On a recent visit to the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, formerly owned by the art dealer and collector Steve Wynn, my new wife (the photographer Rachael Lorenz) and I walked into the lobby and were greeted by a gigantic glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, Fiori di Como. Up on the ceiling, which measures 30 feet by 70 feet by 15 feet, are over 2,000 individually blown discs of colored glass, each approximately 18 inches in diameter.
Actually, calling the shapes "discs" does the work a disservice -- they resemble a field of undulating jellyfish. As you scan the Chihuly, your eyes never find a place to rest. With each shift of your gaze, your vision readjusts to the kaleidoscope of shapes. Although previously I had regarded Chihuly's work as the highest expression of craft, I must admit that I was wrong -- the man is a true artist.
After a few more moments of viewing, I walked over to the concierge and inquired as to the cost of the piece, but, of course, she had no idea. Subsequently, a follow-up call to New York dealer and Chihuly patron Charles Cowles revealed that the work cost over $1 million -- how much over a million, he couldn't say.
But things really got interesting at a Bellagio gift shop devoted solely to Chihuly's art. Besides the requisite books and objets, the shop had actual Chihuly glass sculptures for sale. I soon found a singular form that could have easily been placed among those in Fiori di Como. When asked the price, the gift shop attendant was clueless. However, after much confusion, she finally quoted me a price: $40,000. Assuming she knew what she was talking about -- which remains questionable -- that would mean that Fiori di Como is worth a staggering $8 million -- arguably the most expensive piece of contemporary sculpture in existence.
Moving past the Chihuly, I checked in at the front desk. As I waited for a receptionist, I noticed two impressive Robert Rauschenberg paintings of a recent vintage. Each picture was composed of dozens of disparate images haphazardly strewn about the surface. The paintings were approximately 8 by 10 feet and probably would retail for at least $600,000 each. I was stunned. I hadn't ventured past the hotel lobby and there I was confronted with millions of dollars of art -- and serious art, at that.
The receptionist took my credit card and asked if I needed her assistance with dinner reservations. Picasso, the hotel's five-star restaurant that is well-known for installation of late Picasso canvases, came to mind. Naturally, the restaurant was already booked, but I did manage a peek inside and sure enough, there were a few three-foot-tall Picasso paintings hanging in the dining room. Although, not a Picasso expert, I had to assume that these late paintings were worth $2 million-$5 million each.
Just when I thought there couldn't possibly be any more art in the hotel, I was given a brochure announcing that the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art had just opened the show, "Andy Warhol: The Celebrity Portraits." I was told that the exhibition was put together predominantly from the holdings of New York's Mugrabi Collection -- one of the largest group of Warhol paintings in private hands -- and spiced up by a few pictures from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It was further explained that the Warhol exhibition was arranged by PaceWildenstein director Marc Glimcher. When interviewed about the show, Glimcher said, "This is an art experience. This is not a museum. In a reasonable amount of time, you'll get it. This is Warhol."
Later that day, I stopped by the gallery, paid the $15 admission, and passed on the use of the audio guide (commentary by Liza Minnelli). Once inside, I discovered a few major portraits from the 1960s, including a gorgeous silver Liz (Elizabeth Taylor) diptych and an attractive Jackie (Jacqueline Kennedy) in mourning. But the commissioned portraits of the 1970s dominated the show. Among the famous faces were Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and John Lennon. The 1980s were well represented by Mickey Mouse (from the Myths series) along with an electric red and yellow "fright wig" self-portrait. Overall, the show featured 45 paintings -- a nice grouping, but hardly worth the entry fee of $30 a couple. Not surprisingly, the gallery was empty while I was there.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the exhibition was the adjacent gift shop. "Considered among the best places to shop for unique gifts in Las Vegas," read the show's pamphlet, "the Gallery Store offers a wide selection of art books, toys, games, posters, prints, scarves... Whether you are looking to learn or just have fun, the Gallery Store has the perfect gift for everyone." This was amusing, until I looked up and saw that it had original Warhols for sale. There were a few minor drawings, but then I spotted a 22 x 22 inch painting of Judy Garland from the Ads series. This work, screened in shades of red, featured Garland wearing a Blackglama mink coat. Although an attractive example, it was priced at an obscene $165,000 (its auction estimate would probably be $60,000-$80,000.) A further inquiry revealed that this painting and the other Warhols were consigned to the shop by PaceWildenstein.
I had never seen works of art for sale by any blue chip artist in a gift shop. I had to share my observation with someone -- anyone -- on what I had just witnessed. So I made a quick call to a local resident, the esteemed art critic Dave Hickey, and asked whether he was surprised by my experience. He told me he wasn't. But, then, this was Las Vegas!
What's next? Apparently, Steve Wynn has just purchased 7,000 Andy Warhol prints to decorate the guest rooms of his newest extravagant hotel, La Reve. Stay tuned to availability and prices.