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The muse

How did a never-before-seen collection of Andy Warhol's work land at a Vermont museum? To answer that, you need to ask another question: Who was Jon Gould?

BRATTLEBORO -- Robert Du Grenier was sitting at a tourism board meeting last winter when it was revealed, with some excitement, that the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center had been offered a private Andy Warhol collection to exhibit this fall. Du Grenier, a sculptor and package designer from nearby Townshend, is a big booster of the local arts scene and regards Warhol, whom he met in New York in the 1980s, as a major influence.

A significant collection, never before seen publicly, of works by the high priest of Pop Art? It seemed almost too good to be true. Especially for Brattleboro, a laid-back New England town that for all its artistic vitality has no known connection to Warhol and his world.

Idly, Du Grenier asked whose collection it was. A fellow named Jon Gould, he was told. Warhol's last live-in boyfriend. Du Grenier nearly fell off his chair.

Du Grenier knew who Gould was, all right. Gould, who died of AIDS in 1986, was his first cousin and former housemate: the man who had not only introduced him to Warhol but who once brought Warhol to a family Thanksgiving at the Gould estate in Amesbury, Mass.

Since his death, Du Grenier knew, Gould's family had been puzzled over the exact nature of his relationship with the artist, one that even by Warhol's standards was a strange brew of jet-setting glamour, puppy-love infatuation, sexual ambiguity, and commercial calculation, with a pinch of Hollywood stardust thrown in.

"To hear it advertised as `Andy's boyfriend's collection' was a huge shock," recalls Du Grenier, speaking over lunch at a Brattleboro restaurant recently. "Jon never came out of the closet, at least to me."

Lingering mysteries about the relationship aside, Du Grenier says, getting the collection is "a fabulous thing" for Brattleboro and provides "a rare glimpse of an excruciatingly private artist" through the prism of a close bond that defied easy description.

Gould's twin brother, Jay, agrees that the relationship was unconventional, if uncommonly strong. While visiting his brother at Warhol's townhouse, Jay Gould asked him what was going on between the two men. "He said there was no sexual contact, that they were just good friends," Gould recalls. "Whether he was trying to protect me or not, I don't know. Jon described Andy as a `voyeur,' which I guess he was. Yet Jon clearly liked Andy a lot."

The show, titled "Andy Warhol: Intimate & Unseen," opens Sept. 18 and runs through Feb. 6. Spread over 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, it consists of 45 paintings and drawings, 20 prints, and 50 black-and-white photographs taken by Warhol, many of Jon Gould. The bulk is devoted to works from the 1980s, the period during which Gould, then a high-flying movie executive, began acquiring his collection under Warhol's tutelage.

Many works will be familiar to Warhol scholars and even casual fans, according to show curator Mara Williams. There are screen prints from the artist's "Myths" and "Endangered Species" series, a Campbell's soup can, two Mao portraits, several "Fish Series" watercolors, and other images that made Warhol one of the late 20th century's most iconic artists. (Warhol died in 1987 of complications from gall bladder surgery.)

A documentary film will also be shown, as will a pair of abstract paintings -- Warhol did only 16 of them -- never before seen in public and a screen print titled "Paramount Pictures," done in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"For people who know Andy Warhol, a lot of this is known quantity," says Williams. "But to people of Brattleboro and southern Vermont, it's new and incredibly exciting."

Indeed, the Brattleboro community is seizing the moment with a fever -- part pop-star worship, part tourism tool -- that Warhol himself would have admired, right down to staging student art competitions and Warhol look-alike contests that should obliterate any line purists might be tempted to draw beween high art and low.

Two downtown theaters will host a film series featuring "The Chelsea Girls," "Lonesome Cowboys," "Soap Opera" (with Baby Jane Holzer), and other Warhol productions. The Latchis Theater will mount a show of Warhol portraits by Interview photographer Christopher Makos. Readings and lectures, a Studio 54-inspired party for museum patrons, a published guide to regional art galleries, and other tie-ins are planned. The state has kicked in $20,000 to help fund more than 15 weeks -- not minutes -- of borrowed fame for a town in which Warhol never even set foot.

"It's a wonderful way to market the whole region," says Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce director Besty Gentile, who hopes art enthusiasts will come for the show and stay to sample other cultural attractions.

An `incredible electricity' Warhol and Jon Gould met in late 1980. Warhol was 52 and on the rebound from a broken love affair with designer-filmmaker Jed Johnson (who also had a twin brother named Jay). An assassination attempt in 1968 had further scarred the artist, both physically and psychologically, yet had not kept him from reaching the pinnacle of his considerable fame.

Gould was 27, the scion of a wealthy North Shore family, who had graduated from running Rolling Stone magazine's advertising department to a plum Paramount Pictures vice presidency, where he specialized in marketing youth-culture movies such as "Flashdance" and "Urban Cowboy." Gould hoped to become a line producer and shuttled regularly between Hollywood and New York.

"Tall, slim, athletic, with dark eyes and a flashy smile" is how Gould is described in David Bourdon's exhaustive biography "Warhol." According to Bourdon and others -- including the artist, in his diaries -- Warhol was smitten with Gould not only for his looks and youth. Gould was also a member of Hollywood's inner sanctum, and that was a club Warhol badly wanted to break into.

"Jon didn't need anything from Andy Warhol, certainly not fame or fortune," says Williams, who delved deeply into the relationship in preparation for the show.

"For many, Andy was their way of being important," Williams continues. "Jon was important in his own right. He came from a huge extended family. If anything, he had something Andy wanted."

