ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)
ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)

Two Dollar Bill (Front)

ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)
Two Dollar Bill (Front)
signed, inscribed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1962 Frederick Hughes' (on the turnover edge)
silkscreen ink on canvas
6 ¼ x 11 ½in. (15.9 x 29.2cm.)
Executed in 1962
Private Collection, USA.
Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles.
Private Collection, Europe.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures, 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York 2002, p. 150, no. 167 (illustrated in color, p. 145).

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Lot Essay

Executed in 1962, Two Dollar Bill (Front) marks perhaps the most important year in Andy Warhol’s emerging career, during which he first turned to silkscreens and produced his now-iconic pictures of Campbell’s Soup. This was the moment when Warhol entirely reconceived his idiom—and with it, the whole of art history. Prior to this year, the bulk of Warhol’s output had been commercial illustrations for companies such as Tiffany & Co., Bonwit Teller and Columbia Records as well as Vogue and Glamour magazines. At the beginning of the 1960s, however, he turned his attention to the nascent Pop art movement, trying his hand at large paintings of comic strips and advertisements. Disappointed by the lack of success and seeking new modes of production, Warhol began to experiment with rubber and wooden stamps. But it was the introduction of the silkscreen that set his career in motion and radically upended visual culture.

As its title suggests, Two Dollar Bill (Front) depicts one side of the United States’ least popular denomination, complete with serial number and signature. Inked with extraordinary detail, the image is slightly larger than its real-world counterpart. Perhaps Warhol hoped to fend off any accusation of counterfeiting. He drew the initial image himself, distinguishing the work from later silkscreens that would be derived from photographs. He was a great admirer of American money, saying later that he found it to be ‘very well-designed’ (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 136). As to why he chose this as his first silkscreened image remains a mystery, but there are several competing stories. The gallerist Eleanor Ward claimed that she had offered Warhol a solo show at Sable Gallery if he would paint her a lucky two-dollar bill, but the antiques dealer Muriel Latow maintains that she came up with the idea herself—and then charged Warhol fifty dollars for it. Whatever the reason, he began to silkscreen the fronts and backs of one- and two-dollar bills in 1962, inaugurating what was to be his most extensive series to date.

Warhol’s interest in consumer products and vernacular imagery spoke to the times in which he lived. Artists were mining their everyday surroundings to create images that bridged the artistic and the concrete, and any distinctions between the two were beginning to disintegrate. That Warhol’s dollars caused such a commotion owed much to the fact that they were printed using the same processes as actual currency. This was the age of Jasper Johns’ American flags, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘combines’ and Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey. Warhol’s first pictures of consumer products were also experiments in painterly gestures, the vestiges of which are evident in Two Dollar Bill (Front). Prior to fabricating the silkscreen apparatus, Warhol made several pencil drawings of money—straight on, rolled in wads, and crumpled up—and the same graphic expression underpins Two Dollar Bill (Front). While Warhol’s later photo-silkscreens can have a more industrial feel, in this early painting his hand is wholly present. Rather than exactly duplicate Thomas Jefferson, for example, the portrait purposefully skews cartoonish. Moreover, because the silkscreen stencil was relatively small, Warhol was able to squeegee the ink onto the substrate himself. Any smudges or distortions, as such, were entirely the artist’s own doing.

After completing Two Dollar Bill (Front), Warhol—ever capricious—looked to different material, silkscreening, in the ensuing years, celebrities, socialites, a series of flowers and car crashes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, he began to revisit some of his earlier art as source material for new work. Returning to the subject of money in 1981, Warhol elected not to appropriate an actual bill but rather, this time, to dramatically enlarge the currency mark itself in bold, electric colours. This was a brasher, more jaded series than the silkscreens from 1962, befitting Warhol’s status as a global celebrity whose work and persona were very much in demand. ‘I like money on the wall,’ he said. ‘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’ (ibid., pp. 133-134).

Beyond Warhol’s own outlook, the Dollar Signs captured the changing economic realities within the United States, auguring the hedonistic, splash-out ethos that would define the 1980s. Created long before ‘Reaganomics’, in the earliest days of the Hippie movement, Two Dollar Bill (Front) occupies a less world-weary position. In its gestural lines and scrawled signature reside all Warhol’s hopes for his career. As David Bourdain wryly observed, Warhol had an almost perverse wish to ‘achieve a sort of artistic alchemy, transforming ordinary paint into actual cash’ (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 108). For Warhol, whose art so aptly captures the relationship between commodity, desire, and value, Two Dollar Bill (Front) announced his own ambitions from which money—whether real or otherwise—could never be fully disentangled.

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