The portrait of OJ Simpson, created by Andy Warhol in 1977, has taken on a new meaning in light of the US footballer's spectacular fall from grace.
In the 1970s, Andy Warhol believed sports personalities were becoming the “movie stars of yesterday,” so culturally-revered that they deserved special attention in a series of portraits he called “Athletes”.
One of those athletes was US football superstar O.J. Simpson, who Warhol photographed in 1977.
Simpson, aged 30 at the time, showed up to the shoot without a football or a jersey, and Warhol had to scramble to find a ball. That Polaroid shoot led to 11 silkscreen portraits; one of them is going on auction for the first time on 16 May.
Signed by both men, the portrait is billed by the Phillips auction house as a work that brings together two of the most recognizable names of the 20th century and captures "a trajectory of celebrity and tragedy."
A spectacular fall from grace
Warhol always had a keen eye for pop culture trends. The American pop art icon’s work frequently commented on the commodification of US society and the idolisation of celebrities and their image.
But even an apt cultural observer like him couldn’t have guessed the trajectory that Simpson’s life would take after the portrait was taken.
"Warhol certainly could never have imagined how differently the image would come to be viewed, nor the controversy that still lingers around its subject today," said Robert Manley, co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at the Phillips auction house.
In 1995, almost two decades after Warhol's photo shoot, Simpson – who had retired from the NFL in 1979 and pursued an acting career – was acquitted of the double slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman in what US media dubbed the “trial of the century”.
He was later found liable for the deaths by a California civil court jury that ordered him to pay $33.5 million (€30 million) to the victims' families.
In a separate case more than a decade later, Simpson was convicted by a jury in Las Vegas for leading five men, two of them armed with guns, in a 2007 confrontation with two sports collectibles dealers at an off-strip Las Vegas casino hotel.
Simpson served nine years in a Nevada prison for armed robbery. He was discharged from parole in December 2021.
A new meaning behind Warhol’s portrait
Manley noted that five decades after Warhol made it, the portrait still evokes a strong reaction.
"Those who view the image of Simpson staring directly down the camera are likely to recall the other notorious picture of the celebrity – his mugshot," Manley said. "Juxtaposing these two images, created at such different points in Simpson's life, shows a fascinating trajectory of celebrity and tragedy."
The portrait was commissioned by Warhol friend and collector Richard Weisman as part of a broader “Athletes” series, which included Muhammad Ali, Brazilian soccer star Pelé, tennis star Chris Evert, golf’s Jack Nicklaus and figure skater Dorothy Hamill, among others.
It spent 19 years at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the state of Ohio, where it was donated in 1992. The controversy around its subject, however, tainted the portrait. A spokesperson from the Ohio hall said the work was never displayed.
In 2011, it was permanently removed from the collection and sold to an anonymous collector in a private sale through Christie’s, with proceeds going to fund the preservation of other items in the hall’s collection, according to spokesperson Rich Desrosiers.
Phillips estimates the work will sell for $300,000 to $500,000 (€276,000 to €459,000) and specified that Simpson would not receive any of the proceeds, which is the case for all athletes featured in the series.
The highest price one of Warhol’s Simpson portraits fetched at auction was $687,000 (€631,000) in 2019.
According to the auction catalogue, Warhol’s diary entry on the day he photographed Simpson reads: “He had a five-day beard and I thought the pictures would be awful.”
Warhol died in 1987 at age 58. Simpson is now 75 and has been living in Las Vegas since he was released from prison in 2017.