Imitation of life: He almost duped Andy Warhol's estate. Now Charles Lutz is targeting the auctioneers
In the wake of Damien Hirst's ground-breaking Sotheby's sale this week, which fetched a jaw-dropping £111.5m, what could be more timely than an exhibition that explores the notions of authenticity and value in the modern art market – and fetishises those involved? The Brooklyn-based artist Charles Lutz, a former assistant of the American king of kitsch Jeff Koons, was so intrigued by the cult of the modern artist that he meticulously copied Andy Warhol's 1954 Self Portrait with silver hair 12 times, in four different colour versions. He then submitted his forgeries to the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. There, they were officially stamped with "Denied" and returned to the artist, who promptly put the tampered-with works on show.
"The authentication board was right down the street from Jeff Koons's studio, where I was painting the big lobster that runs across Koons' billboard-sized Triple Elvis painting of three female nudes," says Lutz, now 26. "I pretended to be a delivery boy. It's a three-month process because they only review work a few times a year."
Now his Denial and Acceptance Series (2007) is being exhibited for the first time in the UK, along with his new works, including the Sold series of round paintings. They feature Sotheby's auctioneer and world head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer, in enamel and 23-carat gold on canvas over panel, based on the designs of 19th-century gilded French porcelain.
How did it all begin? Lutz was initially inspired to copy the paintings after a Warhol self-portrait, owned by film producer Joe Simon and valued at $1.4m, was deemed a fake by the Board. "They stamped his painting on the reverse in red and black ink that bled through to the portrait. Now they stamp it in a lighter blue-green ink on the wrap-around of the canvas, where it's stapled," says Lutz. In an instant the painting became worthless. "They don't have to answer to anybody but it is in their own interests to keep genuine Warhols low," says Lutz. "Its authenticity should have been questioned more – but the uproar fizzled out quickly."
The portrait had been deemed authentic by the late executor of Warhol's estate Fred Hughes, before Simon bought it. The board is secretive about how it determines what is and what isn't a Warhol. Lutz went on to copy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe canvas as well as the artist's oxidation portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat – both now stamped with "Denied" and appearing in the show.
"They serve as a commentary on the easily reproducible aspect of Warhol's work, as well as how we apply value to a work of art," he says.
Lutz is the highlight of Project One: Icons, a show that celebrates iconic images from pop to urban art at 108 Fine Art in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and includes paintings, sculpture, and prints by Peter Blake and Julian Opie, as well as Sex Pistols artwork by Jamie Reid and works by Banksy and Blek Le Rat. It is the first time that he has exhibited outside the US.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1982, Lutz attended the Pratt Institute in New York, where he studied painting before becoming Koons's photo-realist painter from 2005-2007. Lutz found the experience with Koons invaluable. But working for such a high-maintenance artist, one famous for Puppy – a 43ft tall topiary sculpture of a west Highland white terrier – and the sexually explicit Made In Heaven series featuring his Italian porn star wife, La Cicciolina (Ilona Staller), had its challenges.
"Jeff presented himself as a family man – not as flamboyant as you would expect," says Lutz. "The Denied series was my way of replicating something that Jeff was doing but on a more basic level. Jeff might reference a Warhol Elvis painting – but rather than take it and try to over-intellectualise it, I take it for what it is, and the problems that arise in creating something that already exists."
Having pulled off his Warhol coup, Lutz turned his attention to a series of circular paintings, Sold, which critique the art market, and in particular contemporary art at auction. Hawk (Tobias Meyer) – depicting the esteemed auctioneer alongside a gilded hawk –spares no expense in its attempt to mirror "the indulgent nature of art collecting" and the "flock-like atmosphere of auctions".
"Like Hirst, I am acknowledging the importance of the secondary market, especially auctions. It is interesting that it has taken so long for artists to take new work straight to auctions."
Two Birds – another round piece – set against a lime-green background shows Meyer's face, alongside two chubby birds. Christ – also in the Sold series – is clearly a play on the word Christie's, whose shiny logo is plastered on the wall behind another of his auction paintings. "There is conflict in having a charismatic auctioneer. Meyer has the power to create a demand for something and to influence prices in contemporary art," says Lutz. "These paintings reflect the character of the market. We are in a time of financial uncertainty yet the rich are spending even more now in the US. The paintings are not preaching to a mass but to the powers that be."
Lutz is also exhibiting a towering sculpture – Stacked – in the show. Made up of three stacked boxes, hand-tacked in leather vinyl in Louis Vuitton-style print and silk screen printed in enamel paint with Brillo, Heinz and Kellogg's logos, it refers to Warhol's sculptures of the Sixties such as Brillo Box and Heinz Box. "But I raise the stakes of everyday objects from the level of high art, to the level of luxury." Lutz also sells his own Brillo Box sculptures in a limited-edition run of 50 for $4,000 each online. The round paintings are all one-offs, with Hawk (Tobias Meyer) selling in the exhibition at £7,000. The Warhol copies start from £1,500 for a red Self-Portrait.
