At the dawn of the Pop-era, in the 1960s, Warhol first translated the image of the American Dollar onto canvas. In his seminal Dollar Bills paintings, silkscreened dollar notes float on a stark white background. The celebration of commerce, executed in this infinitely serial technique, ignited a career long obsession with mass consumption and supremacy of semiotics. Decades later, Warhol revisited his dollars against a starkly different cultural and societal backdrop: the glamorous and glittering zeitgeist of a New York that was on the cusp of a financial boom. Manhattan saw an enormous influx of wealth in the 1980s, and subsequently placed a cultural emphasis on money, sex and power.
Money became an obsession for Warhol: “I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a… painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is money on the wall” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, New York and London 1975, p. 180). Perhaps, it was Warhol’s personal biography that drew him to the subject; the artist’s childhood was spent in depression-era Pittsburgh before fleeing to New York City. Additionally, Warhol’s experiences as a commercial illustrator, a profession in which art and commerce walk hand in hand, may have fuelled this fixation on finances. In his Dollar Sign paintings, the artist elevated American currency to an almost metaphysical status, venerating the symbol with an almost religious sense of devotion.
The Dollar Sign paintings were first exhibited at Leo Castelli’s Greene Street Gallery in 1982. The seemingly endless succession of dollar signs on the wall transformed the art space into a veritable temple of financial worship. With these paintings, Warhol plucked the dollar sign as a symbol from the dollar bill as an object. By the 1980s, the dollar sign had become a potent emblem, not just of status and wealth, but also of aspiration, desire and the American Dream. In this series of paintings Warhol brashly redefined the parameters of fine art, shedding the cloak of its ‘pious exclusivity’ of fine art and laying bare the intimate and entangled relationship of art and commerce. In Dollar Sign, the artist celebrates a system of exchange in which he willingly and enthusiastically participated. This reinvention of the subject stands as a testament to Warhol’s unparalleled ability to elevate brands and symbols to the status of icons, Furthermore, the artist’s extraordinary ability to appropriate, subvert and reinvent the motifs of consumer culture becomes pervasively apparent. The Dollar Sign paintings form a pivotal body of work that perfectly reflects their maker’s own glittering transformation from artist to icon.
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