Few artists made money their concern, on or off the canvas, as openly as Andy Warhol. He himself made many pronouncements on his fascination with the dollar both as a symbol and as something that he cherished, and so it was only natural that the symbol itself, one of the most recognised logos anywhere in the world, that international denominator of currency the Dollar Sign should enter the Pop pantheon of Warhol's oeuvre. 'American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money,' Warhol wrote, and this certainly would give him grounds enough to choose the Dollar Sign as a subject. Although he arguably undermined his statement by continuing, 'I've thrown it in the East River just by the Staten Island Ferry just to see it float' (Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and back again, San Diego, New York & London, 1977, p. 137).
Dollar bills had already featured in his works in the early 1960s, sometimes in drawings, sometimes in sheets of silkscreen looking like bad forgery. But in the early 1980s, in the age that spawned the yuppie and which would culminate in American Psycho and Wall Street and that film's infamous mantra, 'Greed is good,' it was only natural that Warhol should look with fresh eyes at his beloved currency. He took the dollar sign itself as a more mysterious, more generalised, more worship-worthy subject-matter than those earlier images of currency. He removed any specific denomination, making the Dollar Sign appear as an altarpiece celebrating the currency as an abstract, un-pin-down-able concept, rather than merely resembling the various bills that the artist may or may not have had, as was the case in the works from the early 1960s. Now, free of the 1, 10, 100 that might have limited its value, the Dollar Sign gained its apotheosis. With the background reminiscent of the greenbacks that fill many an American's wallet or money clip, this picture is filled with the feel of money; the notion of wealth has been mysteriously transferred, albeit not with the greatest sense of modesty, to the picture surface. What, after all, is the point in modesty, Warhol asks? There is no room for it in Dollar Bill, and little room for it in Warhol's philosophy:
'I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 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 the money on the wall' (Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1995, p. 384).
Ironically, considering the endemic nature of the dollar-- throughout the world it has become a sort of cash franca in so many places-- Warhol found that he was unable to find an image that had quite enough impact, enough oomph, in order to be the epitome or archetype of the dollar. And so he resorted to that skill that had earned him some of his own earliest dollars-- his draughtsmanship. He drew dollar after dollar, some straight, some slanting, some thick, some thin, some more Pop, some more staid. And these became his sources, Warhol leading to Warhol, a process of self-cannibalism that featured in different ways in several of his works from this period, for instance the Reversals. Dollar Sign appears to be the result of the rare superimposition of several of Warhol's own renderings, the one lying on top of the other, making it a mirage-like, shimmering, elusive, reflective dollar that hovers before us all the more tantalisingly.
Of course, these dollars were not so elusive to Warhol by this time, and yet he was well aware of the paradoxical relationship that he had to his money, spending it often as soon as he had it: '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' (Warhol, op.cit., 1977, p. 130). The above quotation makes Warhol's relationship to money and to economics sound perhaps frivolous, and yet this was not the case at all. Indeed, to him, making money was a wonderful process that was almost Duchampian in its hermetically-sealed logic:
'Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish 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' (Warhol, Ibid., p. 92).
It is this change, from the hippie era to the 80s, from the faded Dollar Bills of 1962 to the dynamic promise of the Dollar Sign of 1981, that Warhol has so perfectly captured.
He has done so, of course, not without a sense of subversion. He has taken the iconic dollar and placed it alongside the hammer and sickle and Lenin and Mao within his cast of themes. With Warhol, who was never as ingenuous as he liked to appear, nothing is ever as simple as the surface of the picture, despite whatever he may have said to the contrary. Dollar Sign is a celebration of the dollar, of the USA, of wealth and capitalism even. And yet at the same time it is a deliberate and calculated statement about the art market, about the value attached to pictures, about the absurd prices that some people complained the pictures by Warhol and his contemporaries were fetching by the early 1980s. He has thrown down a gauntlet by precisely taking the fears and concerns about the relative worth of contemporary art that were being voiced by other people in the art world, and turning those very concerns into a picture of his own. Warhol manipulated, exploited, exposed, mocked and revelled in the economics of his own phenomenon with a flair that is itself worthy of admiration. It is this fascinating, playful ambiguity, often underlined with a little hint of genuine and serious content and intent, that makes Warhol's Dollar Bill so engaging.