An Andy Warhol silkscreen fetches $195 million, the highest amount ever achieved at auction for a 20th-century work of art.
Last Monday, May 9, the silkscreen portrait Shot Sage Blue Marilyn made in 1964 by the American pop artist Andy Warhol (Pittsburgh, 1928 - New York, 1987) climbed to reach the figure of 195,040,000 dollars (fees and taxes included) in the inaugural auction of the New York spring season at Christie's auction house. This is the highest value that a painting from the 20th and 21st centuries has reached at auction, and the second highest value in art of all time sold in the same way - that is, auctioned-, after Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (SEE), painting auctioned off at 405.3 million dollars.
We invite our readers to reflect after approaching the history of the creation of this iconic painting of art and culture of the 20th century, and to learn about various sales rankings of works of art in the world. Can a screen print cost more than an original, one-of-a-kind painting? Can the price of a work by Warhol be higher than one by Picasso, Van Gogh or Leonardo da Vinci, or as Alex Rotter - head of the 20th and 21st century department at Christie's - maintains, is Shot Sage Blue Marilyn a work of art "on a par with Mona Lisa, Botticelli's Venus and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"? How is that artistic and economic value measured? Still immersed in the pandemic and with a new wave of Covid hitting New York, plus the global financial crisis and a war in Ukraine that are straining daily life in Europe, can the art market afford to reach these shameless figures, oblivious? to this context?
An impossible mission, here we will not try to solve these questions; the questions enunciate one of the virtues of art, predisposing to reflection. Great thinkers in the various cultures of the world have been reflecting and writing on these issues for centuries.
Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe, icons of American culture of the 20th century
After the Great War, during the 1950s and 1960s, expressionism and abstraction began to be replaced by a new movement in the North American -and international- artistic and cultural scene: pop art, inspired by a world dominated by goods mass consumption, advertisements, comics, magazines, and the cinema and its celebrities. Andy Warhol was one of the most representative figures of this movement, and without a doubt, the most popular, known worldwide. Returning to the matter of value in art, we will say that one of the main qualities of an artist and his work is to understand and reflect his time. Warhol understood the importance of these new phenomena of mass culture and began to introduce them into his art. His depictions of consumer objects such as Campbell's Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, and portraits of iconic figures such as Mao, Elvis Presley, Liz Taylor and Jackie Kennedy soon established him in the New York art scene. He developed all forms of art: painting, sculpture, photography, screen printing, film, music, performance. He directed a magazine and even a television program. He himself was his own handiwork, managing to rub shoulders with his beloved celebrities and transforming himself into one of them. In 1963 he created his workshop-studio The Factory in New York, a hive of creation, as well as a meeting point for artists, writers, models, musicians and underground celebrities of the moment, a crucial space in the history of 20th century art.
The appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Warhol's work was after the movie star's suicide in 1962. Warhol portrayed her using the process he had already been developing, serigraphy on canvas intervened by hand with colors, or in our antiquarian terminology , illuminated silkscreen. Weeks after his death, Warhol made Gold Marilyn Monroe, a serigraphic and painted reproduction of an iconic portrait of the Hollywood movie star, the publicity still taken by the American photographer Eugene Kornman for the 1953 film Niagara. This work is now a of the cornerstones of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shortly after, and based on the same photograph, he followed up with a work entitled Dipic of Marilyn, each of its parts containing twenty-five colored silkscreen portraits.
Two years later, in 1964, Warhol decided to make a new series of portraits of Marilyn. By then he had perfected the technique. He no longer used a double black silkscreen print of the original image, which often caused bleeding between prints, leading to blurring and “ghosting”, that is, the image being smeared and duplicated. Using his perfected technique, he made five much larger copies than those of 1962, now 101.6 x 101.6 cm (40 x 40 inches), each one intervened with different colors. He then begins a bizarre and chilling story. Warhol had just finished these five portraits when he received a visit from his friend Ray Johnson and his wife Dorothy Podber, a performer and photographer, at the Factory. Dorothy asked Warhol if she could take a few shots. Andy, assuming she meant to photograph her latest work, gave her permission. Podber quickly pulled a small revolver from her bag and fired into the pile of paints, right between Marilyn's eyes. She put her gun away again and left. Fate -if this event is true and not a performance mounted between the artists, let us remember that Warhol was a master of personal marketing- wanted four of these portraits to be stacked and they were the ones "intervened" by the shot. Warhol called them the Shot Marilyns then forming a group of four paintings, each with the addition of the distinctive color in the title, and the fifth not shot was separated and titled Turquoise Marilyn. The latter was sold in 2007 for $80 million. The link between the shooting and Warhol does not end - nor does it begin - there. Between the two series of portraits of Marilyn, Warhol made another of Elvis Presley in 1963, with the figure of the singer playing a cowboy for the 1960 film Flaming Star in which he is shooting forward, towards the viewer. Finally, writer and feminist Valerie Jean Solanas shot Warhol and art critic Mario Amaya outside the Factory in 1968, seriously injuring the artist.
