Warhol: Pop Artist or Crusader for Tradition?

Devilish darling of Pop art or angel of classicism? The saga of Andy Warhol’s estate has put a new spin on his image. The glamorous art star is now being cast as a crusader for traditional values and academic rigor.

Warhol astonished the art world after his death when it was revealed that he had stashed away a wildly eclectic collection of 10,000 objects in his six-floor townhouse. Early American shop signs and Coca-Cola memorabilia seemed appropriate treasures for an artist who had elevated Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes to the level of high art.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 15, 1988 Imperfections
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 15, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 111 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error in last week’s letter by Sally Paskin protesting the decision-making of network TV executives, Brandon Tartikoff was misidentified as the president of ABC Entertainment. In fact, he holds that position at NBC. . . . In Suzanne Muchnic’s article on Andy Warhol last week, the amount of money raised at the auction of Warholiana by Sotheby’s to benefit the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was given as $25.3 million. Sotheby’s 10% fee should have been subtracted from that figure.

But academic paintings by Adolphe William Bouguereau? A plaster bust of Napoleon and an ancient marble head of Hermes? What was he doing with enough 19th-Century silver and Federal furniture to stock an antique store? And why was this stuff stacked floor-to-ceiling in a traditionally decorated home that seemed more appropriate to a stuffy dowager than a trend-setting artist?

“What happened was that Modernism got boring (for Warhol),” said Stuart Pivar, a collector of 19th Century art and the artist’s shopping partner. “But his overall game plan, what he really believed, was that the modern age was going away and that we were entering a neoclassical period. Andy came from a very traditional Catholic family and he was a classical artist who painted portraits and still lifes. People think that Pop art is about popular objects, but Andy made traditional art palatable to the avant-garde world.”


Before questions on the paradoxical nature of Warhol’s taste could be fully answered, his collection went on the block in an unprecedented 10-day Sotheby’s auction that ended Tuesday. Mobs descended on the York Avenue auction house, records were set for everything from rare Art Deco furniture and jewelry to plastic Flintstones watches still sporting their Bloomingdale’s price tags. When the final gavel fell last Tuesday, the sale had raised 25.3 million for the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, provided for in the artist’s will.

Media speculation has set the foundation’s wealth as high as $100 million, which includes the sale of six pieces of real estate, the artist’s own work and Interview magazine, as well as revenues from films, literary products and merchandising rights on products using Warhol’s name. Vincent Fremont, a foundation director, would only say that the amount will be “significant, and we’re very happy about that.”

And who will get the money? Warhol didn’t stipulate, but two organizations seem certain to benefit: the Whitney Museum of American Art, a high-profile institution that prides itself on being up-to-date, and the little-known New York Academy of Art, the most old-fashioned art school in the country. As a showcase for Warhol’s work, the Whitney seems an obvious beneficiary of his foundation, but the N.Y. Academy sounds like a joke to those who don’t know that Warhol was a founding board member of the school, launched in 1980 to “revive traditional methods of training artists.”

Fremont deferred most questions about the foundation until guidelines are established and the total worth of the estate is known, but he confirmed that the Whitney and the N.Y. Academy are “two organizations that Andy was interested in.”

Pivar, who serves on the N.Y. Academy’s board of directors, says that Warhol’s interest in the school is perfectly logical because he felt cheated of a good art education and wanted to help students learn to draw. “He wanted to make this the toughest art school in the country,” said Pivar.

In the N.Y. Academy’s rigorous two-year program, budding artists immerse themselves in figure-drawing classes that feature two-week poses; build plastilene models of the human form--bone by bone and muscle by muscle; become adept at modeling light and shade from plaster models of classical sculpture and learn anatomy by dissecting cadavers in a nearby medical facility.

“We teach drawing like music schools teach piano: practice, practice, practice,” said N.Y. Academy director Gregory Hedberg. Leading an impromptu tour of the five-floor facility next to the Public Theater on Lafayette Street in Astor Place, he paused to watch a young woman drawing from a plaster cast, tiptoed into an anatomy class where an instructor was conducting an intense drill on muscles, chatted with students meticulously painting a flowered frame for a commissioned mural and proudly pointed out superior examples of figure drawings executed in academy classes.

Currently offering only a certificate program and operating on a $700,000 annual budget, the privately funded institution has filed a charter to establish a Graduate School of Figurative Art and offer a Master of Fine Arts degree program. Hedberg expects accreditation by the fall of 1989, when the first group of MFA candidates will be admitted.


The 40 students currently enrolled full-time pay no tuition but submit to a rigid curriculum that includes no electives. Instead it prescribes classes rarely heard of in most graduate art programs: anatomical and cast drawing, perspective, theory of light and form, sculptural anatomy, figure sculpture and painting, theory of composition. Each course builds firmly on another while techniques grow progressively complex.

Not only the production of art is controlled at the Academy. A code of behavior outlined in the catalogue indicates that full-time students “are expected to attend all classes, arrive punctually, and to stay the entire length of the class time . . . . Two consecutive, unapproved absences are grounds for dismissal . . . . Smoking and eating in the studios are not permitted.”

Compared with this regimen, other graduate art programs can seem extremely permissive. UCLA, for example, has no structured classes at the graduate level and no specific course requirements for an MFA, though 40 of the 72 units taken for the degree must be in the student’s field of study (painting and drawing, sculpture, printmaking, photography or new forms and concepts). “It’s a one-on-one situation between students and professors,” said Marilyn Pace, graduate counselor for UCLA’s Department of Art, Design and Art History.

CalArts’ program is similarly personalized. MFA candidates are required to complete a course of study “approved by the mentor and the student” and to complete a project to the satisfaction of a review committee, according to Claire Rich of the admissions office. Structured classes deal mainly with criticism and theory, while artwork is generally done in individual studios, Rich said. Figure drawing is relegated to CalArts’ animation department and anatomy is offered by the dance school, though fine arts students may elect those classes.


Such programs are anathema to N.Y. Academy believers. “Students are being told that they can forget the past and that they don’t need to learn to draw. Of the thousands of art majors graduating every year not one of them can draw. They are taught to manufacture avant-garde art and mail it directly to the Whitney,” said Pivar.

Hedberg contends that the rigid N.Y. Academy curriculum offers students a “focused” direction, not just a confusing “menu” of courses. Answering charges that the school stifles creativity, he pointed out stylistic differences among students’ work and noted that second-year students have opportunities to execute commissions and work on individual projects.

“People think that we are the Establishment, but we are actually the new anti-Establishment,” said Hedberg, a Renaissance scholar graduated from Princeton and NYU and a former associate director and chief curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

He acknowledged that many art educators view the N.Y. Academy program as anachronistic but said the tide is turning. “We are part of the new humanism. In medicine, doctors are beginning to deal with people again. We are following art’s figurative humanist tradition,” he said.


The Warhol connection has provided the N.Y. Academy an opportunity to bring its underground program to national attention and, supporters hope, to make admission more competitive. “We want to be Juilliard,” said Pivar. “We get one or two genius types (in each class); the rest are merely very good. We want all geniuses, and from that we will get a Michelangelo.”