What happens to the rest of your life when Tom Wolfe declares you “Girl of the Year” in 1964? It’s a hard act to live up to, and even harder to sustain as time rolls by in its remorseless fashion. Fifty-five years later, “Baby Jane” Holzer is unfazed.
I’m talking with this celebrated model, property investor and art collector because she has loaned works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring to the National Gallery of Victoria’s summer blockbuster. We’re meeting at her home in Manhattan, a six-storey townhouse only a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The house is virtually a museum in its own right, laden with works by leading European and American contemporary artists, including Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd, Ed Ruscha, Sylvie Fleury, Rudolf Stingel and Ugo Rondinone. The best represented artist is, without doubt, Andy Warhol, with whom Holzer had a long association.
At the door I’m met by two young men who seem to work primarily as art handlers. It transpires that Holzer is not feeling well. She is suffering from vertigo, and asks if it’s OK if we talk while she lies on her bed. As I pull up a chair I’m reminded of the salons that famous French literary ladies would host in their bedrooms. Writers and statesmen would arrange themselves in the space alongside the bed called the ruelle.
In her modelling days Holzer was known for an awesome shock of hair – “an incredible mane, a vast tawny corona” in Tom Wolfe’s breathless description. That mane is still intact, although not shown to advantage when the bearer never stirs from the horizontal.
Jane Holzer was born in Florida, the daughter of Carl Brukenfeld, a wealthy property developer. She was a supermodel long before anybody was using the term, having been ‘discovered’ by David Bailey who photographed her for English Vogue in the summer of 1963. That’s all it took to be famous. She got married early to another American property tycoon, Lenny Holzer. The union didn’t last, although she kept the name. She was christened “Baby Jane” by a gossip columnist and this (singularly inappropriate) nickname has stuck.
Back in Manhattan Holzer was introduced to Andy Warhol one day on Madison Avenue. He was making a movie called Soap Opera, and asked if she’d like to be in it. Her reply was pure New York, although there are variant accounts. One version goes: “Well it sure beats the hell out of shopping at Bloomingdale’s every day!” Another is: “It sounds a whole lot better than being a Park Avenue housewife!”. Nowadays Holzer can’t remember which is correct.
Holzer became one of Warhol’s “superstars”. Her most famous sequence is a three-minute Screen Test of 1964, in which she looks languidly into the camera while brushing her teeth. “Andy told me not to blink,” she says, “which was hard.”
By 1969 she was no longer hanging out at Warhol’s Factory, being repelled by the drug culture that had taken control of the place. “It was a bad vibe. It wasn’t Andy, it was the people around him. And then he got shot and everything changed.”
“The drug culture is not fun,” she continues. “You’ve got to find some people that aren’t on drugs. I made a movie with Edie Sedgwick, who was obviously on drugs, which was rough on her and us too. We’d be all dresssed up and ready at 11 o’clock, and she wouldn’t show until four in the afternoon. And she’d be beautiful! Perfect! Meanwhile the rest of us would be exhausted.”
Holzer never lost her admiration for Warhol, remaining a lifelong friend and confidante. Although there have been many unflattering accounts of the artist’s manipulative personality, Holzer saw only kindness and consideration. Her Andy was “very pure. A really good guy. He took care of other people. He fed them. He was worried about all the kids.”
When she gave up modelling Holzer returned to her first love: real estate. The income from property fuels her passion for art, allowing her to acquire works by big name artists from big name dealers. She got into Keith Haring early, but Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of her greatest regrets, as she didn’t follow Andy’s advice to start buying when the paintings were becoming popular.
“Andy told me: ‘Just give Jean-Michel $20,000 and buy a picture,’” she recalls. “I wish I had.” It’s a sentiment shared by many, now that a single painting by Basquiat has sold at auction for US $110 million (AUD$160,791,227).
We break for an exceptional chicken soup, prepared and delivered by Holzer’s cook, Elvis.
Holzer says she became interested in collecting when she saw Warhol’s big flower paintings. “I had a tiny trust fund and I wanted to collect art,” she says. “Because I didn’t know anything about dead artists I had to collect living ones. If it was a dead artist then I could be fooled.”
In other words she had a dread of being sold a fake Impressionist or a misattributed old master. Even at that stage Holzer had seen enough of the business world to be cautious about how she spent her money.
“I had a rule that artists had to be in a decent gallery before I’d look at them. In the 60s and 70s that meant Leo Castelli, Andre Emmerich and Sidney Janis – all fantastic dealers.”
When I ask what’s the difference between the leading dealers of the 1970s and those of today, she gives a succinct answer:
“Money. And lots of it.”
After a pause she resumes: “The difference with the market today is that you’ve always got the star of the moment. Everybody says: ‘This new artist is so hot. You’ve got to get one!” A year or three weeks later you can’t sell them. Nobody wants ‘em.”
I’m obliged to ask: “If somebody offered you a lot of money for a favourite work, would you consider it?”
“I might,” she says. “And I might not. I’m not always interested, but sometimes you just have to sell.”
Holzer may be willing to offload works from time to time but she insists that art collecting is her passion, not her business. She suspects that her family will sell everything when she goes but this doesn’t worry her one bit. “I won’t be around. I’m going to enjoy it while I’m here.”
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 November, 2019