Bob Dylan & the Strange Journey of Warhol’s Silver Elvis

In 1965 Bob Dylan was brought to Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory by Barbara Rubin, a filmmaker and a mutual acquaintance of Dylan and Warhol’s, to be the subject of one of Warhol’s screen “tests,” which were two-minute silent movie portraits starring Factory regulars and outside celebrities.

Flaming Star publicity photo

Although some accounts have the meeting happening in January 1966, it more likely took place in July `65. Whatever the date, Dylan sat sullenly staring into the camera for a few minutes and then was either given or appropriated (depending on the teller) a Warhol silkscreen of two overlapping images of Elvis Presley, part of what was known as the Silver Elvis series.

In 1963, Warhol had developed the 22-piece series simply called “Elvis” for a show at The Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, CA, appropriating an image of Presley from a publicity still from the 1960s film Flaming Star. The Silver Elvis series included several double Elvises, some with side-by-side and others with overlapping Elvises, many of which were now propped up against the Factory walls.

The Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, September 30–0ctober 26, 1963 (photograph from the Frank Thomas Archives)

According to Warhol, he gave one of those Double Elvises to Dylan. Other accounts have Dylan and Warhol doing a “you’re cool, man,” “no you’re cooler, man” potlatch dance around each other that ended with Warhol reluctantly giving the Elvis away. Still other stories have Dylan saying “I’ll take that (the Double Elvis) as payment [for the screen test],” and Dylan’s crew, which included his alter ego, Bobby Neuwirth and road manager Victor Maymudes, hustling the painting down the freight elevator before anyone in Warhol’s camp could object.

Warhol and Dylan in front of the Double Elvis which would later end up on the roof of Dylan’s station wagon
Andy: “I liked Dylan, the way he created a brilliant new style… I even gave him one of my silver Elvis paintings in the days when he was first around. Later on, though, I got paranoid when I heard rumors that he had used the Elvis as a dart board up in the country. When I’d ask, ‘Why did he do that?’ I’d invariably get hearsay answers like ‘I hear he feels you destroyed Edie [Sedgwick],’ or ‘Listen to Like a Rolling Stone — I think you’re the ‘diplomat on the chrome horse, man.’ I didn’t know exactly what they meant by that — I never listened much to the words of songs — but I got the tenor of what people were saying — that Dylan didn’t like me, that he blamed me for Edie’s drugs.”

Although this was Dylan’s first meeting with Warhol, it was obvious that he had taken an instant dislike to the artist, responding to Warhol’s hesitant questions in monosyllables before abruptly leaving with the Double Elvis. Factory archivist and photographer Billy Name recalls Dylan putting out a “cold and unresponsive vibe” and another Factory hanger-on called Dylan “a mean, bloody-minded and miserable speed freak.” The most likely reason behind Dylan’s attitude was Edie Sedgwick, a socialite/actress who had a rocky relationship with Warhol and the Factory gang and was a Dylan friend, something of a Dylan protégé, and was dating Dylan’s right-hand man, Bobby Neuwirth. Among other talents, Neuwirth was a genius in bringing out Dylan’s mean and vindictive streak, and probably had encouraged him to give Warhol the nasty street punk treatment.

From all reports Warhol had been excited by the prospect of Dylan’s visit, but his enthusiasm faded by the time of Dylan’s departure. Whether Warhol actually ever “liked” Dylan is debatable, more probably what he had liked was the idea of Dylan’s celebrity. But between Edie Sedgwick, the Siamese cats, chrome horses and diplomats, and the later Elvis-as-dartboard reports from Woodstock, whatever positive feelings he had for Dylan evaporated. Warhol took to satirizing Dylan in films like “More Milk Yvette” (which included a harmonica-playing Dylan lookalike); a spoof called the “Bob Dylan Story”; and the repeated playing of a Dylan song at the wrong speed in “Imitation of Christ”.

