“ONE SILVER DOLLAR PAYABLE TO THE BEARER ON DEMAND” reads the front of the silver certificate dollar bill as immortalised within the history of American currency. Collectively presented under this very rubric, Sotheby’s is the bearer of an extraordinary collection that demands recognition as the ultimate assembly of Andy Warhol’s dollar paintings in existence. Beyond the scope and quality of any other private or publically owned collection, these museum-calibre works together present a picture of Warhol’s career at its most primal, focussing as they do on the most rudimentary of Warholian values: money. From his very first painting of a dollar bill and very first silkscreened works, through to two major works from the 1981 series of Dollar Signs, this collection elucidates Warhol the great draughtsman and painter, Warhol the great social leveller and provocateur, and Warhol the grand master of sign and symbol. Brought together with great determination by the present owner – a feat almost certainly impossible today owing to the pedigree, rarity, and museum status of these paintings and their sister pieces – the Warholian core of the present collection is utterly unmatched anywhere in the world. Never before has such an assemblage of works been exhibited together, let alone presented together for public sale.
Following Warhol’s lead, works by Keith Haring, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Joseph Beuys, Arman, Gustave Buchet, Francesco Clemente, Ronnie Cutrone, Scott Campbell, Cildo Meireles, Robert Silvers, Jin Wang and Liu Zheng further underline the US dollar’s symbolic stake at the forefront of the global dialogue between culture and capital. Acquired over the course of three decades and assembled with an acutely discerning eye, these works communicate the archetypal power of the US dollar as perhaps the most widely recognised and potent symbol in the world today. With Warhol at its very epicentre, To the Bearer on Demand takes a glance at the relationship between art and commerce of the last 50 years, and wears a wry smile in the face of a society characterised by the famous cliché: cash is king.
The Twentieth Century witnessed the ascendance of the US economy, a rise to global supremacy that has propelled its key signifier beyond a denotation of purely monetary value. More so than any other currency, the dollar today represents a truly universal icon rich with symbolic portent. Not only indicative of wealth and America’s unique cultural heritage, its paper bill format and curvilinear emblem are simultaneously shorthand for power, glamour and celebrity.
Commonly dubbed the Golden Age of Capitalism, the post-war years witnessed a rapid growth of America’s economy and a correlative growth of the nation’s burgeoning middle class. Income became increasingly disposable as the rise in automated forms of production and farming meant that goods became cheaper. The birth of a television oriented media culture fostered and moulded mass desire through advertising and entertainment – a universally understood language of signs and signifiers shackled to industries of mass consumption. Where the birth of Pop art can only be understood in relation to the post-war economic boom, there is no better way to understand the art of Andy Warhol than through his love affair with money.
Warhol was a commercial artist at his very core. He rose to success as an illustrator during the 1950s, working to commission designing adverts for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Columbia Records, Tiffany & Co as well as creating window displays for Bonwit Teller and I. Miller department stores. Far from an independent chapter in his life, this background laid the perfect foundation for his transition to Pop art pioneer at the end of the decade – one of the first known exhibitions of Warhol’s early work was in the window of Bonwit Teller. Indeed, although he had metamorphosed from perpetrator into commentator, Warhol’s artistic voice continued to speak the very same language of money and commerce. In applying the same technique of working from photographic sources developed for his illustrated ads, Warhol found an ideal vehicle for a new wave of fine art reflective of contemporary culture and expressive of increasingly automated modes of production. The very first works that followed were hand painted canvases based on the graphic designs of popular advertisements, packaging and cartoons: Superman, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Campbell’s Soup, ads for typewriters and shoes, and of course the American one-dollar bill. The latter was One Dollar Bill (Silver Certificate) which, in tandem with Warhol’s legendary Campbell’s Soup Can exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in 1962 (his very first solo exhibition), truly cemented his position at the vanguard of a new art movement.
A connoisseur of graphic design Warhol was enamoured with the appearance of the US dollar: “American Money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Orlando 1975, p. 137).
Significantly, money was the first subject that Warhol silkscreen printed onto canvas. Almost immediately after the execution of One Dollar Bill (Silver Certificate) Warhol began looking for a means to intensify the automated and mechanical production values of his art. The first experiments entailed using a hand-carved stamp of a dollar bill, however the definition and irregularity of the printed effect proved too dependent on human variables of pressure and ink saturation, and so Warhol discovered his soon to be trademark technique: silkscreen printing. Appropriated from the industrial production techniques of commercial printers, this method provided a machine-like register and speed of execution that chimed perfectly with Warhol’s artistic intent and with this he began printing his own money. The small group of large scale works in which $1 and $2 dollar bills are serially repeated – two of which form part of To The Bearer on Demand – inaugurated a practice and set of concerns that would consume the rest of Warhol’s prolific career. Both in subject and technique, Dollar Bills of 1962 represent the true starting line from which Warhol’s enduring fascination with the spoils of money – wealth, celebrity, glamour, and power – sprang.
