The peelable banana that Andy Warhol designed for The Velvet Underground & Nico was a dry-run, of sorts, for the unzippable jeans he designed for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers – an early attempt, on the artist’s part, to answer the question: ‘Hey, is that a giant cock on your rock and roll album cover?’
Warhol’s banana was perfectly ripe; maybe a bit rotten. Its peeled flesh was an almost fluorescent pink. Among other things, the banana was Warhol’s rejoinder to Magritte’s pipe-that-was-not-a-pipe. Like Magritte’s pipe, it’s popular with consumers. Today, you see the banana on tote bags, T-shirts, key-rings, baby bibs, duvet covers, cigarette lighters, athletic shoes and skateboard decks. Warhol was a teetotaller, but in 2002, a slightly modified version of the image appeared in advertisements for Absolut Vodka. And in 2011, when Incase, a California tech company, launched a Warhol line of iPhone and iPad cases, computer sleeves and shoulder bags, the banana was given pride of place. ‘We wanted the first release to be definitively Warhol,’ a representative of the Warhol Foundation explained. ‘So we went with the banana.’
It took Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground some time to register their objections. When they did, in January 2012, it was in the form of a lawsuit against the foundation, which had licensed the banana to Incase. The musicians asked for damages based on their own, trademark-based claims to the image, which they called ‘a symbol, truly an icon, of the Velvet Underground’. Confusingly, they also said that the image belonged in the public domain. Part of the suit was later dismissed; last week, the parties agreed to a confidential settlement.
Any number of jokes presented themselves, about apples, bananas, the lawsuit itself – a tug-of-war over banana peels. (In 1981, Apple Computer settled a lawsuit brought by the Beatles’ holding company, Apple Corps; as one of the conditions, Apple Computer agreed not to enter the music business.) One was also reminded that the Warhol Foundation, which does a great deal of good for working artists, can come off as a bit of a bully.