Andy Warhol's signature style of exposing art as a commodity is nowhere more ironic or literal as in his depictions of American currency. One Dollar Bill belongs to a series of drawings that Warhol executed in 1962. These works comprised bills that were represented in a variety of formats including the present image of a flattened dollar, as well as a curved and crumpled dollar with dark shadows, a heap of dollars in overlapping planes, and dollars rolled into thick cylinders. Rendered in meticulous illusionistic detail, these works elevated the crassest of subject matter into the realms of high art in what would become Warhol's characteristically sardonic approach.
Working as a commercial artist through the 1950s, Warhol aspired to become a "fine artist" in the early 1960s. He employed his drawings as a means to bridge this transition. Dieter Koepplin writes, "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" (Dieter Koepplin, Andy Warhol, Drawings 1942-1987, exh. cat., The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, 1998, p. 16). Warhol changed his style to accommodate this leap into high art: while his commercial drawings of the 1950s consisted of clean, linear, graphic executions in ink, his drawings of the early 1960s were done in soft pencil with powerfully dramatic, fine and grainy textured, painterly hatching to convey realism through modeling. Drawing featured in Warhol's earliest Pop art paintings of 1961 such as Dick Tracy, Coca-Cola Bottle and Campbell's Soup Can, which consisted of crayon hatching in addition to paint on canvas.
According to legend, the way Warhol came about painting soup cans and dollar bills was generated in a conversation with Muriel Latow, a New York gallery owner and friend. Warhol, who was notorious for asking for new ideas was countered with, "Is there something that means more to you than money? Would not money be a subject for pictures that everyone would immediately understand: bank notes or soup cans or something similar?" Warhol was clearly drawn to subjects that were easily comprehensible and "loved," and were above all commodities to be consumed. Money was what enabled consumption, but in addition to its exchange value, it was also inherently a commodity. In fact, Warhol seems to have had a fetishistic relationship to the physical object of money, opting to pay for everything with cash rather than any other cash equivalent.
The subject of money was crucial to the development of Warhol's art because it led him to adopt the process of silk-screening in the spring of 1962. 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 postage and trading stamps, proved too tedious. Because reproducing a photograph of a dollar bill would have constituted forgery, Warhol had a screen made from a drawing of a bill that was much like the present work. He would resurrect the theme of money in the early 1980s with his silk-screened Dollar Signs. (see lot 66).
Bourdon suggests that, "Warhol's paintings and drawings of flat dollar bills bring to mind the tromp 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" (D. Bourdan, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 108). While Warhol's subject and manner of execution put him in the company of the greatest illusionistic painters of American history, Warhol's approach was definitely not traditional. He introduced handmade imperfections, especially visible in the exaggerated curvilinear lines in the decorative border as well as the vigorous hatching and shading in the presidential portrait, which ultimately thwarted the scrupulous illusionism of his predecessors. Even when he was to later embrace the impersonal and mechanical process of silk-screening, famously stating, "I want to be a machine," he consistently undermined the perfection inherent in the machine aesthetic through slippages and striations on his painted surfaces in order to retain a vestige of the artist's touch. In their method of execution and deliberate injections of artistic license, Warhol's drawings are the strongest embodiment of this trait.