Warhol's Closet

By Lobel, Michael | Art Journal, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Warhol's Closet


Lobel, Michael, Art Journal


Over the course of ten days in the spring of 1988, the venerable New York auction house Sotheby's exhibited and sold the ten thousand items that comprised the Andy Warhol Collection, a vast array that included "19th-century Americana, Art Deco classics, American Indian artifacts, postwar art and 20th-century jewelry, watches and collectibles."' Newsweek reported that

Sotheby's promoted the sale to special clients by throwing a series of parties at Warhol's Manhattan home-an especially coveted invitation since few of the eccentric artist's friends had ever crossed the threshold during his lifetime. Of course, the place had to be tidied up a bit first. The five-story townhouse was so crammed with stuff at the time of his death that Warhol was living mostly in his bedroom.... Sotheby's finally put the rooms in order and filled them with fresh flowers.2

I want to address the "tidying up" mentioned here, for I believe that the reorganization of the collection for the Sotheby's sale, the status of that event as spectacle, and the attendant media scrutiny have all overshadowed subtler aspects of the artist's relationship to his collection. Rather than focus on Warhol's status as a frenetic shopper, a sort of caricatured consumer, I want to look instead at collecting and accumulation as highly particular strategies unto themselves. Not only was Warhol an inveterate collector, but he also maintained an oftentimes obsessive secrecy about his collection and the domestic space in which it was contained (fig. 1). That secrecy stands in marked contrast to the overwhelming public attention to the Sotheby's auction, which took place not long after the similar sale of Liberace's estate.3 What do we make of this connection between two individuals whose public personas were marked with the sign of homosexuality, yet who both maintained a certain ambiguity about that identification? I am not interested in producing here an archaeology of Warhol's sexuality; there are as many versions of thisfrom compulsive masturbator to lascivious voyeur to asexual virgin-as there are critics and biographers.4 Nor do I intend to dig up the truth that will pinpoint once and for all the authentic Warhol within the myriad personas he produced. Rather, in light of Wayne Koestenbaum's suggestion that "collecting is a code for homosexual activity and identity,"5 I will consider the imbrication of collector and homosexual, and explore its implications for our understanding of Warhol's life and work. There is no denying that Warhol's collection (as well as its eventual sale by Sotheby's) represents a massive display of consumption in keeping with the imperatives of late twentieth-century culture. Yet it is also caught up in other trajectories of desire that may overlap with, but are not necessarily determined by, the desire for the commodity.

Just as a certain ambiguity adhered to his artistic persona, Warhol often left the particulars of his sex life unclear. According to Bob Colacello, editor of Warhol's Interview magazine: "If one topic was taboo at the Factory, it was Andy's sex life. He wanted-demanded-to know every detail of ours, but his was strictly off limits."6 Of course, this stance must be read within a particular historical context: Warhol had come of age in the 1940s and 1950s, when homosexuality was subject to widespread cultural prohibition. Considering this, what remains significant is the extent to which the male body was eroticized in the artist's work, whether in the early, so-called boy drawings, the films of the 1960s, or the later Torsos series. Nevertheless, Warhol was only too aware of the problematics of expressing certain desires. We need only consider an early experience, when he attempted to exhibit a series of homoerotic drawings at the Tanager Gallery, an artists' cooperative whose membership included his art school friend, the painter Philip Pearlstein.

"He submitted a group of boys kissing boys which the other members of the gallery hated and refused to show," Pearlstein said. …

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