In Dollar Sign, Andy Warhol shamelessly depicts the most recognized currency symbol in the world - the “$” sign - by enlarging its features to monumental scale, in a brilliant tour-de-force painting that looms over the viewer like a secular totem. Created in 1981, the work is among Warhol’s most powerful and significant paintings. Dollar Sign not only illustrates Warhol’s life-long obsession with money, but also illustrates the underlying current of desire that has preoccupied his work since its inception. At the time it was created in 1981, Warhol was successfully selling his paintings and kept meticulous track of his expenditures, even noting the price of every cab ride in his diary. Warhol first depicted money in 1962 when he silkscreened dollar bills onto canvas. Reprising the subject in Dollar Sign, Warhol no longer appropriates the actual bill, but instead isolates the currency mark against a luridly-colored background and dramatically enlarges the formal characteristics of the “$” sign to a massive scale. Stripped of its signifiers, Warhol transforms the dollar sign into a sublime and mysterious emblem, one that captures the imagination and illustrates the hunger for wealth that lies behind the American Dream.
Warhol had long been fascinated by the subject of money, and it was his desire to paint the dollar bill that led him to work with a silkscreen fabricator for the very first time, which resulted in the one- and two-dollar bill paintings of 1962. The initial inspiration for the series relates to Warhol’s obsession with money, as recalled by a conversation with the gallerist Muriel Latow: “Muriel said, ‘What do you like more than anything in the world?’ So Andy said, ‘I don’t know. What?’ So she said, ‘Money. The thing that means more to you and that you like more than anything else in the world is money. You should paint pictures of money.’ And so Andy said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful.’” (N. Printz and G. Frei, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York, 2002, p. 131)
Warhol’s 1962 money paintings were quite brazen, since replication of the dollar bill was tantamount to plagiarism, not to mention counterfeit, yet he persisted in the series and reprised it with the Dollar Signs nearly twenty years later, during an era of great vitality. Having turned fifty in August of 1978, Warhol entered into a period of critical re-assessment that resulted in an explosion of highly significant work that featured some of the greatest paintings of his career. These paintings, such as the Reversals and Retrospectives, were marked by a renewed confidence and greater sense of maturity than ever before. It is during this era that the Dollar Signs appear, in a reprisal of the concerns that first prompted his dollar bill paintings of the 1960s. Warhol not only understood money’s importance to the consumerist culture of postwar america, but he now presciently grasped the marriage of art and commerce that had just begun to take effect at the dawn of the 1980s when the series was created.
The Dollar Signs were exhibited at the Castelli Gallery on Greene Street and Warhol attended the opening on Saturday, January 9th, 1982. An entry from his diary reads: “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” (Andy 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, luridly-colored 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).
For the Dollar Sign series, Warhol created a series of drawings that he enlarged and developed into silkscreens. Rather than use a readymade image, he felt compelled to draw his own symbol. In Dollar Sign the giant “$” emblem looms large, filling the entire span of the canvas and presiding over the viewer by nature of its monumental scale. In this, the largest size of the series, the immediacy and impact of Warhol’s preparatory drawings are magnified to colossal proportions. Contrary to previous paintings in which Warhol created a silkscreen replica of a dollar bill, in the present work Warhol appears to have overlaid 3 separate drawings on top of each other, all of which seem to pulse and reverberate as if emblazoned on a neon sign. The immediacy of the artist’s hand is still palpable, especially in the pencil hatch-marks of the shaded areas, and the strong, confident outline of the “$” sign and its serpentine- shaped curves.
The coloration of Dollar Sign is nearly bombastic, as varying shades of golden hues and black radiate outward from a background of ethereal blue. In Dollar Sign, the use of these colors 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. When combined with the heavenly sky-blue of the painting’s background, Warhol’s use of the color golden yellow in Dollar Sign might even recall the shimmering icons of Warhol’s Eastern European Catholic upbringing. 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. During the medieval period, gold was often used to symbolize the divine light of the heavens and spiritual illumination and blue often had the same connotation. In Dollar Sign, Warhol depicts a secular symbol in vivid coloration that hints at symbolic representations of heaven and the divine, which is especially pertinent considering he painted the series during the last decade of his life.
Warhol’s long-time assistant Ronnie Cutrone installed the Dollar Signs at the Castelli Gallery in 1982, in which Warhol had originally intended to show other paintings from the same year, namely his Knives and Guns. Cutrone recalls, “That could have been a beautiful show. Andy had done some paintings of knives and guns at the same time … and I started to hang the dollar signs and weapons all together so that when you walked into the gallery it looked like you were being mugged. Richard Serra came in while I was setting up and said, ‘God, this is brilliant.’ Then Fred Hughes came in, hung over, and said, ‘This is too European. Let’s just go with the dollar signs.” (Ronnie Cutrone, quoted in Victor Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 327) Had they been installed as Warhol intended, the Dollar Signs might have provided a satirical panorama of economics, violence and religion that dominated the complicated period of “Reagan era politics” in which Warhol found himself when the series was created. To this day, the Dollar Signs resonate with a force equaled only by Warhol’s best paintings, as they speak to the unyielding marriage of money and art.