Warhol’s Dollar Signs are the ultimate manifestation of perhaps the most salient inquiry in Pop Art history: the relationship between art and commerce. Warhol’s lifelong fascination with money as an ubiquitous symbol of wealth, power, and status spans his entire oeuvre as a key leitmotif and inextricably links his art with his own biography. As such, the Dollar Signs stand in direct reference to Warhol’s works from the early 1960s in which he first employed the silkscreen to transfer dollar bills onto canvases. Returning to this iconography as a mature artist in the 1980s, the Dollar Signs not only scrutinise the dichotomy between low and high art that is so quintessentially Warholian, but also confront the prominent American symbol as a potent visual instrument charged with ambiguous significance. Indeed, he had often commented on the beauty of the dollar bill itself: “American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I’ve thrown it in the East River down by the Staten Island Ferry just to see it float” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York 1975, p. 137). Similar to his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, or images of mass-market consumables, such as the Campbell’s soup cans, the Dollar Signs explore the universal recognisability and semiotic power of cultural icons that comprise everyday life.
When first exhibited at Leo Castelli’s Greene Street Gallery in 1982, the seemingly endless succession of dollar signs on the wall transformed the space into a veritable temple of financial worship articulated in the artist’s inimitable palette of bright Pop colours. The deliberate repetition of an instantly recognizable icon of mass culture seemed to openly celebrate and embrace consumerism and commerce. Warhol, however, seems to have anticipated the global art boom and the resulting influx of wealth that was about to define the 1980s, a period that would openly celebrate and even endorse the marriage of art and money. As Warhol poignantly put it himself, “Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business they'd say, 'Money is bad,' and 'Working is bad,' but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art” (Ibid., p. 92).
Repeating the emblem of capitalism ad infinitum, the Dollar Signs form a conceptual and political pendant to Warhol’s earlier Hammer and Sickle paintings (1976-77). Juxtaposing the iconic emblem of Communism, and its attendant Marxist theories of value based on labour with the capitalist theory of value based on exchange, Warhol exposed the iconographic power of symbols that represent antagonistic value systems during the Cold War years. Emblazoned by Warhol in monumental proportions and excessive seriality, the dollar sign quickly became a potent signifier of a capitalist culture that had replaced the cross and its Christian values with the maxims of wealth accumulation and financial power.
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 Sign is an exceptional example that displays the full gamut of Warhol’s creative and artistic potency. With its liberated playfulness, 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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