As Andy Warhol’s 1964 silkscreen, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,’ heads to auction at Christie’s New York on May 9 – with a $200 million estimate – Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian, considers why Warhol may soon surpass Pablo Picasso as the most successful artist of the 20th century. (You can read all my posts on the sale here.)
“Andy Warhol: obsessively commercial pop artist, the patron saint of reality television, Facebook, Instagram, selfies, TikTok and every other imaginable fulfilment of his prophecy that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Or so it might appear. But that is not the real him. Warhol was a seer whose surfaces conceal mysterious waters. ‘What people think is Andy Warhol isn’t Andy Warhol,’ says Tracey Emin.
Try an experiment to understand this. Start recording video and sit in front of the camera for three minutes. You are not to speak. You are not to leave your seat. Just look into the camera. ‘Be yourself.’ But who is that?
This is what Warhol subjected people to in his Screen Tests, filmed at his New York studio the Factory in the 1960s. His subjects look dazed by an unblinking scrutiny. They can’t win. Whatever they do, the unmoving, unstopping film camera records it as the truth of who they are … So if social media were really like Warhol’s Screen Tests, we would be constantly facing our sins in a confessional. We would live in truth.
A more famous Warhol portrait will go on auction at Christie’s in New York in May: his Marilyn, the most iconic face of pop art … If Christie’s has got its estimate right, his 1964 painting ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ will sell for about $200m (£150m). That will make it the most expensive 20th-century work of art ever auctioned. The current record is held by Picasso. So Andy will be established as bigger than Pablo and therefore the greatest artist of the modern age – at least according to an equation of artistic and monetary value he himself invented.
But what is it that makes ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ so apparently valuable? In 1964 a visitor to Warhol’s studio named Dorothy Podber created her own moment of performance art by pulling a gun and shooting a newly silkscreened Marilyn in the forehead. The shot went through the stack of canvases behind it; the one on sale still bears the poorly concealed scar. That frisson of violence and chaos adds to the sales pitch. But it’s all just the market’s way of catching up with the outrageous and unlikely fact that Andy Warhol is the greatest and most profound artist to have worked anywhere since 1945.
Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn seems to sum up so much about him. He made the word ‘superstar’ famous, applying it to anyone who took his eye and could hold their own in the amphetamine-fuelled, sarcastic atmosphere of the Factory. His studio and hangout with silver foil walls came to define 60s Manhattan and regularly gets recreated in films as a plastic fantastic party venue. Warhol mixed adoration of ‘real’ stars such as Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis with a levelling belief that anyone can be a celebrity, at least for a moment … That indifferent onlooker is exactly what many assume Warhol to have been himself: an unmoved spectator who celebrated not caring, the silver-wigged voyeur numbly pointing a camera. His harshest critic, Robert Hughes, called [his art] ‘diligent and frigid’ in an essay dismissing Warhol as one of the ‘affectless heroes’ of the media age.”
“There’s a better Warhol just behind the one we think we know. His greatest version of Monroe is not Shot Sage Blue Marilyn. It is Tate Modern’s 1962 Marilyn Diptych, painted just after her death, which repeats her face in bright colours on one canvas while on the other she fades to grey in a haunting film strip of memory failing, fame decaying, time running out. The inner Andy has taken over, and he has more on his mind than fame or money.
John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer and a friend of Warhol, revealed in a speech at the artist’s memorial service in 1987 that Warhol attended church regularly all his life and served secretly in soup kitchens. The world has had more than three decades to assimilate this information of Warhol’s religiosity, yet for many it is a bitter wafer. His latest biographer, Blake Gopnik, tries to dismiss the idea of Warhol as a Catholic artist. ‘Warhol certainly lived a less holy life, made more profane art and committed more mortal sins than should have been on the conscience of any devout Catholic, as defined by his era.’ But since when were Catholic artists pure?
You can go from seeing nothing but materialism in Warhol’s art to seeing the spirit everywhere. Soup cans? The sacrament. Marilyn’s mysterious face? A Byzantine icon; Warhol’s parents were from what is now eastern Slovakia and he was brought up in the Byzantine Catholic faith. And in the Marilyn diptych he explicitly uses the tradition of the medieval Christian altarpiece to depict Monroe as a modern martyr.
If this all makes Warhol sound a bit romantic, that is exactly what he was. He is one of the few artists in recent times who lived up to the 19th-century cult of the artist as someone other, bohemian, able to see what others don’t. Adopting a distant mysterious persona, surrounding himself with people living on the edge, he took Romanticism into a new realm of modernity. He licensed such inspired chaos it got him shot.
So it’s not surprising that this artist so full of mystery and surprise is poised to outsell Picasso and become, by commercial acclaim, the god of modern art. But could we end up killing the thing we love? There’s an edge to Warhol that doesn’t let him slide smoothly into the mainstream. Constant subversion of the pop culture he seems to crave is what makes him so enduring. Christie’s sale of one of his less emotional Marilyns celebrates a middlebrow saint, but he’s not that. ‘Andy Warhol was not a popular artist,’ Emin points out. ‘He was always alternative: alternative to everything that was going.'”
Thanks to A Passion For Marilyn