Within days of their first meeting, Warhol was sending Gould roses daily and pining beside the telephone. Strands of expensive pearls and other presents followed, as did trips to Aspen, Colo.; Palm Beach, Fla.; the Caribbean island of St. Martin; and other jet-set locations.

"I decide that I should try to fall in love, and that's what I'm doing now with Jon Gould," Warhol wrote in an April 1981 diary entry, adding, "my crush on him will be good for business" because of the Paramount connection. Warhol took Gould on a tour of his townhouse, "hinting like crazy . . . that there was a room with his name on it," the artist wrote.

According to Du Grenier, the gifts initially embarrassed Gould, who was extremely discreet about his love life and unused to being courted by someone as famous -- and openly gay -- as Warhol.

"Jon was insecure about his sexuality," Du Grenier says. "I don't know if I was naive or starstruck, but I never believed there was a physical relationship between them -- just this incredible electricity that went both ways."

Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, concurs. "Whatever their sexual relationship was or wasn't, Jon was Andy's last boyfriend," Sokolowski says. "And Andy was very obsessed with Jon."

A year after meeting Warhol, Gould moved into the artist's townhouse. Simultaneously, he bought an Upper West Side apartment where he mostly just collected his mail. For much of the next two years, he and Warhol were nearly inseparable companions.

According to Du Grenier, Gould barely blinked when Warhol proposed helping Gould build an art collection, but one he'd have to pay for. Sokolowski says the assumption has been that quite a few of the pieces -- if not most -- were gifts from Warhol to Gould. Not so, says Williams, who has seen the bills of sale to prove it.

"Gould bought this collection. It was not a gift," she asserts. Not only did Gould have the means, Williams notes, but he was "terrified of being known as Andy's boy toy" and asserted his independence wherever possible.

Du Grenier visited his cousin in Southern California in 1985, after Gould had contracted AIDS and left New York to live in a large house overlooking Los Angeles. He walked inside his cousin's house and found the walls covered with works by well-known artists: Warhol, Basquiat, Robert Rauschenberg, Marc Chagall, Keith Haring. More haunting, says Du Grenier, were the photos of Gould by Warhol: hundreds of images in which the camera seemed to caress its subject like a lover reaching across a pillow and proffering a rosebud.

"To me, it's the photos that really show Andy's infatuation with Jon," says Du Grenier.

During his final months in New York, Gould was hospitalized with various ailments, including pneumonia and hepatitis. Warhol, famously terrified of hospitals, visited Gould at least once. Yet Gould kept the AIDS diagnosis from his parents, "determined to beat it," in Jay Gould's words. As he grew sicker, the distance between Jon Gould and Warhol widened. Finally, Gould simply packed up and moved to LA. Months later, Du Grenier ran into Warhol on the streets of Manhattan.

"He was really bitter about what happened," says Du Grenier. "I think he had no clue" about Gould having AIDS, either, Du Grenier adds. If so, Warhol was not alone. At a memorial service in Amesbury, there was an enormous outpouring of grief over Gould's death, Du Grenier says. Yet nobody mentioned AIDS.

Unpacking the boxes Gould's collection was shipped east after his death in September 1986. Over the years, a few pieces were sold off to cover insurance and storage costs. Most stayed in crates for safekeeping, warehoused in Boston. One day last fall, Robert Fritz and Jay Gould got to talking about what was in those containers.

The relationship between Fritz and Jay Gould marks another odd twist in the Andy-to-Brattleboro saga. Fritz, a best-selling author, filmmaker, and human-potential guru, first met the Gould brothers in the '80s. Fritz helped Jon Gould on some movie projects, and the Gould brothers took one of Fritz's popular seminars on relationship-building. (Warhol attended at least one Fritz seminar, too.)

Fritz and Jay Gould stayed in touch after Fritz moved to Vermont in 1990. Seeking help for his chain of organic pizza restaurants (Flatbread Company), Gould hired Fritz last year to do some strategic planning. Coincidentally, Fritz's ties to the Vermont arts community include a recent term on the board of the Brattleboro Museum. When Gould started talking about his brother's collection, however, especially the photographs, Fritz listened politely but paid little attention.

"Then I woke up in the middle of the night and thought to myself: He's got what?" Fritz recalls. The next day, he phoned Gould and made his pitch for the museum, which had been struggling financially and needed a boost like this. Gould said yes, and the rest will soon be history.

In April, a small group including Gould and Williams met at the Fortress building south of Boston, where the collection had been stored. Gould began pulling out pieces. The first three, serendipitously, were silk-screen portraits of his twin brother. Hanging one up, he declared, "Jon should be with us while we work."

To Williams, it was both "eerie and sweet" to be working alongside Jay Gould while gazing up at Jon's likeness, as if the 18 years since his death had been magically erased.

To see the collection coming out of the closet, as it were, pleases Jay Gould. "There's so much mystery around Andy, and Jon was such a big part of his life for several years," he says, "that my brother would like this happening. Even if only one person walked in and saw the show and was affected -- well, Jon was that type of guy."

Even more satisfying, says Gould, is the fact that Jon's old friend Robert Fritz is the catalyst for bringing it to Brattleboro. The show "has nothing to do with the connected people, the Warhol people," Gould says. "It's sort of off the radar screen. My brother would have liked that, too."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com. 

SHOW INFORMATION
A Warhol painting
Photo Gallery Excerpts from Warhol's work
"Andy Warhol: Intimate & Unseen" will be on view at the Brattleboro Museum from September 18 through February 6.
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