In the late 1950s, Andy Warhol was executing deadpan paintings of comic strips and printed advertisements from newspapers or magazines, images which he enlarged on canvas with a minimum of artistic alteration. Certainly, such works derive from his previous experience as a commercial designer, but it is their transformation in his art of the 1960s that generated Warhol's signature style. Even these early compositions reiterate the monetary value of the objects depicted by retaining and even exaggerating the suggested prices included in the originals. These canvases clearly anticipated the artist's celebrated exploitation of art as commodity, but no subject matter makes this characteristic strategy more ironic, or more literal, than Warhol's depictions of American currency.
At the beginning of his career, Warhol employed his drawings as transitional works, bridging his movement from commercial design to fine art. Dieter Koepplin has praised the artist's early works on paper, acknowledging that "Warhol manifestly took great pleasure in drawing, displaying endurance, concentration, and effortlessness in equal measure. On several occasions in the 1950s, he exhibited his drawings in small galleries...By doing this, he wanted to use the drawings to make himself noticed" (D. Koepplin, "Andy Warhol's Drawings Based on Photographic Nature," in Andy Warhol, Drawings 1942-1987, exh. cat., The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, 1998, p. 16). According to one account, the idea of the dollar bill as subject matter was generated during a meeting Warhol had with Emile de Antonio, a personal friend, and Eleanor Ward, owner of the Stable Gallery. As Warhol later recalled: "She took out her wallet and looked through the bill compartment and said, 'Andy, if you paint me this, I'll give you a show.' She did, in the fall of 1962, after Warhol had produced a series of dollar bill paintings" (Quoted in C. Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York, 1983, p. 26).
The present drawing belongs to this series of works that Warhol executed in 1962, a variety of images that not only includes complete, flattened dollars like the present work but also represents bills in a pattern of overlapping planes, crumpled with dark shadows, or rolled into thick cylinders, sometimes used as still-life elements. As David Bourdon has asserted, "This subject matter marked an important point in his art because it prompted him to take up silk-screening in the spring of 1962" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 106). When Warhol wanted to repeat the bills in his characteristic grid format, he realized that cutting a stencil or carving an eraser, as he had done for his paintings of postage and trading stamps, proved too tedious. Because reproducing a photograph of a dollar bill would have been illegal, Warhol had a screen made from his drawing much like the present work.
Bourdon has suggested that "Warhol's paintings and drawings of flat dollar bills bring to mind the trompe l'oeil works created by several American painters in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, especially William M. Harnett and John Haberle, both of whom scrupulously copied paper money. . . . Many fool-the-eye illusions depend for their success on the actual flatness of the pictured subject. Like Haberle and Harnett, Warhol repeatedly chose to paint subjects that possessed very little three-dimensionality" (Ibid., p. 108). Although Warhol's choice of subject matter and his straight-forward treatment of the flattened dollar bill in the present work might put him in the company of the greatest illusionistic painters in American history, Warhol is anything but traditional in his approach. He eschews the fastidious illusionism of these predecessors to create a composition that is undeniably handmade, as is especially visible in the exaggerated, curvilinear lines in the decorative border as well as the vigorous hatching and shading in the presidential portrait.
An artist who often downplayed personal style in favor of collective production for much of his career, Warhol acknowledged the apparent impersonality of his silk screen paintings, equating his characteristic process with mechanical reproduction and claiming in one of his most celebrated statements: ". . . I want to be a machine, and feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do" (Quoted in G. R. Swenson, "What is Pop Art? Part I," Art News, November 1963, p. 26). Although Warhol consistently undermined the perfection inherent in the machine aesthetic through slippages and striations on his painted surfaces, the artist's touch as well as his ingenious and playful design sense are nowhere more apparent than in his drawings.