Pop Art icon Andy Warhol won fame in the 1960s by creating sculptures that mimicked the mass-produced wares sold in ordinary grocery stores. Playful and controversial, works such as Brillo Box (1964) and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Boxes (1971) challenged conventional notions about how art should be identified and valued.
More than 50 years later, Warhol’s enthusiasm for the mass production of art—as well as his often-irreverent attitude toward the establishment—has inspired a similarly boundary-pushing project by Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF (short for “mischief”).
According to Oscar Holland of CNN, the team of about 20 artists programmed a robotic arm to create 999 copies of an early Warhol print. Titled Fairies (1954), the whimsical line drawing depicts three nude fairies playing with a jump rope.
The collective then placed all 1,000 versions of Fairies—one print created by Warhol and 999 identical, robot-generated fakes—on sale for $250 each. As of Monday, the works were listed as sold out on the collective’s Museum of Forgeries website.
Theoretically, buyers should have a difficult time discerning whether they’ve received the real deal or one of the 999 forgeries. MSCHF claims that it does not know which Warhol look-alike is the “authentic” one. The collective destroyed all records indicating which piece was which and put the 2021 prints through a “degradation” process to thwart chemical analysis, reports Daniel Cassady for the Art Newspaper. Each work now bears the same title: Possibly Real Copy of Fairies by Andy Warhol (2021).
Christie’s sold the original Fairies print for $8,125 in 2016 (roughly $9,285 today). Now, notes Michelle Shen for USA Today, the sketch is worth approximately $20,000. If all 1,000 prints offered by MSCHF sold at their listed price of $250, then the collective stands to rake in the substantially higher sum of $250,000.
On its website, MSCHF describes the project as a critique of the “capital-A Art World,” which, in the group’s estimation, is “far more concerned with authenticity than aesthetics.”
“By forging Fairies en masse, we obliterate the trail of provenance for the artwork,” the collective continues. “… By burying a needle in a needlestack, we render the original as much a forgery as any of our replications.”
Speaking with CNN, co-chief creative officer Kevin Wiesner notes that this project—like many of the collective’s previous stunts—is intended to provoke. MSCHF gained notoriety earlier this year when athletic wear giant Nike sued the collective for copyright infringement over its “Satan shoes,” a line of sneakers that contained real drops of human blood.
“It’s always very funny to do pieces that are able to simultaneously spit in the art world’s face, and also do what they’re trying to do—which is use art as an investment vehicle—but better,” Wiesner tells CNN.
He adds, “A Warhol piece is completely unrealistic for most people to even come close to getting. … In some way, we’re democratizing it by letting everyone have what could be a Warhol.”
The idea of “authenticity” in art traces its roots to the 16th century, when the rise of the printing press enabled the mass reproduction of original artworks. “Printmaking ... eliminated the trace of the artist’s hand from the finished artwork,” wrote Jason Farago for BBC Culture in 2014. “Value therefore had to come from somewhere else: from an intellectual or even spiritual inspiration, and not from craft.”
Today, the battle between authenticity and aesthetics is perhaps best represented by non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are essentially digital files that function as permanent records of originality and ownership. Earlier this year, Christie’s sold an NFT of a digital collage by Beeple for $69.3 million—the third-highest auction price achieved by a living artist.
Titled Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, the collage includes images one would be hard-pressed to describe as aesthetically pleasing: Some, in fact, are “frankly misogynistic,” wrote Ben Davis for Artnet News in March. “None [are] likely to age well.” Another NFT featuring the Nyan Cat meme—which “already exists in millions of identical copies,” per Blake Gopnik of the Art Newspaper—sold in February for roughly $580,000.
“Aesthetically, most NFT art is barely more compelling than empty space,” Gopnik argued in February. “[I]t’s the certification that truly matters to buyers, not the thing certified.”
Warhol, for his part, pushed back against the concept of authenticity by embracing the mechanical, removing all personal traces of the artist in favor of replicating mass-produced objects like soup cans and Brillo boxes.
“He mainstreamed the idea that great artists don’t produce their own works themselves, which at some point farther back in history would have been as verboten as forgery,” Wiesner tells Artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe. “For us, Museum of Forgeries is about using duplication as a means of destroying art.”