Art galleries and museums are now fully open in Chicago after a rather unprecedented year. Hilton Asmus Contemporary is grateful to have been open since last June. We wish to extend our thanks to the patrons who supported our business online and allowed us to flourish during the global lockdowns.
As always, we are open to visitors and enthusiasts looking to rejoin the art world at this time. We are pleased to announce the launch of an immersive virtual exhibition: HUMANITY.
HUMANITY is a digital exhibition headlined by some of the contemporary art world’s most provocative artists, including: Hugh Arnold, Christian Voigt, Nick Compton, Kostis Georgiou, Cristina Mittermeier, Paul Nicklen, Marco Nereo Rotelli, Lawrence Schiller, Blake Ward, Boky Hackel-Ward, Julian Wasser, Zack Whitford, David Yarrow and many others.
Within HUMANITY, time is collapsed and made fluid. Events of the past are mirrored in moments from the present. In this extremely divisive moment in history, the images in this exhibition demonstrate how connected the world actually is; regardless of decade or locale, global countries and citizens share more commonalities than dissimilarities. Viewers from all over will be able to identify with the images, as they depict universal themes, hardships, and experiences that portray an indomitable human spirit.
Select images of photography, sculpture, paintings, and works on paper exemplify the motifs of our present age as they parallel and draw similarities to the past. It is common to hear the words, "History repeats itself," and we look forward to proving this through the art of past and present.
We start at the beginning - with children - presenting their hopes and dreams. Emerging artist Nick Compton leads the exhibition with his photo of a little girl, perhaps on her first day in school, looking out toward a crowded mass of people. We cannot help but wonder what is in store for this child. Beside this young girl, we have a contemplative and beautiful image that shows a long stretch of train tracks, suggesting that children have miles and miles to go throughout their lifetimes. The next photo shows an elementary school in Kenya, where students play under a tree with a sign that sets the tone for their future: "Dream Big."
Now we traverse to more historic and sociological motifs. One overarching theme that HUMANITY touches upon is the issue of social justice and racial inequality. Julian Wasser’s 1965 portrait of author James Baldwin highlights the echoes of the Civil Rights Movement throughout history, thematically tying it to the recent Black Lives Matter movement and riots. Additionally, Julian's Time Magazine photograph of looters during the LA Watt's riots parallels the protests last year that devastated many American cities, including our own neighborhood in Chicago that brought many businesses into a state of paralysis and destruction. We were grateful that our gallery was passed up during episodes of looting, but some of our neighbors were not so lucky.
On the global scene, Zack Whitford’s “Syrian Girl” exhibits the innocent visage of a young girl displaced from her home and forced to live in a refugee camp as a reminder of the never-ending strife in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Another of Whitford’s images, “Pedestrian Dissonance”, speaks to income disparity by depicting a scene of two well-to-do young women chatting while an unknown beggar is on his hands and knees behind them. This photo is a reminder that we can so often become numb and disconnected to the suffering of others.
Tom Stoddart’s “Berlin” captures a moment in history, with a woman triumphantly climbing the Berlin Wall with the aid of helping hands. This photograph depicts individuals celebrating the end of the Cold War, which had just been announced the night before. This photograph was taken in 1989; and yet, in 2021, there are still many walls that have yet to be taken down.
These are among the many themes that HUMANITY has dredged up and intends to explore to the fullest. This project was originally started in late 2020, inspired by the social detachment brought on by the pandemic. Therefore, the exhibition not only touches upon moments in history that highlight human strife, love, or even inhumanity, but also points out how human beings have affected this home that we call Earth. We seek to ask: what are we doing to our lands, our oceans, and the creatures that live here?
Paul Nicklen’s “Ice Waterfall” is a direct response to this question. It simultaneously presents us with the grandiose beauty of nature while also challenging us to face the consequences of what we have subjected our environment to.
Another important motif in HUMANITY is the idea of close association and community through everyday means. Marco Nereo Rotelli’s sculpture “Together” is a descriptor made tactile, reminding us of the human need for social interaction. In fact, the theme of this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, where Marco's sculpture will be presented, is "How Will We Live Together". This appears to be a ubiquitous theme in our global society.
Hugh Arnold’s “Thread” represents a literal association of human bodies into something gorgeous and transcendent, speaking to the beauty of collaboration and togetherness. In this same vein, Kostis Georgiou, the renowned Greek sculptor and painter, creates a mosaic of human bodies that forms a human heart.
HUMANITY is intended to serve as a means of establishing fellowship during a time in which we could not physically do so. Over time, however, the project has evolved into something greater, representing more than just the memories of what connectivity was before the pandemic. Instead, it is a glimpse into all possible moments in time: our past, present, and future. It is an exploration of what made us human before, what continues to make us human now, and what we’ll continuously do to make ourselves part of the evolution of humanity.
The digital exhibition can be accessed via a special online viewing room on the Hilton Asmus website, and is scheduled to be released on May 31st. Stay tuned....