Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is the ultimate Pop Art testament to celebrity, fame and beauty. It’s the Mona Lisa of the 21st century, immediately recognisable, countlessly reproduced, appealing in its coyness and its indescribable pull. Coming to auction at Christie’s this May, Warhol’s Marilyn is poised to fetch $200 million, possibly becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
Update 09/05/2022: On the 9th May 2022, the auction sale of 'Shot Sage Blue Marilyn' (1964) took place at Christie's New York, selling for an astonishing US$195 million (£158 million). The sale takes the record for the most expensive piece of 20th-century art ever sold, previously held by Picasso's 'Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)', which sold for $179.4 million, also at Christie’s, in May 2015.
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) is being sold by the Zurich-based Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation, with all the proceeds going to charitable causes. Based on a promotional still for her film Niagara (1953), this work is one of a series of five silkscreen prints in different colours that are now undoubtedly more famous than the original photograph.
Only adding to their notoriety, this series of paintings are also referred to as the ‘Shot Marilyns,’ due to their gloriously traumatic history. In 1964, performance artist Dorothy Podmer visited the artist in his silver-clad studio, the Factory, where, after asking for permission to ‘shoot’ Warhol’s work, she fired a revolver straight through a stack of Marilyn prints, hitting her right between the eyes. Though Warhol managed to repair the damaged works, as we can see in Shot Sage Blue, Podmer was banned from the Factory and these works have never shaken their storied legacy.
So, was it this stylish ‘artistic happening’ that has made Shot Sage so valuable? Or would Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe still be charming us for other reasons? Is it the lure of celebrity, of perpetual fame that draws us in? Or is it the suggestion that elements of Warhol himself are contained within this work - it is, after all, the quintessential Warhol image. No stranger to commercial savvy, he did not pretend to hide his desire for money and notoriety, also leaning heavily into the reproductive printing methods associated with Pop Art. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, therefore, with her electric eyeshadow, saturated yellow hair and bold red lips, epitomises Warhol’s two main focuses - the cult of celebrity and everyday consumerism.
With this in mind, let's take a look at how we got here, at how Warhol’s fascination with fame has seeped into our own and just what it is about Marilyn Monroe that manages to hold our attention almost 60 years after its creation.
This upcoming sale is not the first time Andy Warhol’s work has made waves in the art world for fetching eye-wateringly high prices. The current most expensive of his works to sell at auction is his 1963 Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) in 2013. Taken from the artist’s Death and Disaster series, the work fetched $105,000,000 at Sotheby’s, and combines the repetitive imagery made by the printing process with the grand art historical tradition of history painting.
In terms of Marilyn Monroe portraits, it is Warhol’s 1962 print Four Marilyns that holds the record currently, selling for $34,000,000 at Phillips, also in 2013. It seems that in terms of record prices so far, Monroe is not the most expensive of Warhol’s celebrity reproductions, with works like Triple Elvis (alongside three other renditions of the King) all selling for millions more. If Shot Sage Blue Marilyn achieves anything like it is predicted to however, 2022 will of course be the year that this all changes.
Read more on the Warhol market here, in our conversation with Pop Art expert Richard Polsky.
One of Warhol’s great fascinations, one that spanned his entire career, was on consumerism and its implication on art and culture. Experimental in his printing methods, Warhol often looked to recognisable consumer goods as inspiration for his works - just think of the Campbell's Soup Cans or of Coca-Cola. In drawing attention to everyday items and elevating them to the status of ‘high art’ Warhol highlighted how the consumerist drive is the very thing that unites us all - regardless of background or fame.
Furthermore, the screenprinting process affords the viewer and artist a level of detachment from the image we see. In replicating the methods of mass media production, Warhol’s prints reflect how public perception of celebrities are shaped. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn therefore, of course exudes a level of glamour, a level of cool-girl aloofness we are so keen to prescribe to this Hollywood star, and this replicates how she was portrayed in the media: as impenetrable, as a product to be consumed.
Warhol’s portrait therefore, created using these methods, reduces Marilyn from a human being to a consumable good, as is the effect of media oversaturation that he sought to draw our attention to.
Almost as well known for his infamous soirees and high-profile social circle as he was for his artwork, Andy Warhol was both an accessory to the rich and famous and a celebrity in his own right. He painted some of the 20th century's most recognisable faces, from Grace Kelly to Chairman Mao - as well as his own self-portrait of course - coining the notion that celebrities themselves could be commodified. In the process, constructing a legend around his own persona and marketing himself as being the centre of all that was exciting in art, fashion and pop.
Though he never met her, it is unsurprising that Warhol decided to depict Marilyn Monroe after her suicide in 1962, quickly becoming enamoured with her as a subject. In 1967, he created the largest screen print series of his career based on her 1962 portrait, alongside 10 separate Marilyn portfolios across that same decade.
She was the ultimate celebrity subject: beautiful, mysterious, tragic, a sex symbol and Hollywood starlet. There is just something otherworldly about Marilyn, and Warhol’s graphic approach and vast array of bold colours across the series hint at the complexities of her personality.
While we wait to see the outcome of next month’s sale, one can only imagine what Andy Warhol’s own reaction would be to this work being in the limelight. A lover of fame, and of course, money, it’s a safe assumption that Warhol would be absolutely thrilled with the coverage and attention being given to Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.