Warhol elevated the culture of the consumer society to the upper echelons of art. In this category of consumer goods were cans, bottles -and mainly their brands-, but also celebrities from politics and entertainment, and even transvestites, homosexuals and pornographic eroticism. He at the same time transformed art into a consumer object. He portrayed with humor and irony as well as tragic melancholy the decadence of a commodified world.
What's great about this country is that America has started a tradition where wealthier consumers buy essentially the same things as poorer ones. You can be watching TV, you see a Coca-Cola commercial and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola and you think that you can drink Coca-Cola too. A cola is a cola, and no money in the world can make you find a better cola than the one the beggar on the corner is drinking. All queues are the same and all queues are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the beggar knows it, and you know it. Andy Warhol
His criticism of the establishment of his time was not gratuitous: celebrated throughout the world, he never got to see his work exhibited and valued by the New York academic environment. As usual, it happened after his death.
Warhol synthesized in his work various cultural and technical phenomena developed during the 20th century: cinema, photography, the mechanical reproduction of an image (appreciable in the graininess of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, in the manner of Lichtenstein). He understood the importance of the mechanical processes of mass reproduction in keeping with a world of mass consumption. All of his work is a large-scale multiplication of the processes of reproduction and repetition of the image. The Hollywood diva with her image in every film, in every poster, in every magazine and on television; the image of her photographed by Kornman for the film Niagara; the multiplicity of images of the person portrayed on each canvas, like Marilyn fifty times in the Diptych, or the Elvises in pairs, triples, or Eight Elvises, eluding a society drunk on images and symbols; the serigraphic reproduction of each work, promoting the rapid realization and multiplicity of copies, thus expanding the number of products for sale; and finally, this Shot Marilyn serigraph transformed into an icon, currently reproduced ad infinitum on t-shirts, mugs, posters, and much more.
As scholar Hal Foster explains, Pop art is about presenting a homo imago image: of human beings shaped by the photographed reality they have created for themselves. Warhol did not try to perpetuate the effigy of Monroe through his own creation, as artists who were contemporaries did. He chose to take a pre-existing, known image. Beauty is in itself, and not through, thus becoming an icon. He held the idea that it is not necessary to produce something from scratch to turn it into art, but that it is the context that makes the work, endowing it with infinite meanings. Like a prophet -another of the mysterious values of the great artists- Warhol predicted the dominance of the mechanical, mercantile image, reproduced infinitely, and manipulated by everyone through filters today. Even without knowing the internet, social networks and influencers, he summed up his soon existence in his famous phrase "In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes”.
Note the trace of the shot fired on the canvas, between the eyes, later restored. Christie's.
In Warhol's Marilyns not only is everything previously mentioned of the pop artist's production synthesized, but the inclusion of the image of Marilyn concludes the canon of beauty of an era. Adam Gopnik notes in his 2020 biography of the artist that when Warhol produced his first projected images of the actress in 1962, he was reading a book by a French intellectual who argued that Marilyn had profound social significance for the post-war world; With her fierce sexuality and sultry looks of hers, she was the perfect symbol of the postwar Western renaissance and the epitome of the American dream. In the same way we can observe in Leonardo da Vinci's Gioconda, the beauty of the mysterious Renaissance woman coexists with the exaltation of the pictorial processes of the moment, such as virtuous realism and the sfumato of the landscape. Both have the unusual virtue of carrying the philosophical and cultural paradigms of an era, while also becoming iconic, popular works, two of the most recognizable images of universal art. Warhol's Marilyn is not gratuitously considered the Mona Lisa of the 20th century. Or in the words of Alex Rotter, head of the 20th and 21st century department at Christie's, “Andy Warhol's Marilyn is the absolute pinnacle of American pop and the promise of the American dream that encompasses, at the same time, optimism, fragility, celebrity and iconography”.
Last Monday, May 9, one of the five portraits of Marilyn from 1964 climbed to the figure of 195,040,000 dollars; Such merit was achieved by Shot Sage Blue Marilyn. Coming from the collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann, Swiss businessmen, it was bought by the art dealer Larry Gagosian. It was part of a lot of 36 pieces, the sale of which will go to finance the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation for children's programs. The buyer of the Marilyn will be able to decide, thanks to an unusual agreement, to which charity they will allocate 20% of the auction price of the painting.
