TRAVERSE CITY — Billy Bardocz leaned back to get a better view of an Andy Warhol print hanging on a wall at the Dennos Museum. The image, lemons on a green background, seeps Warhol’s familiar style.
The Mesick High School student spent a few minutes looking closely at the image called “Space Fruit: Lemons.” Then he slowly moved along the wall to peer at a colorful print of “Sitting Bull,” before rejoining his classmates.
But, like most people wandering past, he likely didn’t know the social significance of the artwork he inspected.
The prints, “Speed Skater,” “Shoes,” “Pete Rose,” “Goethe,” “Space Fruit: Lemons,” “Sitting Bull,” and “Flowers,” aren’t his most iconic works, but still represent some of the artist’s widely-recognizable techniques.
Don Butkovich, an antiques and art appraiser in Traverse City, knew Warhol during the era when he was making some of his most recognized works. Warhol’s prints often made statements about social and political issues at the time. But they also made statements about the excesses in Warhol’s life, Butkovich said.
Butkovich attended art school in New York at the time Warhol was gaining notoriety. For some time, Butkovich worked at the Whitney Museum and had interactions with Warhol when the museum displayed his work.
“It was hard to talk to him,” Butkovich said. “There are only a few people around who could talk to him. I was the one who had to tell him he couldn’t smoke in the museum.”
People looking at the images need to take into account the man who authored the prints and the social strife in the world when they were made, Butkovich said.
The tendency is for viewers to simply look at the artwork after an artist dies, he added.
That lens can oversimplify what really are representations of the life and times of an artist. Some of Warhol’s works included images of mushroom clouds, electric chairs and communist leaders. Others poked at burgeoning commercialism in the United States at the time.
“It wasn’t a high point in culture or art history,” Butkovich said.
The prints were recently given to the museum by the Andy Warhol Foundation. They’re a group that represents a wide variety of the pop artist’s work during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of his most famous images made statements about world politics of celebrity.
The gift to the museum from the foundation was part of an ongoing program where Warhol’s estate gives previously unreleased prints to museums and educational institutions across the United States.
“Our goal was to make Warhol artworks widely available for study and exhibition,” said KC Maurer, a representative of the Warhol Foundation who helped arrange the gift.
The Dennos was chosen because it had previously been gifted 150 photographs made by Warhol from the foundation. That previous stewardship helped the foundation’s directors feel confident in making the Dennos one of only 325 museums or institutions that have been given Warhol’s works.
Many of Warhol’s works were bought by collectors for less than $10,000 when they were made, but since then prices for them have exploded. The cost of Warhol’s prints have risen so much that a museum like the Dennos wouldn’t likely own them outside of a donation.
“Our collection primarily grows in gifts,” said Eugene Jenneman, the Dennos’ executive director. “The images we got are very typical Warhol images.”
There are private collectors who own Warhol’s prints in the region, but the next closest piece of his work owned by a public museum probably is in Alpena, Jenneman said.
The prints will be on display at the Dennos until April when they will be put into storage with the museum’s permanent collection. From there, the works will be available for view by Northwest Michigan College instructors to aid in their teaching and on occasional display at the museum.