Museum’s Warhol Masterpiece a Fake?

At one time or another, most residents of our city have visited the Museum of Modern American and Canadian Art at the corner of 26th Street and Smith. What most visitors don’t know is the real story behind one of the museum’s most famous works. The controversy started in 1998, when experts began a conservation project on the canvas Self Portrait With Pink Soup Can 2 by Andy Warhol. The painting was considered extremely valuable because of its rarity and seeming departure in style, compared to the artist’s other works. The painting shows Warhol perched on a enormous can of Campbell’s Pea Soup. Most of Warhol’s other works from this period were screen printed and produced in mass quantities, but no similar canvas survives. On recent tour of the museum, a guide claimed that the artist destroyed Pink Soup 1 by throwing it into a bonfire in a fit of rage after a fight with Lou Reed. However, no documentation of Pink Soup 1 exists in published records, and Mr. Reed has stated in interviews that he does not recall the incident. Pink Soup 2 also has a murky history.

The painting was donated to the museum from the estate of Mildred Birch, a local dowager who spent her final years and massive fortune assembling one of the nation’s premiere private art collections. The contents of this collection were distributed throughout the city after Ms. Birch’s death: the Tibetan Temple Gates to the Asian Art Association; Rodin’s Traveling Horseman to the Anheuser P. Davidson Hanging Sculpture Gardens on West Thirteenth Street; a series of Ansel Adams prints featuring Atlantic City to the Watson University Museum of Moving Photography, Filmography and Still Photography; and so on. The jewel of the collection was the unknown, late-period Warhol piece- Self Portrait w/ Pink Soup Can 2- which was entrusted to MOMAACA. It quickly became the museum’s most popular attraction, inspiring posters, t-shirts and tote bags. The museum cafe began serving pea soup, and a large Warhol exhibition was scheduled for 1998, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

While the painting was undergoing routine cleaning and conservation, questions were raised. Restorers were shocked to find that Pink Soup 2 was painted on the back of another canvas. During this period of his career, Warhol had reached the height of his wealth and fame, and the curators questioned whether the artist would reuse a canvas, especially on a work of this scale. Still more troubling– the signature of the painting on the back belonged to Mildred Birch’s grandson, Earl J. Birch. The trust that oversees Ms. Birch’s estate vociferously defended the painting’s authenticity. They suggested that perhaps the lad had painted on the back of the canvas before it was framed. Pink Soup Can 2 did seem to bear marks of Warhol’s style, and the signature matched other paintings of the period. A fight broke out among the curators at MOMAACA about whether they had a forgery on their hands and what to do about it. Some believed that it was a real Warhol, while others felt that it was a well-executed fake, perhaps even a class project. Unfortunately, Earl J. Birch could not be asked- he perished in a yachting accident four years prior to his grandmother’s death. Mildred was the last heir of the Birch fortune and the last link to the family secrets. An attempt was made to locate Earl’s art school classmates, and some did recall a project to emulate a famous artist’s style. However, no proof was ever found linking him to the Pink Soup canvas, beyond the signature on the back.

Further complicating matters was Ms. Birch’s erratic record keeping. Many of her acquisitions were the types of items not widely available for sale, so in some cases, she seems to have used what some would refer to as “disreputable” art dealers. The trust operating her estate found it difficult to produce history or bills of sale for many objects in her collection- most famously the Incan textiles from Cuzco and the Exekias Krater from Greece (The Krater depicts Zeus seducing various women, and was donated to the Museum of Ancient Hellenic and Canadian Art in South Bay. It was recently repatriated to Greece, after evidence emerged that it may have been looted. The textiles remain at the Wonsley Textile and Topiary Museum, in Coolidge Park). Experts brought in to assess the Warhol came away with mixed reactions. Most felt it was a forgery, either by Earl Birch or some unknown artists who then faked Warhol’s well-known signature. Two experts felt it was an authentic Warhol and a third verified the painting only to recant months later. The museum continues to display the painting and indicate Warhol as the artist. However, critical opinion has largely turned against the museum. As of April 2008, the MOMAACA has begun displaying a plaque near the painting that explains its complicated origins. But for now, at least, it is best known for a famous painting that may be fake.
- Matt Vermeulen

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