Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
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Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Dollar Sign

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Dollar Sign
stamped twice with the Estate of Andy Warhol stamp and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc. stamp (on the overlap); numbered twice 'PA30.075' (on the stretcher bar)
synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas
90 x 70 in. (229 x 178 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
Estate of Andy Warhol, New York
Private collection, New York
Private collection, California
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 08 February 2007, lot 52
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Andy Warhol: $, November 1997, n.p., pl. 18 (illustrated in color).
Monte Carlo, Grimaldi Forum, SuperWarhol, July-August 2003, pp. 407 and 531, no. 186 (illustrated in color).
New York, Van de Weghe Fine Art, Andy Warhol: Dollar Signs, September-November 2004, pp. 7 and 42-43, no. 8 (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated in color).
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

There is perhaps no greater signifier of the American dream than the almighty dollar, and Andy Warhol’s Dollar Signs, painted in 1981 at the dawn of a troubled but financially lucrative decade, are as all-American as apple pie, not to mention Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup. In Dollar Sign, Warhol creates a seductive, dreamlike talisman that embodies his personal relationship with, and love of, money. He isolates the “$” sign from the dollar bill and enlarges it to colossal proportions, thereby creating an archetypal symbol that conveys the desire, greed and the relentless pursuit of wealth that lies at the dark heart of the American dream. For Warhol, money was a lifelong obsession. He meticulously recorded his daily expenditures with compulsive regularity. Like his fascination with celebrity and religion, Warhol was keenly aware that the power of wealth was shadowed by its evil twin—greed—and to be held in its grasp spelled success on the one hand, and ruin on the other. As the critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto succinctly acknowledged: “We are all preoccupied with money, and, in its way, [Warhol’s]...dollar sign is as much an emblem of America as the flag” (A.C. Danto, “Andy Warhol Enterprises,” Andy Warhol, New Haven, 2009, p. 129).

Warhol’s Dollar Sign represents money writ large, rendered in the high-keyed coloration and multiple overlaid screens that define the series, all of which distills the very concept of wealth and power into a massive, wavering “$” sign. Hovering before the viewer, the lurid colors of the “$” symbol create a dizzying cacophony, accentuated by the vigorous up-and-down pencil strokes of Warhol’s original drawing, which is exquisitely captured by the technological complexity of his silkscreen process. The lurid, otherworldly palette that Warhol creates—especially the shimmering gold, dark black shadows and underlying fuchsia red—accentuates its disorienting effect, beckoning the viewer much like an ancient totem or flashing neon sign. Indeed, Warhol captures and extracts the essence of money itself—its pleasures and its excesses—in this monumental statement. At once lyrical and crass, Dollar Sign evokes the emotional release that accompanies an influx of cash, from the big money “cha-ching” of a casino jackpot to the simple pleasure of an ATM machine as it kicks out tens and twenties with an efficient whir and click.

Given their monumental scale, the complexity of the many interwoven screens and the personal symbolism of their imagery, it is clear that Warhol considered the Dollar Signs as a major series that he hoped would regain his critical following and help boost sales. The Dollar Signs were first exhibited at the Castelli Gallery on Greene Street in January of 1982 and became evocative of the entire decade of the 1980s, especially the influx of cash that fueled the art market, making overnight stars of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, among others. Warhol’s close friend and chronicler David Bourdon writes, “When they were shown at the Castelli Gallery…they appeared as prophetic emblems of the huge amounts of money that would pour into the art world during the following years. Warhol’s Dollar Signs are brazen, perhaps insolent reminders that pictures by brand-name artists are metaphors for money, a situation that never troubled him” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 384).  

Indeed, Warhol’s paintings have the uncanny ability to evoke the decade in which they were created, while also demonstrating universal truths that lie at the heart of the human condition, making him what Calvin Tomkins described as “a rather terrifying oracle” (C. Tomkins, “Raggedy Andy,” Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1970, p. 10). Like Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Campbell’s Soup that conveyed the optimism of the 1960s despite the tragedy that pervaded that decade, Warhol’s Dollar Signs are totemic emblems from a different—albeit similarly legendary—era. Painted in 1981, the Dollar Signs evoke the heady promise of the so-called “Reaganomics” espoused by Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the 1980s and the symbolism of his “Morning in America” ad campaign of 1984. The Reagan era ushered in a prolonged period of rapid economic growth and a booming economy that has come to define that decade, which Warhol’s Dollar Signs so perfectly signified. Warhol even attended the swearing-in of the new president on Tuesday, January 20th, 1981 in Washington, D.C.

