The history of Alexander Iolas (1907-1987) is, in some ways, the history of Andy Warhol. Though the title has been claimed by others, it was in fact Iolas that “discovered” Warhol, or at least gave him his first official solo art show. This was at the Hugo Gallery in New York, where Iolas was director, in 1952, a full two years before Vito Giallo hosted Warhol at his Loft Gallery, and a full ten years prior to the pivotal showings at Ferus Gallery in LA (thanks to Irving Blum), and Eleanor Ward’s NY Stable Gallery. The show consisted of drawings inspired by Truman Capote, a massive influence on Warhol. Iolas reportedly approached Warhol when the latter was strolling by his gallery on the way to work. After seeing his shoe designs, he decided to bill him as an artist.
Alexander Iolas was born in, appropriately enough, Alexandria, Egypt in 1907. He was born to a well-to-do family and showed an early interest in piano and dance. His studies in these domains would lead him first to Athens, then to Berlin, and in the nascent stages of National Socialism, to Paris. It was in Paris that he would get his first major doses of visual art, like the early Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. By the early 1940s, he had emigrated to the United States and toured as a ballet dancer, working alongside legends such as George Balanchine, Yvonne Georgi, and Theodora Roosevelt. However, an injury soon sidelined his ballet career and he turned to art instead, working for, and eventually owning, the aforementioned Hugo Gallery. He would go on to open several galleries across Europe and build a reputation for the Surreal and avant-garde. He developed strong associations with artists Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. And in 1985, he would call on Warhol again to create a piece based on the Last Supper.
Iolas’ last years were bittersweet. He received France’s highest honor, the Légion d’ Honneur, and was invited to be art guide to then-President, Francois Mitterrand. Unfortunately, he also closed his galleries in 1986, was (unsuccessfully) brought up on charges of antique trafficking in Greece, and developed HIV. He died in 1986, with the fate of his villa uncertain after failed talks with the Greek government to establish it as a cultural heritage site. Alexander Iolas is also believed to be the inspiration behind Warhol’s Alexander the Great series.