Super pop: Andy Warhol and the portrait of Marilyn that could break all records

Marilyn’s portraits were on the floor, leaning against the wall, one after another. Dorothy Podber, a provocative performance artist, entered The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio in Manhattan, with Carmen Miranda, her Great Dane. It was the fall of 1964 and musicians, artists, and filmmakers paraded through Warhol’s studio. A friend of a photographer of the artist, she asked him if she could “shoot” on the works. Sure, Warhol said, thinking he wanted to photograph them. Dressed entirely in black, Podber showed off her wild side: she reached into her purse and pulled out a gun. She aimed first at Andy, then turned and fired at Marilyn’s portrait, the bullet passing through all four canvases.

Andy Warhol banned Dorothy Podber forever, restored the works and titled them Shot Marilyns. There are four serigraphs that reproduce a frame of the Hollywood star in the film Niagarawith backgrounds of different colors.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1928, Warhol first painted Marilyn Monroe in 1962, shortly after her death and while he was struggling to make his way onto the New York scene. “Marilyn Monroe became his Gioconda, in the most famous portrait immortalized by Warhol,” says his biographer, Jean-Noël Liaut.

Promotional photography of Marilyn Monroe for the movie Niagara. The image was used by Andy Warhol for the creation of his series inspired by the actress

The artist made numerous works on Marilyn, but the 1964 series stands out among all for the sophisticated technique he used and the history that surrounds her as a legend. Although the four serigraphs are considered masterpieces, “it could be said that Shot Sage Blue Marilyn it’s the best of them,” says art dealer and Warhol expert Richard Polsky.

For a week, the image of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is projected on a giant scale on the front of Rockefeller Center. It is part of the marketing strategy of Christie’s auction house, which will put the work up for sale tomorrow as an art market event. The auction has aroused enormous interest and could reach historical contours: Christie’s set a starting price of US $ 200 million, which would make it the most expensive work of the 20th century, surpassing Picasso, and some experts estimate that this is only the starting figure: eventually, the painting could double that amount and perhaps snatch the title of the most expensive work in history from Salvator Mundiattributed to Leonardo Da Vinci and auctioned for US$450 million in 2015.

“Marilyn is the most iconic of Warhol’s images and completely encompasses his obsession with fame, beauty, glamour, and death,” he tells Third Patrick Moore, director of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “Marilyn is a line that runs from the first big paintings of the 1960s to the later print editions and serials of the 1970s, where Warhol once again turned to Marilyn, transforming and destroying the image of her,” he adds. .

For Alex Rotter, president of Christie’s, “Marilyn Andy Warhol’s is the absolute pinnacle of American pop and the promise of the American dream that encapsulates optimism, fragility, celebrity and iconography all at once.” A specialist in contemporary art, Rotter ventures to equate Warhol’s serigraphy with icons of art history, such as The Birth of Venus, by Botticelli; the Mona Lisaby da Vinci, and The Avignon ladiesby Picasso.

Until now the highest price paid for a 20th century artist is kept by Picasso: in 2016 Christie’s sold The women of Algeria (1955) at $179 million. But everything indicates that the painter from Malaga will lose that title. Moreover, there are those who argue that Warhol is the new Picasso.

“The comparison with Picasso is absolutely correct, not only because of the value of his work, but also because of his influence on art history,” says Patrick Moore. “I would say that Warhol and Picasso are the two artists who have most successfully created a public persona and made that persona an integral part of his artistic practice. In the age of social media, artists who create compelling personalities seem to be very in tune with contemporary culture.”

“Warhol is now the god of contemporary art,” noted The Economist a few years ago. In recent decades, the work of the artist with the white wig has multiplied its commercial value and has consecrated his place in the history of art and the scope of his influence. Today it would be difficult to imagine the work of Basquiat or Damien Hirst without the work of Warhol.

But it was not always like this. In the early 1960s, the kid from Pittsburgh was desperate to get noticed. He viewed with jealousy the success of his generation mates, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Both were represented by Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York and Warhol dreamed of joining them. Castelli had also brought in Roy Lichtenstein and felt that Andy’s work was too similar.

