Face to face with an icon of modern art

Anthony d'Offay with a exhibit in Museums Sheffield's new exhibition at the Graves Gallery, Andy Warhol: Late Self-Portraits.  Picture by Chris Lawton
Anthony d'Offay with a exhibit in Museums Sheffield's new exhibition at the Graves Gallery, Andy Warhol: Late Self-Portraits. Picture by Chris Lawton
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Icons, by their nature, tend to take on an unknowable quality. It feels as though they are so “other” that to grasp them feels beyond the realms of possibility. Figures like Marilyn Monroe grow to such a stature that it feels strange to imagine they were actually human.

So it is with Andy Warhol.

Incredibly familiar yet paradoxically other-worldly, his work is deeply iconic, ingrained into Western culture.

So to have Anthony d’Offay in Sheffield lending a hands on role in helping to co-curate an exhibition of the work of the ultimate pop artist gives the show a rare, direct link, with the artist – and makes Warhol somehow more reachable.

D’Offay, one of the UK’s most renowned art dealers is the Sheffield-born, Leicester raised multi-millionaire who made his money through buying and selling great art from some of the world’s great aritsts – including that of Andy Warhol.

In 2008, d’Offay’s art collection, valued then at around £125m, was sold to the nation for £26.5m. The collection was donated to the National Galleries and Scotland and Tate.

Among the collections are some works by Warhol which d’Offay directly commissioned the artist to create and in which he had a hand in shaping.

The art collector was in Sheffield this week to help hang the exhibition of Warhol’s work, including a stunning self portrait in which Warhol’s face is a stark red with a deep, dark, almost foreboding black background, which d’Offay personally commissioned.

“I’d been discussing commissioning Andy – we said we’d do a show in London – and he did something very unusual for an artist,” says d’Offay.

“He asked me what I wanted. I said to him ‘what do you want to do?’ and he said ‘well what would you like?’. He really did say he would do whatever we liked.

“It was a bit of a surprise. Other artists say ‘mind your own business, you’ll be lucky with what you get’.

“The problem was, it was a very dangerous position for me to be in – because he meant it.

“It was at a point in his career when his star had fallen and I felt a great responsibility to ask him to do something which would be significant for his career and which would become, if possible, an iconic image.

“The way he worked was to create a show about one particular subject so it would have to be something interesting for him to create a whole show around.”

The artist, having given d’Offay the opportunity to commission him to create anything the art collector wished for, had caused something of a problem. d’Offay wasn’t sure what to ask Warhol to make.

The art collector pondered the subject for a considerable length of time.

Then, at Christmas 1985, d’Offay had a lightbulb moment.

He was a good friend of German artist Joseph Beuys, the artist’s work the first d’Offay showed in the London gallery he opened in 1980.

In 1985, on Christmas Day, he was in Naples with Beuys.

“We all spent the morning singing carols in German and English and then Joseph and I went to visit an architect he knew. He was showing us around his house and in his bedroom he had this very large, red portrait of Joseph that Andy had taken,” says d’Offay.

“As soon as you walked into the room, this picture knocked you back against the wall and in that very second I thought: “You idiot, it’s so obvious. This is the greatest portrait painter of the second half of the 20th century and it’s a long time since there’s been a self-portrait”.

“Three days later in was in New York at the Factory saying to Andy ‘what about a self-portrait show’.”

Warhol told d’Offay to go back in three weeks, when the artist had a selection of Polaroids – including several of himself in drag, a number of which make up the Sheffield exhibition.

In collaboration with d’Offay, Warhol chose the perfect image which was then treated so that his face had the same dark red and the background the same deep, almost foreboding black, that had the “knocking you against the wall” feeling that d’Offay had experienced when he first saw the Warhol portrait of Beuys.

The exhibition has been brought to Sheffield by Artist Rooms, the name given to the collection donated by d’Offay to the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. Artist Rooms tours the work from the collection to galleries around the country. The scheme, now in its fourth year, is showing collections at 17 galleries this year, funded by the Art Fund.

D’Offay doesn’t necessarily have such a hands on role with all the Artist Rooms shows, but was keen to be in Sheffield for the Warhol, given his close connection to the artist and to the city, given that he was born there.

He says: “This is unlike any other Warhol show we have ever done. We’ve never done late portraits although we have had this extraordinary collection – each show is tailored for a particular venue and audience.

“Because the gallery here has an emphasis on identity, it made sense to have self-portraits. It’s been a genuine pleasure to work with the gallery and the staff to come up with this exhibition.

“This show is so intense – I don’t think there’s any museum in Western Europe that has this many original self portraits of Andy Warhol. It will give people are all sorts of ways of looking at the artist who was undoubtedly one of the most famous artists of the second half of the 20th Century.”

Graves Gallery, to Dec 1.