Andy Warhol took images of the great icons of the 20th century -- Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Mao Tse Tung, to name a few -- and electrified them, re-envisioning them with pulsatingly bright colors and a silkscreen technique of his own invention. His Pop Art images have themselves become icons, as has the man who made them. With his shock of silvery hair, his nocturnally white skin, his dark and staring eyes, he glimmers in his self-portraits as some fragile yet challenging creature. The images that comprise his work, and his own visage, still immediately convey everything that was New York at its most exciting in the '60s and '70s -- drugs, punk, parties, high society and urban grit happily co-existing in the rarefied atmosphere that surrounded "the Factory."
For five days this October, Washington State University's Museum of Art will be showing Andy Warhol's "Athlete Series, 1979," four of his famous Campbell Soup can prints and one self-portrait. The Athlete Series is part of the extensive private collection of Richard Weisman, who generously offered his Warhols to the WSU Museum of Art to help fill a hole in its schedule occurring right during Dads' Weekend. But if you're tempted to skip over the name "Richard Weisman," figuring he's just some wealthy art collector, slow down. In addition to being an art collector, Weisman was a good friend of Warhol's, the host of famously posh parties at his United Nations Plaza apartment, and as much a part of the whole Andy Warhol scene as Ultra Violet and Christopher Makos. He was even, in the case of "Athlete Series, 1979," an invaluable co-collaborator who was there when Warhol shot 10 of the biggest sport stars of the 1970s (including Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson and Dorothy Hamill) with his trusty Polaroid camera.
"Since Warhol didn't really know the difference between a baseball and a golf ball -- or a football or a hockey puck -- I went with him on the shoots," says Weisman, who now lives in Seattle. "That was the purpose of the 'Athlete Series.' I felt that these were the two most popular leisure time activities, art and sports, but they didn't really have a connection."
Weisman, who moved easily among the circles of the wealthy, the artistic and the famous, picked the athletes (many of whom Warhol had never heard of). Seen in the omniscient light of hindsight, "Athlete Series, 1979" has a haunting quality. Some of the athletes, say soccer star Pele or even Willie Shoemaker, who died just this week, aren't immediately recognizable in the way that, say, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are. What is especially fascinating is the prescience with which Warhol captured and conveyed his subjects. Ali has a sweetness and nobility that no amount of self-promotion could ever completely obscure. As for O.J. Simpson... well, his future was also apparently pretty evident.
"When we went up to Buffalo and did the photo shoot for O.J., he had a beard because he was doing a film at the time. We were looking at the pictures of O.J., and I said to Andy, 'He looks like a criminal in this picture' and Andy said 'Yeah, but he's so beautiful. ' "
While many of the athletes had already heard of the lanky little artist in the somber suit who had come to photograph them, others had no idea who Andy Warhol was.
"When we did Jack Nicklaus' photo shoot, Andy was setting it up and he said to Jack, 'Could you just move the stick a little bit to the right?' and Jack says, 'It's not a stick. It's a club,' and then he turns to me and says, 'Richard, does this guy know what he's doing?' And I said, 'Yeah, Jack, he's OK. Don't worry about it.'"
While in Pullman, Weisman plans to share such stories with anyone who asks and also to autograph copies of From Picasso to Pop: The Richard Weisman Collection. The gregarious former investment banker enjoys talking about his days with the Warhol crowd, but when it comes right down to it, it's the art that is his real passion, and From Picasso to Pop is an astonishing catalogue of a private collection that includes Picasso's Dora Maar; Roy Lichtenstein's Blonde Waiting, Yellow Apple and Collage for the Modern Room; Keith Haring's Twelve Days of Christmas; Mark Rothko's Green & amp; Blue; Constantin Brancusi's Sleeping Muse; and Frank Stella's Grey Scramble. Weisman bought his first piece, the Chilean artist Matta's Early Urge, when he was only 22 and fresh out of college. Many of the pieces in his collection would make any art collector salivate -- items bought for maybe a thousand dollars that are now worth several million dollars. But Weisman isn't interested in telling people how to buy with an eye on some future bottom line.
"All you need to know is what you like. It doesn't really matter if anyone else likes it," he says. "It's your house. You're the one who wakes up to it. You're the one who goes to bed with it. So who cares if anybody else likes it?"
Beyond providing a look at one man's mind-blowing art collection, From Picasso to Pop effectively evokes the feeling of New York in the late 1970s. There are quotations sprinkled throughout the book from such old friends and celebrities as Cheryl Tiegs, John McEnroe and Carol Alt, as well as photos from what looks like a typical Weisman party -- lots of sports and entertainment people mingling with society types. Of course, Warhol is in many of them, smiling gently at the camera or engaged in conversation. It would almost be insufferable if there weren't also an overriding sense of fun, of generosity and open invitation rather than exclusivity. All these years later, Weisman still comes across as a bon vivant, exclaiming over the phone how excited he is to visit the Inland Northwest, sounding genuinely enthused. Ultimately, it would seem that Weisman's credo is to enjoy what's around you right now, right this minute, because you never know what its eventual significance might be.
"At the time, we never thought of it as the 'Andy Warhol scene,' " he says. "The scene is after it's over. When you're in the thing, you don't realize it's a scene. I did realize that there were a lot of artists, I would say to people things like, 'You don't realize who's in the room right now. Okay, that's Roy Lichtenstein, or that's Keith Haring over there... your grandchildren aren't going to believe you were hanging out with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. It was that kind of world. I say in my book that New York was really Montmartre during that period. I would even go so far as to say Studio 54 was the Moulin Rouge. But that's only in hindsight. Back then we were just living our lives. It was just where we were."
Publication date: 10/16/03