Andy Warhol’s Dollar Signs

February 8, 2023

In 1981, Andy Warhol began a body of work that focused heavily on the symbol of the dollar sign. This resulted in a multitude of drawings and paintings, as well as this series of screen prints titled Dollar Sign.

Warhol’s paintings and artwork reflected the American culture of consumerism with subjects stemming from the actual items that could be purchased and consumed, such as Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, or a more figurative consumption of celebrity culture with paintings starring Hollywood’s elite, like Marilyn Monroe.

Created during a period of American history commonly associated with the commercialism and materialism of the Raegan era, Warhol’s Dollar Signs could not have been more timely.

No other series reflect mass identity, luxury, and wealth as prominently as Andy Warhol’s Dollar Sign Portfolios from 1982. The prints from this series are recognizable for repeatedly featuring the American dollar sign in bright neon colors. Each reiteration of the image showcases vibrant colors to enhance the visual impact of the monetary symbol.

What Is the History of Andy Warhol’s Dollar Sign Series?

Unlike the generation of artists who preceded him, Warhol celebrated money and once stated, “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

When searching for a new subject for a series, Warhol once quipped, “I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally, one lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”

In 1962 his screen-printed dollar became the first series in which the artist began to experiment with the screen print process.

Drawing the motif from scratch, Warhol drafted endless dollar signs in different silkscreen variations. Applying a gestural, expressive technique, this body of work signals the experimentation and painterly approach that came to characterize the artist’s late career paintings.

The source image for this series was created by Andy Warhol himself, as he didn’t find a readymade image of the dollar sign that produced the same dramatic effect. To do so, he returned to his origins as a commercial illustrator and created the large dollar signs by hand. Essentially, he created a Warholian currency that was also unique to his artistic identity.

The Dollar Signs were first exhibited in January 1982 at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York.

The Symbolism Behind Warhol’s Dollar Signs

The origins of Warhol’s obsession with money can be traced back to his childhood growing up in a poor family in industrial Pittsburgh. He began creating money imagery as early as the 1950s with drawings of money growing out of a tree.

Culture of the Period

Ironically, the series was created in a time of economic downturn for the United States. For one, the Iranian revolution in 1979 had caused a surge in oil prices. A year later, the United States entered an economic recession that would last for two years. The ostentatious imagery of Warhol’s dollar signs becomes a visual satire when considering the historical context.

Andy Warhol embraced mass media and imagery found in advertising, news media and television. It is fitting, then, that Artforum published Warhol’s Dollar Signs in 1982 in the form of a gatefold commission.

Overall, Andy Warhol’s Dollar Sign series represents the crucial intersections between art and wealth.

Both art and money are assets in their own right. Art’s appeal, and something that compelled Warhol, is the tension as to whether art was for mass consumption. 

Warhol arguably likened himself to a money press, repeatedly churning out the dollar symbol in mass quantities.

Something Iconic

Warhol was able to distill popular culture, identifying the icons of an age. His Dollar Signs are no different. Here, he paints an icon of American popular culture, a sign that can be seen to signify success, celebrity and glamour, themes that permeate Warhol’s work and career.

What Was the Most Expensive Dollar Sign Painting Sold?

At the Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Evening auction in July 2015, Andy Warhol’s Dollar Signs painting from 1981 sold for a total of £9,925,000. The painting depicts four rows of varying dollar sign designs against a duck egg blue backdrop.

Critical Reception and Controversy of Warhol’s Work

During his life and since his passing in 1987, Warhol’s reputation and legacy have been shrouded in controversy and criticism.

Those who aren’t as familiar with the process of making art, specifically at a larger scale, may think that because Warhol enlisted the assistance of those from his Factory in producing his work, his authorship is somewhat diminished and his use and practice of screenprinting limited editions divulged his artistic integrity. 

However, most artists have assistance in producing their work to some capacity. This process of production, for Warhol, was intentional in pointing to a commentary on the conflation of art and commerce brought to bear through his use of factory-like production for his creative works. 

Art tends to be thought of as the inspired work of a singular genius, whereas manufactured commodities are thought of as anything but art. Through his process and subjects, Warhol points to what is perhaps a deeper truth, that art and commerce are not so dissimilar — hence his heavy use of symbols of wealth, such as dollar signs paired with the concepts of common items like brillo boxes.

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