Richard Polsky: I Bought Andy Warhol. Bloomsbury trade paperback (2005). Design: Whitney Cookman.
Richard Polsky: I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon). Other Press trade paperback (2011). Design: Carin Goldberg.

Back in 2005, I read a book called I Bought Andy Warhol,1 a memoir by art dealer Richard Polsky, who, with his wife Lia, owned a San Francisco gallery called Acme Art. Early in 1987, they mounted a show of Warhol paintings, and on February 22, it was hung but had not yet opened. On that day, they were in Sacramento to buy a small Self-Portrait from 1967 to round out the show. When they got back home to SF with the piece, there were over a dozen messages on their answering machine saying Warhol had died.

Soon after the show closed, Polsky set aside $100,000 to purchase a Warhol not to resell, but for his personal collection. I Bought Andy Warhol is about his search for that painting. It’s a highly entertaining read, very chatty and funny, with a lot of anecdotes about the strange and often ridiculous world of art. At the end of the book, he, now divorced, buys a 12” square green “Fright Wig,” from the 1986 series of self-portraits that I consider to be among Warhol’s most powerful work. Polsky really seems to love the piece, which took him twelve years to acquire. I was happy for him – he bought a great painting and only used half the money he had earmarked to spend.

In 2011, I found out Polsky had a newer book titled I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon).2 I was naturally disappointed that, after his talk about the “Fright Wig” being his “ultimate Warhol,” he decided to sell it. Nevertheless, I was intrigued and read the book. Apparently Rachael, his new wife,3 liked to spend a lot of money, and asked, “What would you rather look at, your painting or me?” He sold the painting to placate her. I’m sure she was not without certain charms, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying he made the wrong choice. The Christie’s auction at which Polsky sold the piece takes place at the beginning of the book; by page 29, he and Rachael are divorced.

Most of what follows is about how prices for blue-chip art escalated at an unprecedented rate in the late 1980s. It is entertaining, but while I Bought… is about art, I Sold… is all about money. It’s no coincidence that while the first book has the Warhol Self-Portrait on the cover, the second cover features the etching of George Washington from the dollar bill. Greed, and maybe fear, made him sell the painting. He says he immediately experienced seller’s remorse and that he had violated the cardinal rule of art dealing: never get emotionally attached to the inventory. He seems to have forgotten the piece wasn’t “inventory,” it was part of his collection, “part of [his] soul.” He sold it.


1 The title is a pun on I Shot Andy Warhol, a 1996 film which I had the distinct displeasure of seeing at a sneak preview with what seemed like an audience/mob of 800 militant lesbians rooting for wackjob Valerie Solanis, who they thought was making some sort of feminist statement by shooting Warhol and art critic Mario Amaya. Being in that theater was truly one of the most unsettling experiences of my life – I have no recollection whatsoever of the movie.

2 It was originally published in 2009.

3 I Bought Andy Warhol is dedicated to her.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to view five Andy Warhol screenprints from his Myths series, which includes images of The Shadow, Santa Claus, Mammy, Howdy Doody, Uncle Sam, The Witch, Superman, Dracula, The Star, and Mickey Mouse. The portfolio is notable in his oeuvre in that, with the exception of the few comic strip panels he painted when he first started using popular culture imagery, I believe they are the only fictional characters he ever depicted. My two favorites in the series are The Witch and The Shadow; the former is formally the most successful of the ten, the latter is reminiscent of his earlier work, and was recently among the pieces carefully removed from a drawer and placed before me, unframed and 

immediate. I had a sharp intake of breath upon seeing The Shadow; with its deep red and icy blue palette, with its dramatically-lit face and stagy silhouette which fills the majority of the picture plane, it is a striking image, for which Warhol himself served as model. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Eggs on Plate (1982).

