Shortly before Walt Esslinger died a few years ago, we talked in his small yellow painted studio in Bakersfield. Sixteen years my senior, he’d been my close friend, mentor and running mate since 1960.
“You still writing?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, taking in the space’s renovations he’d recently sub-contracted. Ninety one years old, and he was thinking ahead.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Write the Andy Warhol story.”
Walt was a Central Valley guy, an L.A. guy, a Las Vegas guy. A man who knew his way around. “I want you to put on record what happened back then when I bought the soup can painting.”
Back then was the fall of 1962. The two of us had been exhibiting our paintings in the L.A. Art Institute’s gallery for locals only. Walt had given legendary Ad Rhinehardt a story about how he and I had been working in both Edward Kienholz’s and John Altoon’s studios (false—we’d only been visiting). One morning, the Institute’s Director, who hadn’t suspected us to be charlatans yet, introduced us to a reed thin, tow headed young man leaning against the main gallery’s wall.
“Meet Andy Warhola,” he said. “Andy is from New York.”
“Warhol,” the boy/man said.
“Painter?” Walt asked him.
The director made a snorting noise I took to mean that Warhola or Warhol’s modesty was posed. He mentioned something about Andy having a show on the La Cienega strip of galleries. We exchanged mumbles about how the art world was in flux, nothing more than that, and Walt and I moved on. If this strange cat had anything to look at, we’d see it. It was a Monday, and La Cienega’s twenty some galleries would be opening new shows and serving champagne that evening.
North La Cienega Avenue, laid over a network of oil veins decades before, had become the street for the Cool School, a group of artists and gallery people trying to bring Los Angeles’s art scene to life. The galleries were small but proud. Sure, Jazz was born on the Delta and raised in New Orleans, St, Luis and Chicago, but L.A. had fifty-three jazz joints according to Chet Baker, who’d blown with the best. Why then should the West Coast be lagging behind New York in the other truly American expression, abstract art?
At the Ferus Gallery that night we found Warhol’s exhibit.
“Shit,” I said.
Walt grinned. “You no like?”
“Not exactly my can of soup,” I said, peeking into the small space, loaded now wall to wall with paintings of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.
Walt stepped into the space. “How about the idea of it?”
I made my way through spectators looking at once to be confused, amused, enthused and abused. When I came back to Walt he was still smiling. “Why didn’t he silk screen ‘em?” I asked.
“That’s probably his next move,” Walt said.
“You wanna stay?”
Walt’s keen eyes cased the joint. “I see Irving Bloom over there,” he said. “Believe I’ll stick around and talk with him.”
Bloom had been operating this popular gallery for some time now. “One hundred a month,” he’d told me. “It’s not like I’m getting rich.” I stood around for a bit, heard a fellow abstract expressionist I’d met tell a young lady who looked to be lost, “Okay that’s the soup. Come with me, baby, and I’ll show you the juice.” Two doors down I stopped at the Primus-Stuart Gallery. A group of people had gathered around a display of soup cans, stacked grocer’s pyramid style in the window. All Campbell’s. All Tomato. A sign leaning against the grouping stated: “Get the real thing. Thirty cents each.”
That’s the way it was. Twenty-four galleries forming a gauntlet between La Cienega’s 300 block, all the way up to Barney’s Beanery at the corner of Santa Monica. Hollywood types dressed to the nines, Beats dressed for the times just gone. Champagne popping. Jazz bopping. Sweet talkin’. All of us walkin’ the night toward lives we thought would never end.
“Barney’s Beanery,” I reminded Walt. “When we met up later that night in Barney’s, you told me that you’d given Irving Bloom one hundred dollars for one of the soup can paintings.”
Walt glanced up from his computer, where he was composing a high resolution photo of jazz pianist Earl Hines’ face, the musician’s nickname “Fatha” under it. “That’s the story I want you to tell.”
I studied his hands, still ageless, still steady. The same hands that had helped design the iconic Flamingo sign in Vegas, well over a half century earlier. “How did it work?” I waited until he caught my grin. “The part where you didn’t get the painting.”
“Bloom called me after about a week,” Walt said, like he was orating for prosperity. “Told me he was sending my check back. That Warhol wanted the paintings sold as a unit.”
Over the years we’d talked of Warhol, how Walt, at first glance, had understood what the artist was about. “You said that night that the idea of the paintings as a suite was their importance. Their ‘bonafides’ was how you put it.”
Walt leaned back in his chair, eyes looking beyond his Van Gough yellow studio. “Bloom knew it too,” he said. “He ended up giving Andy one thousand for the lot and sending him back to New York.”
Of course Walt had told me about this before, but I wanted the details again. “And Warhol accepted that?”
“It was his first show ever, Larry. You have to get that part, what the guy must have been thinking. I doubt he even showed up at the gallery that night, everybody walking by putting down his work.”
“Bum kickin’ it,” I said.
“Thinking it was a ruse.”
“Like Dizzy blowin’ a Magee on a tune just for kicks.”
Walt laughed, that wonderful near soundless cackle. “Anyway, Bloom saw it too. He told me he’d sold three or four others and had little trouble giving the payments back, that the buyers had second thoughts about the soup cans and were happy to know their checks would be voided.”
“And Bloom kept the paintings for two decades.”
“More like three.”
“And finally donated them to the New York Museum of Modern Art.”
“Donated,” Walt said, his voice a rasp in the quiet, sunlit space that held countless touches of his art, “for fifteen million dollars.” He handed me the graphic of Earl Hines. “This what you wanted,” he asked, fixing a gaze on me over his glasses. “I used Avant Garde font on ‘Fatha’.”
“Perfect.” We sat in silence for a few moments. “How old were you when you roomed with Earl Hines above the Grand Terrace in Chicago?”
“In the Parkway Hotel,” he said, finding a memory. “I was nineteen.”
“Yes,” he said. “Another story.”