Waddington Galleries, London/James Goodman Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1987)
Private Collection, California (acquired from the above in 1989)
Private Collection, France
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1997
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago; London, Hayward Gallery; Cologne, Museum Ludwig; Venice, Palazzo Grassi; and Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, 1989, p. 363, no. 393, illustrated in colour
Based on singular drawings, Dollar Signs not only demonstrates Warhol’s excellent skill as a draughtsman but also marks the culmination of his artistic and conceptual dialogue with American money. In the distinct individualisation of the $ sign, each individual logo within the present work exudes an individual character not unlike Warhol’s portrait commissions of the 1970s. As Arthur C. Danto has pointed out, within the constraints of the archetypal form of the dollar symbol “he used and combined colours in the same way in which he made his portraits as if these were portraits, so to speak, of the dollar sign – about the dollar sign as physiognomic, and abstracted from the numerical expressions that it transforms into dollar amounts” (Arthur C. Danto, ‘Andy Warhol and the Love of $$$$$’, in; Exhibition Catalogue, Beverly Hills, Gagosian Gallery, Andy Warhol: Dollar Signs, 1997, p. 5). Sharing the same exuberant colours as the Society Portraits and possessing an expressive treatment of line not unlike the graphic flourishes present within the series of portraits after Mao Zedong, Warhol transforms his sequence of dollar signs into a panorama of individuation that ranges from dark shades to luminous colours, from graphical precision to painterly abundance, from imposing scale to intimate format. The present work is thus a masterpiece of Warhol’s finely attuned graphic sensibility and fluency in the vernacular of symbols.
Warhol’s extensive use of metallic gold paint throughout the canvas inextricably links Dollar Signs to some of the artist’s earlier landmark portraits such as Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962, or the silver Double Elvis, 1963, and even relates back to his gold-leaf drawings of shoes from the 1950s. Similar to these early works, Warhol uses colour as both a visual and metaphoric device to imbue his subject with the glittering aura of fame, power and glamour. In applying metallic paint and treating his subject as votive icons, Warhol continued to explore the critical and visual possibilities inherent within American icons and emblems. Just as Marilyn Monroe had captured America’s desire for glamour and tragedy, the dollar sign emerges as a modern-day symbol of secular worship in a capitalist society driven by financial wealth and superficial appearances. In its abundant and colourful repetition of the dollar sign, the present work is not only an open attestation to Warhol’s own lifelong obsession with wealth, but also lays bare the system of exchange in which the artist willingly and enthusiastically took part.
The dollar had already appeared in Warhol’s fine-art practice in the early 1960s; first of all in the hand-painted One Dollar Bill (Silver Certificate) and then in the first silkscreened works in which one and two-dollar bills were serially printed onto canvas. Almost twenty years later, Warhol decided to further abstract this subject matter by singling out the dollar sign; eschewing a serial repetition of the dollar bill’s graphic, Warhol hand-designed varying dollar icons. The resulting uneven and intentionally naïve treatment of line emphasises a particular handmade quality and gives each dollar sign a surprisingly individual and autonomous character. These dollar signs thus highlight Warhol’s excellent skills as a draughtsman and recall his early drawings featuring money-related subjects from the 1950s such as One Million Dollar Bill. At the start of the 1980s therefore, Warhol, who became famous in the 1960s for introducing mechanical processes into the realm of art, had decided to reintroduce the artist’s hand by individualising one of the most prominent and unified commodity symbols in existence. This extraordinary visual and conceptual twist is particularly apparent in the present work through the opulent variety of different dollar designs. Representing the culmination of the artist’s scrutiny of the American dollar, the Dollar Signs are a typically Warholian celebration of wealth, power, and multiplicity inasmuch as they are a triumph of the individual, hand-made, and unique qualities of Warhol’s complex and multifaceted oeuvre.
The overarching topic of money is a key element that not only lies at the root of Warhol’s oeuvre but also relates back to the artist’s biography. From an early age, Warhol developed an obsession with money that would accompany him throughout his life even when he reached the level of absolute material security. In fact, his diaries reveal how meticulously he noted each cab fare and ticket price until his death in 1987. While Dollar Signs is an exalting celebration of the dollar as a potent symbol of the American Dream, it is also a reminder of the superficial and elusive quality of money. Warhol critically assessed American consumerist culture by observing: “Americans are not so interested in selling. What they really like to do is buy” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Orlando 1975, p. 229). One of the main qualities of Warhol’s work remains that the artist never positioned himself above his own subject matter. Rather than presiding over the consumerist habits of society, Warhol was very much aware of his own paradoxical relationship towards money and openly indulged accumulating and amassing random things, up to the point that his apartment was barely accessible. On his relationship with money, Warhol commented: “Cash. I just am not happy when I don't have it. The minute I have it I have to spend it. And I just buy STUPID THINGS” (Andy Warhol, ibid., p. 130).
Following a period of economic and financial recession in the late 1970s, the 1981 Dollar Signs certainly capture the very Zeitgest of the decade in which they were introduced. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 had initially led to a steep increase in the price of oil and the resulting inflation prompted the US government to introduce tighter monetary policies. As a result, US president Reagan promoted the deregulation of various economic sectors such as finance and transportation, which eventually led to a rapid surge of the financial markets in the 1980s. This new-found financial wealth quickly translated into a global art boom, in which there was an unprecedented influx of money injected into the art market. The seemingly unlimited supply of capital resulted in record-breaking prices for (then) up-and-coming artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring and the formerly rigid boundaries between art and money increasingly blurred. As redolent within the present work with its mesmerising profusion of the US currency symbol, Warhol’s Dollar Signs anticipated this trend.
Representing the ultimate symbol of the late twentieth-century’s global capitalist society, the dollar sign stands alongside the Coca-Cola bottles, Campbell’s Soup cans, and Brillo boxes within Warhol’s pantheon of iconic Pop art symbols. Created at a mature moment in his career in which the artist revisited and evaluated motifs from his earlier works, Dollar Signs is a rare and exceptional example that displays the full gamut of Warhol’s creative and artistic potency. With its liberated playfulness of seemingly infinite repetition, the present work is a magnificent anthology of Warhol’s individuated treatment of the dollar sign, and powerfully elucidates the artist’s enduring obsession with the graphic value and symbolic currency of money.
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