"Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." - Andy Warhol
In Dollar Sign, Andy Warhol boldly depicts the symbol of most powerful currency in the world by enlarging it to a monumental scale, resulting in a tour-de-force that looms over the viewer like a secular totem. Painted in 1981, it is one of Warhol’s most powerful paintings, as it not only illustrates the artist’s life-long obsession with money, but also demonstrates the underlying current of desire that has preoccupied his work since its inception.
Warhol began exploring money-orientated imagery as early as the 1950s, when he created a drawing of money growing on a tree. A decade later, he continued exploring this theme with a small series of drawings of depicting dollar bills, and in 1962, started silk screening dollar bills onto canvas. The growing connection between money and art intrigued Warhol; they both had a universal power to stimulate the imagination and evoke desire. He could also exchange his artistic ideas for cash, a notion that fascinated him. The desire to reproduce the complexity of the dollar bill design in his early works was also what led Warhol inexorably towards the silk screening process, which would become his trademark method of production and reproduction.
By placing the dollar sign on a canvas, this work becomes—in a way—a Warholian currency in its own right. Money, as purchasing power, is what enables consumption, but in a delicious twist, Warhol also recognized the intrinsic value of money and art. "I like money on the wall," he once wrote, "Say you were going to buy a painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. The when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall" (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York, 1975, p.134).
The Dollar Sign paintings were first exhibited at the Castelli Gallery on Greene Street in New York City. Warhol attended the opening on Saturday, January 9th, 1982, noting in his diary: “Another big opening of mine—a double—Dollar Signs at the Castelli on Greene Street and Reversals at the Castelli on West Broadway. … it was like a busy sixties day” (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, (ed.), The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 425). Filling the entire gallery space, the Dollar Signs loomed large, vividlycolored in bold hues and enlarged to monumental scale. Warhol’s close friend and chronicler David Bourdon noted, “When they were shown at the Castelli Gallery in January 1982, 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).
In addition, Dollar Sign is a superb example of Warhol's unique visual style, with its bold palette of bright magenta, deep black, and rich vermillion, enhanced with a shining layer of gold. Warhol luxuriated in the use of gold in some of his best works, most notably Gold Marilyn Monroe of 1962 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). In Dollar Sign, the use of gold has a twofold effect; it recalls the literal gold bars of the U.S. Treasury that underpins the system of paper currency, but also hints at a greater—more spiritual—symbolism. During the medieval period, gold was often used to symbolize the divine light of the heavens and spiritual illumination. As a child, the artist’s family often worshiped at the Saint John Chrysostom Byzantine Church in Pittsburgh, which houses 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.
In this particularly dynamic version of his iconic motif, we can see the origins of Warhol's original drawings, magnified up to a huge scale. He highlights the clean outlines and the individualized hatching, rendering them highly visible, adding to the visual impact of the work as a whole. When working on the Dollar Sign series, Warhol found he was unable to find an existing image of the dollar sign that had the exact impact he desired. To resolve the situation he resorted to the skill that supported him during the early years of his career, his draftsmanship. He drew dollar after dollar sign, some straight, some slanting, some thick, some thin, some more Pop, some more staid. The vigorous up-and-down pencil strokes of Warhol’s original drawing are thus exquisitely captured and enlarged by the technological complexity of his silkscreen process. The fact that the source image was one that Warhol created himself marks his Dollar Sign paintings out as a rarity within his body of work. It is the subject rather than the actual image of money that concerns Warhol, a clever and revolutionary return to his earlier works of dollar bills in which he essentially printed his own money.
Warhol not only understood money’s importance to the consumerist culture of postwar America, but he perfectly encapsulated the marriage of art and commerce that had begun to take effect at the dawn of the 1980s when the series was created. Thus, his Dollar Sign paintings have become evocative of the entire decade of the eighties, making overnight stars of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel among others. The paintings evoke the heady economic promises of so-called “Reaganomics,” the free market policies espoused by President Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the decade. This ushered in a prolonged period of rapid economic growth and a booming U.S. economy that has come to define that decade, and 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.
Regarding Warhol’s output in the 1980s, “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 laboured 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. ...it 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).