Although at the very root of his work of the next twenty years, Warhol did not take up his foundational dialogue with money again until the beginning of the 1980s. Exhibited with Leo Castelli in 1982, Warhol’s reprisal of the theme witnessed a portrayal of American money distilled to its symbolic core: the dollar sign. Although the history of American money is definitively recorded, the conception of the dollar as a symbol is of a more miraculous nature. Among the many theories circulating about the origins of the $ logo, the most likely explanation attributes its genesis to a superimposition of P and S, Ps being the shorthand abbreviation of peso. Indeed, its use as a printed icon predates the foundation of the United States of America. As outlined in Arthur C. Danto’s illuminating essay on Warhol’s 1980s Dollar Signs, the sign appears in Thomas Jefferson’s memorandum of 1784 in which he recommends the dollar as the chief unit for American currency (Arthur C. Danto, ‘Andy Warhol and the Love of $$$$$’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, Andy Warhol: $, 1997, p. 6). This is not to suggest that Jefferson invented the symbol, but instead that it was already in popular use before the Declaration of Independence. It is also worth noting the absence of the dollar sign from any denomination of American currency at any point in its history.
That the symbol possesses an almost mythological origin and exists outside of that which it materially signifies indicates its status as a potent emblem and spectre of power that far outstrips a sole reading of commodity exchange value. In his works of 1980s series, American money is sublimated to the status of a cult symbol, propelled into Warhol’s cult of personality, appearing as individuated as his series of society portraits or those which sample the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao. Intriguingly, these works were executed in tandem with a body of work depicting the Christian cross. To this end, it is significant that Warhol has spoken of money in quasi-religious terms: “I don’t feel like I get germs when I hold money. Money has a certain kind of amnesty. I feel, when I’m holding money, that the dollar bill has no more germs on it than my hands do. When I pass my hand over money, it becomes perfectly clean to me. I don’t know where it’s been – who’s touched it and with what – but that’s all erased the moment I touch it” (Andy Warhol quoted in: ibid., p. 137). For Warhol money possessed a miraculous cleansing power in alignment with religion’s claim to the purification of the soul.
Intriguingly, both of Warhol’s pictorial dialogues with money accompany historical periods of financial prosperity. Where Warhol’s 1962 works gave expression to the enduring prosperity of post-war America, the 1981 series of Dollar Signs are works now associated with the notorious extravagance of the 1980s. Contra to this retrospective interpretation, these works actually courted outrage when first exhibited for their gratuitousness at a time of national fiscal crisis; between 1980 and 1982 the US experienced the most severe financial downturn in decades. Ever prophetic however, Warhol foretold the nascent beginnings of an era of unchecked financial excess. Combatting against significant economic strain – in part a result of over-regulation and the energy crisis of 1979 – the prevailing economic policy of the newly elected president, Ronald Reagan, ushered in a global age of commercial deregulation. Alongside Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Reagan revived a laissez-faire economy that stimulated a stock market boom and unprecedented growth in increasingly powerful private sector corporations. Indeed, ‘Reaganomics’ gave birth to a new villain/anti-hero in pop culture. As characterised by Michael Douglas’ unscrupulous broker Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street, the life story of Jordon Belfort the self-proclaimed ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ as portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s eponymous biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, or in Brett Eastern Ellis’ yuppie horror American Psycho in which Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman describes the nuances of his designer suits in the same hysterical detail as his murderous escapades, the 1980s has been valorised as the Decade of Greed, epitomised by dissolute financiers. This was the age of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’, Rolex watches, giant mobile phones, Apple Macintosh, big hair, shoulder pads, and MTV. Presiding over this, the US was the undisputed global superpower and the dollar sign was its votive icon.
Since establishing Andy Warhol Enterprises in 1957, the artist’s empire grew to encompass Interview magazine and a successful portrait commission venture, while his brand was extended to endorse various products for TDK, Sanyo, Sony and Vidal Sassoon in the 1980s. Indeed, staging both a critique and a celebration, Warhol was the first to directly interrogate and simultaneously ratify the relationship between the practice of art and its value as a commodity. As curator Sarah Urist Green has astutely pointed out: “His manipulation of the dollar signals his nuanced understanding of money, and serves as a salient metaphor for the way his art – and all art – is utilised as a currency in its own right” (Sarah Urist Green, ‘Andy Warhol: Master of Exchange’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Andy Warhol Enterprises, 2010-11, p. 132).
Warhol’s money-art presents a bold and audacious exercise in whistleblowing on the unspoken symbiosis that exists between the elevated realm of fine art and the earthly domain of money. In both his 1960s and 1980s paintings subject and object totally align: dollar bills and dollar signs function as both money and art, as unfettered expressions of his famous ‘Business Art’ philosophy. Belying the flatness of their surfaces, these paintings are multifaceted and many layered conceptual palimpsests; dollar for dollar, they form the ultimate Warholian response to, and expression of, consumer culture, and situate the production of art directly in these terms. Posing a dialogue – be it critique or affirmation – that is perhaps more relevant today than it has ever been, Warhol and the artists presented in To The Bearer on Demand, expose the astounding creative fall-out of a culture residing under the all-powerful aegis of the almighty dollar.