Leaving the Factory, Dylan and company hiked the Double Elvis, which probably had a market value of less than $1,000 at the time, to the top of his station wagon and drove off. Reports eventually floated back to Warhol that Dylan had thrown the Elvis in a closet, had hung it upside down, or was using it as dart board, all apparently designed to show his disdain for Warhol. One apocryphal story claimed that Dylan had somehow arranged to have a hose come through Elvis’ crotch so the painting could urinate on command. “Gee, that’s worth a lot of money,” Andy said upon being told that piece of gossip. “He shouldn’t have done that.”

In reality, Dylan hadn’t damaged the painting, but he had gotten rid of it. All accounts — including from Dylan himself — have him trading the Elvis to his manager Albert Grossman for a sofa, a decision he’d come to regret. Grossman’s widow, Sally, later sold the painting at auction for a reported $750,000.

Bob: I once traded an Andy Warhol “Elvis Presley” painting for a sofa, which was a stupid thing to do. I always wanted to tell Andy what a stupid thing I done, and if he had another painting he would give me, I’d never do it again.

The Hunt for the Double Elvis

About seven years ago, I was commissioned to find a specific photo, described to me as one or two people from Dylan’s posse tying the Double Elvis to the top of a station wagon. The shot was taken from one of the Factory windows — several floors up — shooting down at the top of the station wagon. But, the person who had hired me for the job warned that the photo had only been described to her and that the description could be way off. There was a possibility that the photo didn’t exist, or was faked. One person I later spoke to was convinced that what I was looking for was a staged publicity shot taken for the “Factory Girl” biopic of Edie Sedgwick.

My early research indicated that if the photo existed, the most likely candidates to have taken it were Nat Finkelstein, Gerard Malanga, or Billy Name. Finkelstein was the unofficial house photographer of the Factory scene at the time, and had shot several photos during Dylan’s visit, including one where Warhol and Dylan examine the Double Elvis. But given the time and the atmosphere, nearly everyone in Warhol’s camp had shot photographs, including Warhol’s assistant, Gerard Malanga, and another Factory fixture, Billy Name. Even Barbara Rubin, who was filming footage of Dylan that day, might have taken the shot.

Unless you have a taste for research it can be pretty boring, and I won’t go into the details of my year of sending email and making phone calls and either not getting any response or getting answers that confused the issue even more. The Warhol Museum had never heard of the photo. First-hand accounts by people who were there had Nat Finkelstein following Dylan out of the building shooting photographs all the while, and Gerard Malanga watching — and possibly photographing — from a window. I couldn’t reach Malanga directly, but his agent asked on my behalf and came back with Malanga’s answer: he knew of the photo and thought it had been taken by Billy Name. I located Name, who now runs a goat farm in upstate New York, but he said the photo wasn’t his and while he believed he had seen it he couldn’t remember the photographer, but guessed it was Nat Finkelstein.

In fact, all the evidence built up to point at Finkelstein, who was the author of almost all the published photos from that day. While I had a slew of Finkelstein contacts/representatives, I wasn’t getting any responses from any of them. I finally found a personal email address for Finkelstein and sent off a message. I got a one-line response from him… “I have it” … and weirdly, he attached a photo of a street scene, except there wasn’t any station wagon and no one tying anything to the top of a car. Nat had included a phone number in his email, so I dialed it, and after several missed connections finally got him on the line. It was a short conversation.

“That little shit sent you, didn’t he?” Nat growled over the phone. “You tell that little shit he’ll never see those photos of him stealing the Elvis.” Realizing that he was talking about Dylan, I tried to explain that I was simply trying to locate the photo. Nat wasn’t buying my story, and after some further back-and-forth he convinced me he did have the photo but that he wasn’t going to talk with an intermediary whether I really represented the little shit or not. Nat had sent me a cropped version of the photo as some sort of weird message to Dylan that while he had the shot, he’d never let it get into Dylan’s hands… at least not without Dylan parting with many bags of gold first.

Finkelstein’s reaction wasn’t a total surprise to me after a year of talking to people who had been part of the Factory scene in the `60s. Even after nearly 50 years many still expressed a strong dislike of Bob Dylan and his crew, both past and present, although none were quite as pungent as Nat Finkelstein.

