrounds were hand-painted. In his works from the 50s, he used the blotted-line technique to give a consistent style but create works over and over. There were ways in which he acknowledged the desire for originality and uniqueness. I think Warhol continues to be the model for artists who are seeking not only monetary success but a different kind of practice that isn't so tied to the idea of the reclusive alcoholic artist in his studio.

The unique, the artifact, the icon — it's odd the way that while these were his subjects, many of his works have become more literally iconic than their inspirations.

Yeah, they are. I mean, working on the show, there are certain things that people just want to see in a show and as a curator you kind of think, "Well, do I give the people what they want? How do I balance that?" But his works are, I would say, the most iconic paintings of the past 50 years. Without a doubt. And he just had the brilliance to identify those iconic pictures throughout this career, almost at every moment.

What is your favorite object in the show? Or what is one that you think is especially unexpected or odd or otherwise interesting?

While it doesn't have a commanding physical presence, there is a piece from the Warhol Museum archives that is on the back of a paint-by-number board. It is just a list that says, "fun money, blood money, dirty money, real money, printed money, debt money, working money, active money." It was written by Warhol at the same time he was making his seminal dollar-bill series, and he is really working through his ideas. But what I like about it is that is shows the multivalence of money in Warhol's mind, and it shows how it can be different things to different people. I think when a lot of people look at Warhol's depiction of dollars throughout his life and they see it in a very straightforward manner as a mere celebration of money. But when you look at it closely and analyze it visually and in the context of his whole career, you can see how he is critical of money and interested in its depth of meaning and how it can be good and bad. For someone with working-class roots and values, it was not an uncomplicated relationship he had with money. And he expressed that in fantastic quotes throughout his life and also in his art.

To end, what do you think it was that appealed to Warhol so much about money and business?

I think to a certain extent he... [laughs] this sounds very simplistic, but he loved money. He wanted to be rich. It is, of course, more complicated than that. He was an intelligent person who could make intriguing and subversive works about the topic, but I think that he desperately wanted to be rich and famous. And he achieved it. So I think I have an immense respect for Warhol's work but I also think it would be a shame to underestimate any of the baser motivations that were present in Warhol.