‘American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I’ve thrown it in the East River just by the Staten Island Ferry just to see it float’
‘Cash. I just am not happy when I don’t have it. The minute I have it I have to spend it. And I just buy STUPID THINGS!’
‘Americans are not so interested in selling. What they really like to do is buy’
‘[Warhol] was not about to draw rows and rows of money. And he couldn’t think of what to do, and then he remembered the fellows … at Tiber Press … He called them up and asked them if they would make a silkscreen of money. And I think they said, “No,” but if Andy made a drawing, they would make a silkscreen of the drawing. So … Andy ran it off and made it serially like that … From there on, I think, he realized that he could use the silkscreen’
Two Dollar Bills (Fronts) is one of the most important works of Andy Warhol’s century-defining oeuvre. Executed between March and April 1962, this merciless monolith of money is among the very first silkscreens that Warhol ever completed, initiating the iconic serial method that would dominate his art for the next twenty-five years. Based on drawings Warhol made on acetate, this pivotal series consisted largely of single images of the front or back of one- or two-dollar bills: Two Dollar Bills (Fronts) is among the largest of only ten that were made in serial or group format, two others of which are held in the renowned international collections of the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The present work is the only frontal group of two-dollar bills in existence. Baleful and seductive, the oversized notes tower in a mesmeric spectacle of iterated graphic impact. Applied in black ink on a pale grey ground, the stack of currency was printed one bill at a time; in an intriguing sign of his production process, traces of the green acrylic Warhol used to print the ‘back’ versions lingered on his screen, and can be glimpsed in certain areas of the black ink. The composition is also enlivened by Warhol’s addition of the U.S. Treasury Seal, which he carved into a gum eraser and stamped upon each of the forty bills in scarlet ink after the screenprint was complete. This bright visual counterpoint is used only intermittently in the series, and here finds its most assured expression. The stamp, along with Warhol’s drawing by hand of the original 9” x 4” bills, provides a significant link between the manual creation of his early work as a commercial illustrator and the fully photomechanical process that would begin with his screenprint Baseball in August 1962. Warhol’s meticulous draftsmanship is clear in the careful rendering of Thomas Jefferson’s face, and in details like the signatures of the U.S. Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest and Secretary of the Treasury George M. Humphrey, which date the original bill he worked from to between 1953 and 1957. The motif of repetition, however, complete with signature fading and slippage, heralds the shift from painterly to mechanistic means and the vast, unfolding possibilities of Warhol’s screenprint era: here stands the essence of the United States, and of the artist who would expose it to the world.
As subject matter, the bills are the ultimate Warholian idol. Their low denominations share the democratic Pop ubiquity of his Coca Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans of the same period; these are things seen and handled by millions of people every day. Importantly for Warhol, they also share these objects’ graphic and symbolic appeal: ‘American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I’ve thrown it in the East River just by the Staten Island Ferry just to see it float’ (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and back again, Orlando 1975, p. 137). As an aspirational index of the American Dream, they further speak of the potential of money as a vehicle for hope and desire, and the fetishistic personal obsessions with fame, glamour and riches that defined Warhol’s artistic enthrallment with celebrity culture. Perhaps most crucially, the bills stand as a potent and ironic emblem of the relationship between art and commerce – something Warhol was never shy about exploiting. The most frequently told story of their genesis is related by Calvin Tomkins in 1970. ‘One evening early in 1962, in the apartment over Florence’s Pinup, Muriel Latow told Andy that she had an idea but it would cost him money to hear it. Muriel ran an art gallery that was going broke. “How much?” Andy asked her. Muriel said fifty dollars. Andy went straight to the desk and wrote out a check. “All right,” Muriel said. “Now, tell me, Andy, what do you love more than anything else?” “I don’t know,” Andy said. “What?” “Money,” Muriel said. “Why don’t you paint money?” Andy thought it was a terrific idea. Later on that evening Muriel also suggested (gratis this time) that he paint something that was so familiar that nobody even noticed it any more, “something like a can of Campbell’s soup”’ (C. Tomkins, ‘Raggedy Andy’ in J. Coplans, ed., Andy Warhol, New York 1970, p. 12).