In his studio, Warhol had begun a series of works based on comic book characters, such as Popeye and Superman. But in February 1962 he received a strong emotional blow: Lichtenstein achieved general admiration with a show of paintings based on comics. Warhol understood that he could not exhibit his; he had to find another way.

At that time, Andy Warhol was still working as an illustrator for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines. Between the pages of those magazines he discovered a new material: advertisements. In this way he painted a bottle of Coca-Cola of almost two meters and a series of 32 cans of Campbell’s soup. “Warhol had intuited that those images, in themselves of a great banality and linked to less prestigious everyday reality, acquired a singular force if they were presented isolated, taken out of their context and reproduced on the scale of a painting”, says the biographer of the.

"Diptych Marilyn", (1962), by Andy Warhol.  Serigraph on canvas (301.56 × 144.8 cm) at Tate Modern
“Marilyn Diptych”, (1962), by Andy Warhol. Serigraph on canvas (301.56 × 144.8 cm) at Tate Modern

After much effort and many rejections (he even exhibited in the window of a clothing store), he got his first opportunity in Los Angeles, where he showed paintings of dollar bills and soup cans. The sample had publicity and an avalanche of critics who accused him of vulgarity and frivolity.

But he found admirers, including Eleanor Ward, owner of Stable Gallery, who gave him his first solo show in New York. The exhibition opened on November 6, 1962 and was an event. In it he exhibited the Coca-Cola bottle, soup cans, a portrait of Elvis and a series of works on Marilyn Monroe that captivated the public, including Leo Castelli. In the exhibition there was a set of small portraits and a Gold Marilyna canvas painted in gold that is now in MoMA.

“No painting like Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe has ever been so reappropriated, so reinterpreted in every possible way,” says Jean-Noël Liaut. According to him, Andy Warhol found in the figure of Marilyn a symbol that represented him: “She embodied everything that had fascinated him since childhood: beauty, talent, fame, a tumultuous life, numerous lovers and a tragic ending” .

Among all the Marilyns that he produced in series, those of 1964 are the only ones made with a more refined technique, which took more time and thanks to their history they achieved a special aura.

In 1989, the Shot Red Marilyn was auctioned for US$ 4 million and a decade later the Orange Marilyn it raised $17 million at auction. By 2007 the price had skyrocketed: Chicago collector Stefan Edlis sold the Turquoise Marilyn at $80 million.

Warhol’s leap into the major league of big prices came in 2008, when Eight Elvises it was sold for $100 million. And in 2013 his work Silver car crash (double disaster) moved the limits: it was auctioned at 105 million dollars.

While that is the highest price ever paid for Warhol at public auction, in 2018 Orange Marilyn it was traded again in a private sale. The precise amount is unknown, but the market is talking about US$ 240 million. If it had been a public operation, perhaps it would fetch a higher price. “There was talk at the time that it would definitely top $300 million,” said Brett Gorvy, a founding partner of the LGDR gallery.

Over the past decade, Warhol has been among the top-earning artists at auction. Although in 2021, a pandemic year, he raised a total of US$347 million, he reached US$500 and US$600 million between 2014 and 2015.

Today the artist once again enchants his admirers and the auction has aroused renewed interest. What does he respond to? “The museum has been particularly active in recent years with major worldwide traveling exhibitions, all of which have received wide public attention,” says its director. Also, the Netflix series The Warhol Diaries It has been a phenomenon. But, at the end of the day, it’s about having the most iconic image of the most iconic artist.”

Not many fortunes are in a position to participate in the auction, but “whoever buys the Sage Blue Marilyn, will become world famous overnight,” Richard Polsky told Vanity Fair. In his calculations, the work could perfectly reach US$500 million.

Is it its real market value or is it a bubble that will burst at some point?

“Warhol shows no signs of slowing down and, in fact, there are parts of its market that remain undervalued,” says Patrick Moore. “His latest paintings of him, which we have been showing frequently of late, are quite extraordinary with their Catholic imagery and their sense of doom that we believe is related to the AIDS crisis. Likewise, Warhol’s beautiful drawings are still a bargain. So I predict growth for Warhol both in terms of the commercial market and the artistic reputation of him.”