THE LAST DECADE: TWO ICONS BY ANDY WARHOL FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION
Allison Unruh, ‘Signs of Desire: Warhol’s Depictions of Dollars’ in: Exh. Cat., Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Andy Warhol Enterprises, 2011, p. 137.
Dollar Sign perfectly captures Andy Warhol’s extraordinary ability to appropriate, subvert, and reinvent the motifs of consumer culture using his inimitable Pop aesthetic. Forming a part of the iconic Dollar Signs that were executed in 1981, the present work is a magnificent explication of one of Warhol’s primary, career-long, concerns: the social, cultural and creative potential of the American dollar as a signifier of status and wealth. Executed in monumental proportions, Dollar Sign is an absolute explosion of color and impresses through a mix of powerful and fluorescent orange, green, blue and lilac tones. The larger-than-life dollar sign is silkscreened in Warhol’s idiosyncratic printing technique against a sleek, flat background. While painterly in essence, the graphic quality is very much palpable through the vivid and expressive movement of line, particularly the hatchings visible in the lower half of the sweeping S shape. With an exceptional combination of color and line, Dollar Sign forms a stunning visual alliteration of Warhol’s iconic art/money dialectic. Articulated in expressive colors and extolling the graphic fluency of Warhol’s stylized dollar sign drawings, the present work is archetypal of the chromatic brilliance and graphic aesthetic that defines this celebrated series. Extremely rare, Dollar Sign is one of only a few works from this pivotal body of work that is signed by the artist himself.
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 scrutinize 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 or Coca-Cola bottles, the Dollar Signs explore the universal recognizability 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 colors. The deliberate repetition of an instantly recognizable icon of mass culture seemed to openly celebrate and embrace consumerism and commerce. Just as Warhol’s first exhibition of Flower Paintings at Castelli in 1964 had provoked critical debate for the repeated display of a singular subject, so did the Dollar Sign exhibition of 1982. At the time, art was still somewhat celebrated as an arena for “pious exclusivity” that was supposedly above and beyond the earthly or vulgar realm of monetary value. (Trevor Fairbrother, ‘ABC Dollar’ in Exh. Cat., New York, Van de Weghe Fine Art, Andy Warhol: Dollar Signs, 2004, p. 14) 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. After I did the thing called 'Art' or whatever it's called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or 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.” (Andy Warhol, op. cit., New York 1975, 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 labor 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. The ritualized repetition of the US dollar sign as charged with social and cultural meaning also recalls Warhol’s contemporaneous Crosses, a series that the artist created in the very same year. Similar to appropriating the most recognizable symbol of Christianity, Warhol now utilized the dollar sign as the ultimate emblem of a consumer society in order to display a sort of modern-day secular religion. 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.
The juxtaposition of money and religion (and quintessentially money as religion) points towards Warhol’s very own biography. Growing up as the Catholic son of Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Warhol’s childhood was marked by both material deprivation and religious influence. After moving to Manhattan in 1949, he soon established himself as a commercially successful illustrator and escaped financial precariousness, yet his fascination and obsession with money would remain integral throughout his life. Similarly, Warhol’s interest in powerful religious symbols would steer many of his artistic choices, particularly during this late phase of his career; the most prominent example being his famous The Last Supper paintings from 1986. With the dollar sign, Warhol had ultimately found an object that was deified by contemporary society yet represented the epitome of capitalism. Relating to the Mao and Marilyns, the Dollar Signs are a potent display of a cult of worship, and extoll an emblem that has become detached from its original meaning and acquired an autonomous, almost metaphysical status of its own.
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 a rare, exceptional and monumentally sized 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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