Created before he hit upon screenprinting as his process, Warhol’s hand-painted Campbell’s soup pictures were shown at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in July 1962. A gallery up the block stacked real Campbell’s soup cans in their window in sardonic protest, advertising ‘the real thing’ for 29¢. Blum sold six of Warhol’s thirty-two paintings for a hundred dollars each, before later buying the works back from the customers himself so that he could own the complete set. The ‘real thing’ no longer held sway over the simulacrum: Warhol had discovered the alchemical power of his images. With the Dollar Bills, he was literally able to transmute money itself into more money through his printing process. Nathan Gluck recalls that Warhol ‘was not about to draw rows and rows of money. And he couldn’t think of what to do, and then he remembered the fellows … at Tiber Press … He called them up and asked them if they would make a silkscreen of money. And I think they said, “No,” but if Andy made a drawing, they would make a silkscreen of the drawing. So … Andy ran it off and made it serially like that … From there on, I think, he realized that he could use the silkscreen’ (N. Gluck, quoted in G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 01: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, London & New York, 2002, p. 131).
Warhol had arrived in New York in 1949 with very little money at all. Through hard work, talent and quietly fierce ambition, he had established himself by the mid-1950s as a successful commercial illustrator, drawing shoes for I. Miller, weather icons for a local news station and Christmas cards for Tiffany’s and Tiber press – who would later print the Dollar Bills series. ‘He took any job he was offered, and everything he did was done professionally and stylishly on time,’ recalls Tomkins. ‘Andy never wore anything but old clothes. He would show up at Vogue or Bazaar looking like some street urchin in his torn chinos and dirty sneakers – Raggedy Andy – and the editors and art directors found this irresistible’ (C. Tomkins, ‘Raggedy Andy’ in J. Coplans, ed., Andy Warhol, New York 1970, p. 9). His movement into fine art from commercial drawing in the early 1960s was swift, calculated and stunningly effective. The delicate ink lines of his early drawings, as seen in his 1957 money tree, were replaced by the chill pictorial unit of the screenprint and a sharp focus on commercial packaging. Until now, fine art had been seen as a refuge, separate from the brash commodity-led visuals of prosperous post-War America: the confessional frenzies of Abstract Expressionist painters embodied a high-minded artistic and emotional seriousness. Warhol, along with Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, led a revolt that instead celebrated, even to the point of cruelty, the aesthetics of the mass-market consumable. Following Warhol’s sensational first solo show in New York at the Stable Gallery the Museum of Modern Art sponsored a symposium devoted to Pop Art, and Warhol shot swiftly to international stardom. Even Rauschenberg and Johns had sniffed: as the dealer Emile de Antonio told him, Warhol was ‘a commercial artist, which really bugs them because when they do commercial art – windows and other jobs I find them – they do it just “to survive.” They won’t even use their real names. Whereas you’ve won prizes for it! You’re famous for it!’ (A. Warhol, quoted in A. Warhol and Pat Hackett, eds., POPism: the Warhol Sixties, Florida 2006, pp. 11 – 12).
Warhol was unabashed. Just as he was in his ascendance as artist and celebrity, the American economy was booming and the dollar was becoming the primary international currency: he had captured the very symbol of America in his art, securing the dollar bill alongside the Coca Cola bottle, Campbell’s soup can and celebrity portrait in his pantheon of Pop icons. Today, these are pictures so tightly bound up with recent American history that they seem to define the United States as much as they define Warhol. Beginning with the Dollar Bills, the distilled image of the nation and all it stands for, Warhol asserted himself as the all-powerful, all-seeing demiurge of its visual culture. Dollar bills themselves, of course, are nothing more than signs, ciphers for a value that only exists through the mutual consent of individuals and the state. The looming height of Warhol’s Two Dollar Bills (Fronts) celebrates this symbolic power with rich bravura: the more money, the better.