In the autumn of 1981, in the local paper I saw a Weinstock’s department store insert announcing an upcoming appearance by Andy Warhol as part of their The Art of Giving holiday advertising campaign, of which the Myths portfolio was an integral part. At the time, Warhol occupied quite a bit of my brain space; I’d recently read Popism: The Warhol ’60s,1 and found the whole Factory scene terribly romantic in a seedy, amphetamined sort of way. It also seemed long ago and far away – it’s amazing to me now how recent it had actually been. Warhol had painted his seminal Campbell’s Soup Cans, the 32-panel polyptych which made up his first gallery show of Pop work, less than twenty years prior; and it had been only a little over thirteen years since he’d been shot twice and pronounced dead, which definitively ended that period – the “crazy, druggy,”2 open-Factory-door-policy period – of his career. Although I was very young when the ’60s came to an end, many of my cultural reference points were and continue to be from that time: the British Invasion, the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions, Haight-Ashbury, the Civil Rights movement, Silver Age comics, Swinging London, Pop Art. These were not common interests among people my age, who at the time were collectively frothing over REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, the Rubik’s Cube, and who shot JR.

In any case, I was a Warhol obsessive and his Weinstock’s appearance was an occasion I wasn’t going to miss. On Saturday November 14, a date sadly missing from The Andy Warhol Diaries,3 my older brother and I caught a bus going downtown and journeyed to the department store, where a line had already formed by the time we arrived. This was the first time I saw actual work by Warhol, as all ten prints were being exhibited in the store. Copies of the current issue of Interview magazine were distributed to attendees, and a woman circulated with a tray of chocolate-covered cherries, as if she were serving hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. When we got to the table where Warhol was seated, I was too much in awe to say much of anything while he was signing my Myths leaflet; nevertheless, seeing him was a real moment for me. My brother, for his part, handed Warhol a newspaper clipping and asked him if he would put his teeth marks in it. Warhol turned and whispered to Bob Colacello,4 who was standing by his side and leaned over to hear Warhol’s query. Colacello pointed to his own mouth and dutifully repeated the request, which the amused Warhol denied, then signed the paper and handed it back to my brother. We left the store and rode the bus back to the suburbs, far from the reality of the Factory, but close enough to bask in its mythology. That was the only encounter I ever had with Warhol; he would die just over five years later, following a gallbladder operation. He was fifty-eight years old.

It’s been four decades, almost to the day, since that particular trek to Weinstock’s, and in those intervening years, I’ve probably seen more actual work by Warhol than by any other artist. My favorite pieces tend to be from the 1960s, although he continued to do work I love through the ’70s and ’80s. The Myths portfolio doesn’t rank among his strongest – much of the depth and power in Warhol’s work was derived from his ability to create images which not only distilled the culture of the time, but did so in such a stark and authoritatively factual manner. The Myths look great, but because the subjects are fictional characters,5 they lack the compelling potency of the Car Crashes, the Jacqueline Kennedys, the Most Wanted Men, the skulls, the 1986 Self-Portraits. Despite this, they continue to hold a special place for me in Warhol’s body of work – you never forget your first time.


1 Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1980).

2 Ibid, page 285.

3 Pat Hackett, Editor; Warner Books (1989).

4 Interview magazine Executive Editor and later the author of Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up; HarperCollins (1990).

5 Warhol dodged this issue with The Shadow because he does not appear in costume – it can be read as simply a self-portrait.

Corey Okada visits the Warhol exhibit at SFMOMA
At Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, SFMOMA (2019).

This past summer, I twice saw Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Despite the negative and sometimes downright nasty press Warhol still sometimes receives, the repercussions from his work continue to run rampant through contemporary art, over thirty years after his death in 1987.

Roy Lichtenstein once said that, upon seeing Warhol’s silkscreen paintings in the early 1960s, he felt very old-fashioned. This from a guy whose work was so aggressively avant that Life Magazine once asked “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?” Even now, Warhol’s oeuvre makes still-wet paintings by Young Turks seem old-fashioned. 

Warhol has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, and although it may not be readily apparent, he and other Pop artists have had a big impact on how I approach my own work. I admire his sharp eye and conceptually-minded bent. He also remained artistically adventurous until the end, when he produced a series of self-portraits which I consider to be among the most powerful ever made. We haven’t seen the last of his wide-reaching influence – not only on art, but on culture in general.

“The mystery was gone but the amazement was just starting.” – Andy Warhol