I passed on his contact info to my client along with my belief that Nat had the photo, and closed the book on the project. Several months later, Nat Finkelstein passed away. Out of curiosity, I contacted my client and asked if she had been successful in getting the photo. She replied she hadn’t, but had had a few recent exchanges with Finkelstein’s wife, who had sent some contact sheets from that day. But the photo of the Double Elvis wasn’t part of the group.

More months passed, and I received an email from a forum where I had posted an inquiry about the photo during my early research without getting any useful results. Now, over a year later, an intern from a Tucson, Arizona gallery wrote, just like Nat Finkelstein, “We have it.”

“Double Elvis to Woodstock” originally shown at The Firestone Gallery

And they did. Look in the lower right corner above the copyright and you can see the station wagon with the Double Elvis strapped on top. Dylan is chatting with Barbara Rubin behind the car. It was the same photo — uncropped — that Nat Finkelstein had sent to me.

The photo was part of an exhibit the gallery was mounting called “Warhol: From Dylan to Duchamp.” I called Eric Firestone, owner of the Firestone Gallery, and asked about the station wagon photo. He told me that it was direct from Nat Finkelstein’s archives, had some slight damage and was for sale for $5500. Firestone also told me that he had access to the complete roll of film that Finkelstein shot that day and for the right price could have a contact sheet printed that would be a document of Dylan’s visit from entrance to departure.

I passed on the low-rez version of the photo to my client, who confirmed that it was indeed the photo — or at least a photo — that she had been looking for. About 18 months after I started I was finally able to invoice her. She added a fat bonus to my check, but that wasn’t quite the end of the story.

MoMa Silver Elvis

By this point I wanted to know what had happened to the Double Elvis after Albert Grossman’s widow sold it. I found that the New York Museum of Modern Art has a Silver Elvis in its collection which looked suspiciously like the Dylan Double Elvis. I contacted MoMa and asked about their Elvis’ provenance. The museum’s Office of the Registrar confirmed that it had gone from Bob Dylan to Albert and Sally Grossman to a Long Island real estate developer, a Jerry Spiegel, who eventually donated it to the MoMa in 2001.

There’s no evidence of dart holes in the canvas.

But again, that wasn’t quite the end of the Double Elvis story.

The Case of the Richard Prince Tweet

The appropriation artist Richard Prince has a tangled history with Bob Dylan, sometimes seeming to be Bob Dylan and sometimes with Bob Dylan seeming to be Richard Prince. The connection between the two went public when Dylan staged his 2011 art show, The Asia Series, first advertised as Dylan’s “visual journal of his travels in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea, compris[ing] firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape…” That description was amended when it was discovered that Dylan’s paintings were actually reproductions of photos from sources as varied as the Magnum archives and the Internet.

Inscribed copy of The Asia Series — from Richard Prince’s “Own Collection”

Prince contributed an essay to The Asia Series catalogue, later reproduced in the New York Review of Books, with Prince cryptically noting of Dylan’s studio, “Except for the art supplies, there wasn’t a single thing in this room that would tell someone, ‘Art is made here.’” And perhaps it wasn’t. Commentaries on the Web have proposed a so-called Dylan/Prince conspiracy with Prince overseeing the production of Dylan art created by “Chinese Paint Mills” reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory.

Richard Prince posted this photo to his Twitter account on February 5th 2016 with the caption: “Hey I’m bringing by a Warhol today. Right now I’m stuck in Queens. Traffic. But just to confirm. Silver Elvis. 6k”

The image is of Dylan’s station wagon pulling away from the curb with the Silver Elvis on the wagon’s roof. You can even see hands holding the Elvis in place. It’s a different shot than the photo that the Firestone Gallery had on display. Did Richard Prince or Bob Dylan buy the Nat Finkelstein contact sheet that the Firestone Gallery had offered to me?

But that’s a story for another time.