SALT LAKE CITY — One is hard pressed to find a modern art icon as ubiquitous as Andy Warhol, an artist whose work is emblazoned on memorabilia the world over, subject of an Emmy-nominated Netflix series, and whose Marilyn Monroe silkscreen shattered records in May of this year as the most expensive 20th-century artwork ever sold.
And while Warhol’s pioneering career — as well as his persona — has garnered seemingly unending book, film, and scholarly attention, a little-known anecdote shines in the annals of Warhol-mania as the epitome of his rebellious approach to celebrity and capitalism.
On the evening of October 2, 1967, a crowd of eager college students gathered in the University of Utah’s Olpin Student Union to see a much-anticipated lecture by the world-famous Pop Art icon Andy Warhol. Utah was among the stops of a mini-college lecture tour that fall, which also included the University of Oregon, Linfield College in McMinnville, and the University of Montana.
Earlier that day, student photographer Joe Bauman accompanied Warhol from the airport to his hotel, snapping a photograph against the wishes of the artist’s handlers. This image would later be crucial to unlocking a baffling mystery.
That evening the crowd waited nearly an hour for their esteemed speaker to arrive, which he eventually did, disheveled, and adorned in a black turtleneck and sunglasses. He played 40 minutes of a film before providing monosyllabic answers during an accompanying Q&A session. The reaction was swift. The following day, Utah’s student newspaper the Daily Utah Chronicle ran an editorial cartoon of Warhol crawling into a giant Campbell Soup Can labeled, “Rotten Tomatoes.” While at the outset, the discussion centered on a collective frustration with the quality of the lecture, soon suspicion began to swell that the man who visited the university may not have been the actual Warhol.
Decades before a Google Image search could quash the uncertainty in an instant, student reporters from the Chronicle sent requests to various media outlets requesting photographs of the Pop phenom. Once received, photos of Warhol were compared to Bauman’s covert image capturing the artist en route to his hotel. Weeks later, the Chronicle published side-by-side images, exposing the undeniable reality that the speaker who visited the University of Utah was not Andy Warhol.
The Chronicle continued to unravel the saga in the ensuing weeks, seeking answers from the elusive artist as resentment over the prank grew. After student reporters were stonewalled by Warhol’s management for weeks, the University of Utah threatened legal action, which propelled Warhol’s manager Paul Morrissey to come clean and even speak with the Chronicle directly. Morrissey admitted that it was actor Alan Midgette, not Warhol, who attended the Utah lecture. Midgette was a former fixture at Warhol’s studio and avant-garde hangout the Factory and appeared in two films by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci before surrendering to Warhol’s spontaneous request to impersonate him at a planned lecture in Rochester New York. In what would be the first of the “phony” lectures, Midgette sprayed his hair gray and donned Warhol’s signature sunglasses. Fresh off the thrill of the event, the pair concocted a plan to continue the farse, this time out West.
Warhol’s manager Morrissey would have a most interesting justification for the act, stating that Warhol sent Midgette because the actor was “better looking,” and thus better for “public consumption.”
For his part, Warhol was keenly aware of the lure of celebrity and capitalism, subjects central to his most famous works. For an artist who rose to fame for painting Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup cans, it should be no surprise that Warhol was inclined to send a more polished product — Alan Midgette — to Utah and elsewhere. Warhol seemingly concedes that, as a central tenet of capitalism, we gauge the package most visually appealing to discern its overall quality.
As a student at the University of Utah, I learned of this bizarre episode from an acquaintance who attended the event. Her repulsion toward Warhol and his act was evident several decades later, propelling me to research the origins of the event, one which at the time was hardly mentioned in Warhol literature. The incredulity felt by the college students eager to hear from Warhol also furthered an unspoken but visceral divide between the coastal art world elites and middle America.
I began my research as an undergraduate in 2009, and eventually turned the project into an art history Master’s thesis, which I completed in 2011. My thesis, entitled, “The Artist is Not Present: Andy Warhol’s 1967 Utah ‘Hoax’ as Performance and Self-Portraiture,” investigated the ways in which the event affirmed Warhol’s career-long interests in masking, performative identity, and was consistent with his self-portraiture.
My thesis was among the first comprehensive investigations of the Utah incident and took inspiration from performance artist Marina Abramović’s 2010 MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present, in which she sat silently across a wooden table from a stream of individual participants for hours each day. I argued that Abramović’s performance epitomizes the longstanding and romantic notion that the artist’s biography — or even better, their physical presence — is a deeply important analytical tool that enables us to better understand their work. This fallacy is often accentuated by celebrity, which pivots the attention away from the physical or conceptual artwork itself and toward the artist’s persona.
Consciously or not, viewers often rely on the artist to form their meaning of an artwork, to unlock some hidden understanding that cannot be revealed simply by looking, but which places the viewer in a selective club of those who understand and those who do not. Such popular notions of artistic biographical supremacy capture the public’s imagination with modern heroes such as Vincent Van Gogh and even Jackson Pollock, whose work is seen to embody their personal anguish. So, when in the height of his fame, Warhol crafted a sort of anti-romantic artistic celebrity based on the demure, black-wearing, and non-committal persona we all recognize today, he was simultaneously conceding to and challenging our obsession with the artist’s biography and presence.
I was fortunate enough to meet Alan Midgette in 2015 when he reprised his Warhol impersonation for an event at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. He told me he had read my thesis, which was the first time he read the student-perspective of the event via the collected reporting by the Chronicle. After the lecture tour, he would continue impersonating Warhol for years, their careers forever intertwined. Midgette died last year at the age of 82.
Editor’s note 9/28/22 11:26am EDT: A previous version of this article misspelled Laura Hurtado’s name. This has been corrected.