Emily Fisher Landau was, simply put, one of the greatest collectors and patrons of the twentieth century. Her legacy is set apart for her deep and longstanding involvement with leading institutions, in particular the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as her profound engagement with the art and artists of her time and her unerring instinct as a collector at the highest level. Fisher Landau assembled one of the greatest collections of modern and contemporary art – over 100 works of which are coming to auction at Sotheby’s on 8–9 November.
Join us over the 20 days leading up to the Emily Fisher Landau Evening Auction on 8 November as our specialists spotlight 20 key works from the Collection, celebrating their impact on twentieth-century art. Here, the collector’s daughter Candia Fisher and Sotheby’s Chairman Lisa Dennison reflect on the significance of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Landau in the final installment of our series The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: Twentieth Century Art in Twenty Unforgettable Works.
Andy Warhol’s ‘Emily Fisher Landau’
Candia, how did your mother meet Andy Warhol and what was their relationship like?
I can’t remember when she didn’t know him. They met a very long time ago, it must have been back in the 60s through Bill Katz or Leo Castelli. They knew of each other before they met. I wasn’t paying that much attention [laughs]. Andy Warhol was just one of mom’s friends, it seems crazy to say.
Of course I had a sense of who he was. For my mother, these artists were rock stars. The way kids get excited now about Taylor Swift? That was how my mom was with these artists. She’d almost vibrate before going off to see Ed Ruscha or Jasper Johns. For me it was like, “Okay, calm down. They’re not The Beatles!”
I do have to take credit for one thing. The first time my mother ever saw a Warhol show was on Madison Avenue, back when that was where all the great art galleries were. I was in my late teens, looking around so wide-eyed, and I said to my mother, “You should buy it all.” She wasn’t quite there yet – she didn’t see how great it was. But I was quite stunned by it. Oh my gosh, going to galleries was just so much fun back then.
How did Warhol’s portrait of your mother come about?
It was a $25,000 commission.
Commissions were Andy’s bread and butter. They kept the Factory running. He did about 50 clients a year. And he wasn’t very particular either – you didn’t have to have a certain net worth or live on Park Avenue.
She didn’t like the first portrait Andy did but was a little reticent to say anything about it. She and Bill Katz were walking down Madison Avenue, and they saw Andy enter a jewelry store that she also liked. Bill said, “Now’s your chance. Go tell him what you think.” She told him it was a very good likeness but she didn’t think it was a great Warhol.
Andy took it very well. He said, “Emily, no problem. Make an appointment with my secretary and come down. I’ll do it again.”
What did she mean by that?
It was the colors. They didn’t stand out enough. But my mother was very taken with the fact that he never asked for the original back. The first one went to the Whitney Museum. She’s got curly hair in it, which isn’t how she often wore her hair.
There’s also a difference in the color of the lips. And the earrings aren’t quite there in the first version.
I really think there was something special because of who she was and because of their friendship. I’m struck by how much the portrait of your mother and the portrait of Liz Taylor have in common – that black helmet of hair, the beautiful skin tones imbued with that pink, the white ground... I mean, it’s a super beautiful picture. There’s a tenderness to it. It’s just really stunning.
“Andy Warhol was just one of mom’s friends, it seems crazy to say.”
I thought she was more attractive in person [laughs].
Andy went on to reproduce her several more times. Bill got a hold of an auction catalogue from Australia, and there was one of her portraits with a black background, which was something we’d never seen before. After the two commissioned portraits, he made at least three more that we know of; she bought two of them from the foundation right after he passed. So she had four and the fifth one is still out there somewhere.
And the one in Sotheby’s auction is the second commissioned portrait. Lisa, could you speak about Warhol’s criteria for selecting his subjects around this time? What about Emily Fisher Landau interested him?
The celebrity portraits start in the 60s, with the most iconic being Marilyn Monroe. The first commissioned portrait was Ethel Scull, who was herself a great art-world figure and a patron of the arts. That was in the 60s as well, so even though the two bodies of work are distinct, they really started simultaneously.
Andy, as you know, lived for the cult of celebrity because it allowed him to become closer to the world of society and wealth. In making them all a uniform scale of 40 inches, he developed this pantheon of celebrities, artists and sports figures, and was able to be a part of that. But then, this obsession with fame and celebrity really carried throughout his entire life. The idea of a social portrait is something we see throughout history, such as with John Singer Sargent in the 19th century. Warhol captured this notion of celebrity in his commissioned portraits and refashioned them as a legitimate art form for a new century. It was unlike everything we’ve ever seen before. Finally that led to his self-portraits, which are a critical part of his work.
Warhol was really a social observer. He cared about identity and the construction of identity. He cared about mortality and fame. He lived the high life but he also stepped back from it, and this portraiture – along with his use of the silkscreen process – allowed him a distance to observe.
Now what’s interesting about Emily Fisher Landau is that she was recognized as a patron of the arts and a glamorous woman on the social scene. She was beautiful, she was engaged in the arts, she was a true New Yorker. So it was a commissioned portrait, but she fit the profile perfectly.
She wanted very much to embed herself in the art world in a deep way – not in a passing way, as I believe so many collectors are doing now. Not everyone has the same passion she had.
I’m curious to hear more about Warhol’s perception of your mother. In his Diaries, he sounds nervous about making the portrait! He mentions it twice, first sounding unsettled by the thought that it would hang in the same apartment as the magisterial Rauschenberg and Picasso. A month later, he mentions a few changes she requested. How did the two work together?
Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know too much about it. He would often come uptown for lunch or she would go downtown to meet him. They developed a very nice friendship.
The process was the process for pretty much everybody. It started with a photography shoot where he’d take rolls and rolls of film. He was looking for something particular that conveyed a particular emotion or pose. But the camera was a mitigating aspect to the portraiture. Once he had the Polaroids, he would make a negative, which would be used to transfer the image to the canvas. He would then trace the features onto the canvas and create the silkscreen.
Warhol simplified the faces. You said your mother was much more beautiful, and of course she’s stunning in photographs. What’s amazing about it – and I feel this way about Matisse’s or Picasso’s line drawings too – is how they’re composed of very basic blocks of color and line that nonetheless evoke a likeness. He extracts the features but makes everything conform to the same process or working method.
Where did she end up hanging the Warhol? Did it end up next to the Rauschenberg or Picasso?
I think she had it in the bedroom, actually.
Yes, I’m always fascinated by where your mother hung things. There’s that story about how she hung the Alexander Calder mobile over her bathtub. And I believe you once said she had the Josef Albers over her bed, because it was the first thing she bought.
She had this yellow Albers in her enormous dressing room; the desk in the bedroom was for show while the desk in the dressing room is where she actually worked. The wonderful Albers hung above the dressing room desk.
“Warhol was really a social observer. He cared about identity and the construction of identity. He cared about mortality and fame.”
To me, one of the most interesting connections in Emily Fisher Landau’s collection is actually to Warhol’s late self-portrait. The red, white and blue of the camouflage fits so well into your mother’s collection, which is so decidedly American. We have the “Fright Wig” installed in the galleries next to Jasper Johns’ Flags, and the two really define an era in American postwar art.
In the late self-portraits Warhol was really conscious of his mortality. The camouflage is all about identity – the layering and hiding that goes into constructing an identity. That’s very much who he was as a person – he was a construct, he was his own construct.
Candia, here’s your mother represented by one of the 20th century’s great artists. What does the portrait mean to you, and what are your hopes for its future?
I think anybody in my position would say that I hope it goes to a good home, a place where it might be equally contemplated, valued and loved. For me, it’s like letting go of my mother’s other children. I tell you, that’s how she felt about her art.