It is only fitting, then, that Warhol would use the “$” sign for a new series of paintings during an era that marked a turning-point for the nation but also for the artist as well, who considered the new decade a fresh start. Warhol had recently turned 50 and began to seriously reappraise his career. While the decade of the 1970s was marred by an endless array of celebrity portraits that culminated in a rather repetitive and dismal exhibit at the Whitney in 1979, which was largely derided by the press, the 1980s signaled a real change for Warhol, both politically and artistically. In the years that followed, Warhol felt the need to win back his critics, and underwent a period of intense creativity, developing powerful new paintings that remain some of his best work—the Rorschachs, Shadows, Last Supper, Guns and Dollar Bills—speak to Warhol’s most personal fears, hopes and desires:
“Warhol’s imaginative creativity during the last decade of his career can only be compared to the early 1960s...People associated with Warhol during this late period remark on the vitality, energy, and spirit of experimentation surrounding his pursuit of painting. He enthusiastically embraced each new idea, each new body of work, and he labored continuously in their production, working almost daily in the studio to complete his multitude of projects. At that time, Warhol created more new series of paintings, in larger numbers and on a vastly larger scale, than during any other phase of his life. was a period of extraordinary artistic development for Warhol, during which we witness a dramatic transformation of his style and the introduction of new techniques that address subjects that resonated with personal meaning and significance” (J. D. Ketner II, Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, 2009, p. 16).

Taken together, Warhol’s paintings from this era reveal a stunning portrait of the nation at the forefront of a profound new era. In 1981, Warhol painted Dollar Bills, but also Guns, Crosses and Knives—revealing the often lethal, yet distinctively American, mix of religion, politics, money and violence that plagued that era despite the surging economy. Indeed, it seems impossible to consider the 1980s without realizing the flip-side of the American dream, from the looming catastrophe of the AIDS virus, the fallout over Iran Contra affair and the lingering specter of the Cold War to the rise of the Religious Right. In his paintings of the 1980s, Warhol distilled those specifically American issues into highly-charged emblems that evoked a nation undergoing a profound identity crisis:
“In creating Guns and Knives in tandem with Dollar Sign, Warhol fulfilled his youthful ambition to create symbols of contemporary society, in this instance conflating issues of money, power, and violence during a time that witnessed the dawning of the neo-conservative Ronald Reagan era and sectarian conflicts around the globe.” (J. D. Ketner II, ibid., p. 26)

A brilliant colorist, Warhol was particularly skilled in creating emotionally-resonant combinations of hues that oscillated between candy-colored and crass. Like the Marilyn “flavors” of 1962, which exhibited a veritable rainbow of brightly-colored canvases in Lemon, Orange, Cherry, and more, the Dollar Bills similarly demonstrate a rainbow-like variety, ranging from ethereal blue to lurid yellow and in the present work, a shimmering, ephemeral mirage of glittering gold, bright fuchsia, and dark black. That Warhol is able to marry such seemingly dissonant colors demonstrates the skill that he had honed for two decades, reaching a fever pitch in these spectacularly-colored, luridly-hued paintings.

Warhol luxuriated in the use of gold in some of his best works, most notably Gold Marilyn Monore of 1962, and in Dollar Sign, the use of gold has a twofold effect; it recalls the literal gold bars of the U.S. treasury that accredit paper currency, but also hints at a greater symbolism. During the medieval period, gold was often used to symbolize the divine light of the heavens and spiritual illumination. As a child, the Warhola family often worshiped at the Saint John Chrysostom Byzantine Church in Pittsburgh, in which were housed dozens of shimmering golden icons. In Dollar Sign, Warhol depicts a secular symbol in vivid coloration that hints at the emotional and spiritual release of the shimmering gold icons of his youth, which is especially pertinent considering he painted the series during the last decade of his life.

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