An L.A. Gallerist Bought Out Warhol’s First Painting Show for $1,000—and Ended Up with $15 Million
When Los Angeles gallerists Irving Blum and Walter Hopps offered a young
They were wrong. Local critics panned it; the Los Angeles Times went so far as to publish a snarky cartoon of two barefoot beatniks contemplating Warhol’s Campbell’s soup paintings. “Frankly, the cream of asparagus does nothing for me,” says one, “but the terrifying intensity of the chicken noodle gives me a real Zen feeling.” A nearby gallery tried to capitalize on the outrage by setting up a window display of Campbell’s soup, accompanied by the sign: “Get the real thing for only 29 cents a can.”
But Hopps wasn’t deterred. Ever since his first visit to Warhol’s studio, he was certain that the ghostly pale, silver-wigged artist was something special.
“Alice B. Toklas said that when she was in the presence of genius a bell would ring in her head,” Hopps recalls in a newly published book that collects and condenses a series of interviews with the influential West Coast curator. “A little bell rang that afternoon in Andy’s studio. He was just a natural. I’d never seen any paintings quite like these.”
Hopps, along with his partner Blum, ran the groundbreaking Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood. Originally founded by Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz in 1957, the gallery was initially a homegrown operation solely featuring California artists—
The art may have been first-rate, but neither Hopps nor Kienholz had a mind for business. Ferus was on the brink of shutting down when Blum, a dapper New York salesman, strolled in. He took over Kienholz’s share of the gallery and insisted that they add a handful of New York artists to the roster. “I didn’t want the gallery to have a provincial cast,” he later explained.
So, in 1961, Blum and Hopps traveled to New York in search of young talent. A dealer friend directed them towards Warhol, already a sought-after commercial illustrator with work featured in children’s books and shoe advertisements. But he was also busy honing his own particular brand of fine art.
Hopps recalled that, during their visit to Warhol’s upper Lexington townhouse, they saw a mix of crisp, black-and-white paintings like Telephone (1961) and full-color canvases riffing on comic book characters such as Superman and Dick Tracy. (Blum, unlike Hopps, was rather unimpressed by these works—“they seemed to me to be not so interesting,” he said.)
Still, Hopps and Blum floated the idea of showing Warhol’s work at Ferus. The artist, with his lifelong attraction to movie stars, was particularly intrigued by the West Hollywood location. They agreed to keep in touch.
Several months later, Blum visited Warhol again and stumbled across three Campbell’s soup canvases leaning against the wall. A lightbulb went off in his head. “What about my showing these soup can paintings in L.A.?” the gallerist asked Warhol.
“He hesitated,” Blum recalled. “I said, ‘Andy, movie stars come into the gallery.’ A total lie because movie stars never came into the gallery.”
But the fib worked. On July 9, 1962—a year and a half later—the first exhibition of Warhol’s paintings opened at Ferus Gallery. There were 32 canvases in total, from minestrone to clam chowder. “I remember asking Andy how he’d describe the paintings,” Hopps said. “He gave me a funny smile, and he said, ‘I think they’re portraits, don’t you?’ It was an interesting, ambiguous answer—as though he didn’t distinguish between people and things.”
Blum had the idea to display the canvases on thin shelves rather than hanging them on the wall, the fine-art equivalent of cans lining the supermarket aisle. Hopps’s then-wife, Shirley, remembered thinking, “It was one of those times when we knew we were onto something.” But collectors didn’t seem to agree—Blum had managed to sell just one canvas, with another four on hold, when he decided to do something drastic. He was going to buy all the paintings himself, keeping the series intact. He cancelled the four holds, bought back the fifth, and made a deal with Warhol to buy the entire set on layaway: $100 a month for 10 months.
It wasn’t until 1996 that he finally relinquished the paintings to the Museum of Modern Art—for $15 million.
As for Warhol, he was so pleased with the deal that he signed on for a second show at Ferus. By the time it opened in 1963, he had exchanged painting for silkscreen printing—and the art world had taken notice. His first New York show (also the first to feature Warhol’s silk-screened canvases) sold out. For his next L.A. exhibition, he used the technique to emblazon a series of seven-foot-tall Elvises onto a roll of silvery canvas.
Warhol decided to make the trek to Los Angeles for the opening, driving cross-country in a car with a mattress stowed in the back. When he arrived, actor Dennis Hopper set him up in a Beverly Hills Hotel suite and, with the help of his wife, even organized a welcome party.
Peter Fonda, Troy Donahue, Robert Dean Stockwell, and Suzanne Pleshette were in attendance—and Warhol was beside himself. “This party was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me,” he said later. Blum may have been fibbing, but Los Angeles came through in the end. Warhol had found his place among Hollywood’s stars.