Some portals and newspapers mistakenly titled the news as “the highest value achieved by a work of the 20th century”. Instead, it is the highest value achieved by a 20th-century work of art at a public auction. In the general sales ranking Shot Sage Blue Marilyn rises to third place. Let's see then the ten highest values of the art of the last century.
Interchange, oil painting by Willem De Kooning. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
1. Interchange, by Willem De Kooning. The Dutchman's 1955 expressionist painting leads the price rankings, sold in a private transaction in 2015 for $300 million to hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin. Currently, the painting is exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, but it belongs to the private collection of the billionaire.
2. Number 17A, by Jackson Pollock. Purchased the same year 2015 and by the same billionaire Kenneth Griffin, at a value of 200 million dollars and again, in a private transaction. Number 17A was painted in 1947, a year after the great American abstract painter invented his technique of splashing and dripping spontaneously on canvas. Like De Kooning's Interchange, it can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.
3. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, by Andy Warhol. Here is our painting in question, which with its 195 million value, dethroned Pablo Picasso's painting Les femmes d'Alger as the highest painting sold at auction.
4. Wasserschlangen II, by Gustav Klimt. The 1907 painting was sold in 2013 in a private transaction for a value of 187 million dollars, occupying the fourth position.
5. No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), by Mark Rothko. Bought by Russian tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev in a private sale in 2014, for $186 million. Evidently overrated, the work is part of Rybolovlev's high-profile acquisitions from his former art dealer Yves Bouvier, including Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci (SEE)
Les femmes d'Alger, inspired by The Women of Algiers by Eugène Delacroix.
6. Les femmes d'Alger, by Pablo Picasso. It was sold in 2015 at an auction held by Christie's in New York, for a value of 180 million dollars. It is the most expensive work of art by a Spanish artist.
7. Masterpiece, by Roy Lichtenstein. Work of another of the masters of pop art and made the same year as the first portraits of Marilyn, in 1962. It was acquired in a private sale held by the Acquavella Gallery in New York by the investor Steven Cohen for a value of 165 million dollars in 2017.
8. Lying nude, Amedeo Modigliani. Nu Couche was painted between 1917 and 1918 and is part of the last works of the Parisian author. It was sold at a 2015 Christie's auction by a Chinese collector for $170 million.
9. The Dream, by Pablo Picasso. This Picasso painting painted in 1932 was sold to the American Steve Cohen in March 2013 for a value of 155 million dollars.
10. Three studies of Lucien Freud, by Francis Bacon. Triptych painted in 1969 and sold for $142 million in 2013. At the time, it fetched the highest price ever achieved at auction for a work of art.
An endless analysis could begin by looking at this ranking, let's stop at one. In the list of the ten most expensive works of art of the 20th century there are only North American and European authors, no Orientals, no Latin Americans, no Africans. Let's look at the 20 most expensive, either. How is it possible, if there are Easterners and Russians among the buyers? Even the most expensive work in history, Leonardo's Salvator Mundi was acquired by a Russian magnate and an Arab prince, successively. Is this one more sign of globalization, which is nothing more than the Westernization of the world? Let's continue analyzing the ranking even further: in 23rd place the first oriental, Twelve Landscape Screens by the Chinese painter Qi Baishi, sold for 140.8 million dollars.
And the Latin Americans? They do not appear on this list, which includes the 112 most expensive works. The panorama of Latin American art in the world market changed radically last year with the sale of Diego y yo, (SEE) a painting by the Mexican Frida Kahlo, bought by the Argentine businessman Eduardo Costantini for 35 million dollars, exceeding the 15.7 million that had accomplished Dance in Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera, also acquired by Constantini. To the amazement, this businessman and collector, creator of the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA), raised the ceiling of Latin American art more than double. And speaking of compatriots, what are the highest values of Argentine art? Far from a million, the first six positions are alternately disputed by Emilio Pettoruti and Antonio Berni, with paintings that range between 794,500 and 552,500 dollars, all sales at Christie's and Sotheby's in New York. Two Prilidiano Pueyrredón, auctioned at 551,530 and 515,660 dollars, continue in local sales at the Naón auction house. Again in New York, the creations of Guillermo Kuitca and Julio Le Parc reached 511,500 and 506,500 dollars, respectively, to seal the list of the ten works located at the top of the Argentine ranking.