“If you had the opportunity to work with Warhol’s original assistants and screen printer and use his original materials… What would you do?” This is the question Paul Stephenson asked after finding himself in the unique position to do just that; use the very bases and materials used by Warhol to create a piece using Warhol’s concepts and processes in exactly the way Warhol intended. Could the resulting artwork actually be considered an original ‘Warhol’?
It was the decision to follow this thought process through to its meticulous conclusion that led to the creation of ‘After Warhol’, an exhibition of brand new paintings presented by Stephenson at Trinity House’s London gallery earlier this month and moving to the Broadway gallery in November. Every single piece in the exhibition has been made using the original acetates Warhol used to make some of his most famous creations, as well the same processes, pigments, paints, and even Warhol’s original master printer.
“I’ve always been interested in the idea of authenticity and ownership,” says Stephenson. “Is a work finished when an artist stops working on it?”
Citing Da Vinci’s famous quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”, Stephenson says he found himself wondering what it meant to take another artist’s work and add to it. Would the resulting creation still be considered an original by the previous artist or an entirely new work of art? This in itself, as he points out, is hardly a new concept; take for example the work by Jeff Koons (or, perhaps most pertinently, Jeff Koons’ assistants), or the famous Erased De Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg, or the bronze Degas statues cast from original wax sculptures years after the artist’s death.
Why are some pieces considered authentic and others merely replicas or even forgeries?
In the case of Warhol and his acetates, Stephenson decided, process was key. And not without a small measure of serendipity either; take for example, Stephenson’s happening upon an art shop in London about to dispose of ‘old stock’ that turned out to be the exact brand of paint, and the exact pigments Andy Warhol used in his original works – paints Stephenson had found to be no longer in production.
“There was Jackie’s face,” says Stephenson, of the moment he discovered the dusty old pots. “There was Marilyn Monroe’s hair.”
Stephenson also worked with Warhol’s own master printer, Alexander Heinrici, who was able to screen print each piece using the same methods he used when creating work during Warhol’s lifetime.
This exacting precision and meticulous attention to detail caught the eye of the art world long before the final paintings were even finished, and the process of creating ‘After Warhol’ was soon chronicled in the Vice documentary ‘The Business of Making Art’ for HBO.
From the fortuitous moment in the art shop to unveiling the final pieces to pre-eminent Warhol scholar Rainer Crone, the documentary sits nicely alongside the exhibition in asking, “What makes a ‘Warhol’, a ‘Warhol’?”
When it comes to answering that question, Stephenson prefers to let the viewer make up their own mind as to the authenticity of the works presented. Others, however, have been less ambiguous. Vice’s documentary captured Rainer Crone’s reaction to the unveiling of the new paintings as he stated, “These are fantastic, they are in Warhol’s concept, in his tradition, (and for other people/us to make his paintings?), it is what he wanted.” He later wrote, “In my expertise (sic) opinion paintings made with these film positives under described circumstances and executed posthumously by professionals (scholars as well as printers) are authentic Andy Warhol paintings.”
Whatever your opinions or beliefs about authenticity, it undoubtedly remains an intoxicating debate, one started by Warhol and now continued by Stephenson.
“I like the idea of turning the art world upside down,” he says. “I think Andy liked it too.” Indeed, Stephenson’s refusal to comment one way or another on the authenticity of the paintings presented in ‘After Warhol’ gives the exhibition an air of faithfulness in itself; after all, what more did Warhol want for his work than for it to make his audience question everything?
‘After Warhol’ returns to Trinity House Modern, 35 High Street, Broadway from November 7th to November 19th. Come down and see these unique paintings for yourself.