Glamour Vs. Art? And At An Andy Warhol Exhibit!

I was amused to read that Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent's partner and keeper of his legacy, had withdrawn YSL's portrait from a Paris exhibit of Andy Warhol portraits, on the grounds that mixing the designer with others from the world of "glamour" was disrespectful to Saint Laurent as an artiste. Bergé's letter of explanation, published in Le Monde, opened with a quote from Warhol himself, proclaiming YSL "le plus grand artiste français de notre temps."

Even leaving aside the very important and limiting qualifier français, what would Andy Warhol mean by proclaiming someone a "the greatest artist"? After all, Warhol famously wrote:

Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called “art” or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business—they’d say, “Money is bad,” and “Working is bad,” but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.

Bergé's reaction was very French and not very Warholian.

“All things considered this was not an affair about painting but about people," said the exhibit's curator in response. "It’s a decision I regret enormously, because the portraits are those where Warhol’s empathy for the subject is of the highest degree.” 

Once the show opened, people pretty much forgot about Saint Laurent.  In an interesting review that doesn't mention the missing portraits (except in their appearance in a poorly reviewed exhibit 30 years ago), the FT's Jackie Wullschlager writes:

The sweeping style with which some 100 paintings are displayed, across vast galleries linked by a belle-époque staircase, would surely have made Warhol delirious with snobbish glee. His best works – “Red Jackie”, “Silver Liz”, laconic 1963-64 self-portraits in dark glasses, interleaved with paintings of a glittery dollar sign and an electric chair – have never looked more seductive or more classical. Warhol, New York soup can prince of conceptualism, becomes in Paris an opulent society portraitist in the tradition of John Singer Sargent or Kees van Dongen: master of colour, texture, clarity, precision, ravishing yet chilly, flattering even as he anatomises triviality and brittleness...

Frivolous in appearance but deadly serious in intent, his mechanical repetitions put painting in its place, within a continuum of the 1960s media of mass production – particularly photography – only to exalt it again by the conviction and beauty of his painterly surfaces. This is an utterly enjoyable show which illuminates the artist’s lifelong concerns, methods and his discomforting, prophetic take on an epoch that continues to shape our own.

This online article, which features some shots from the show (including one of the missing YSL portraits), explains some of the groupings:

Hollywood stars (Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Sylvester Stallone, BB, etc), pop stars (Mick Jagger, Deborah Harry, etc.), artists (Man Ray, David Hockney, Joseph Beuys, Keith Haring, etc.), collectors and art dealers (Dominique de Menil, Bruno Bischofberger, Ileana Sonnabend, Leo Castelli), politicians (Willy Brandt, Edward Kennedy, etc.), fashion designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Hélène Rochas, etc.) as well as businessmen and jet-setters (Gianni Agnelli, Lee Radziwell, Princess Grace of Monaco, Günter Sachs, etc.). Famous or less famous, they all glow with the aura of Warhol’s genius. The entire global social scene… in paint!

Like designers, singers are commercial artists. But you don't see Mick Jagger and Deborah Harry pitching fits about not being adequately respected. Of course, they aren't French.