Toni Clayton, American Pop & Modern Specialist
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Andy Warhol prints and paintings are some of the most celebrated artworks of the 20th century. Permeating popular culture even today, Warhol’s original works have become icons of the modern age. But what is Andy Warhol's most famous artwork?
From the glamour of his most famous Marilyn paintings to the morbidity of the Electric Chairs, we explore the most crucial of Warhol's original artworks, which confront popular culture, consumerism, and human life itself.
It's the most expensive 20th century artwork ever to be sold at auction. Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, is one of the artist’s most notorious artworks of all time. The Mona Lisa of the 20th Century, Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe are the ultimate Pop Art testament to celebrity, fame and beauty.
This particular artwork sold for US$195 million (£158 million) at Christie’s New York in May 2022, partly due to its illustrious provenance. It was one of five Marilyn paintings shot by performance artist Dorothy Podber in 1964, who aimed and fired a revolver in Warhol’s Factory, hitting Marilyn right between the eyes. Despite having since been repaired, it is this history that only adds to this work’s timelessness and notoriety.
The Marilyn Diptych, consisting of 50 images of Marilyn Monroe, was created by Warhol in 1962 using the actress’s publicity photo for her 1953 Niagra as its source image. The Diptych can be distinguished from many other versions of this famous Warhol image by its repetition of the star across the canvas and the use of two contrasting canvases. Some say the contrast between the coloured and black and white canvases represent her public life as a star and her private self, but we can only speculate.
Warhol created the Marilyn Diptych when the art collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine visited the artist’s home. Suggesting that the two canvases be displayed as a diptych, Warhol replied to the two saying, ‘gee whiz yes’.
First exhibited in 1962 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans is among Warhol’s most famous series. The perfect visualisation of consumer culture and mass production, Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans were supposedly inspired by his own consumption of a tin of Campbell’s Tomato soup every day for lunch for 20 years.
In 1996, the entire set of paintings were sold for US$15 million to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where they can still be seen today.
Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were created in 1964 and are the artist’s first exploration of consumer culture in the medium of sculpture. The boxes are exact replicas of commercial packaging, and immediately call into question how we value an object as a work of art.
Warhol employed assistants to construct the many plywood boxes and with the help of Gerard Malanga and Billy Linich, Warhol painted and silkscreened the boxes with various consumer product logos, including the Brillo soap pads. First exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1964, the boxes did not sell, but caused much controversy due to their mundane aesthetic and subject matter.
One of seven works produced by Warhol in the monumental, double-canvas format, Silver Car Crash was created in 1963, as part of the series of 'Death and Disaster' works. Depicting the instant aftermath of a violent car crash, this work exemplifies some of Warhol’s most striking themes in his work: death, mass-media and celebrity. This powerful work also reflects the long tradition of history painting in art from Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa to Picasso’s Guernica.
In 2013, Silver Car Crash achieved £66.2 million at Sotheby’s auction house, making it one of the most expensive Warhols to ever be sold.
Among one of his most recognisable works is Warhol’s series of Mao paintings, depicting the Chinese Communist leader in a variety of unusual and bright colour combinations. To create these paintings, Warhol used an official propaganda image of Mao, likening this original image to the artist’s own screen prints of celebrity icons.
‘I have been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity, The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen.’
Warhol created 199 Mao paintings in total, with the most expensive selling at auction for US$47.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2015.
Warhol created this iconic self-portrait in 1986, the year preceding his death, depicting himself wearing his trademark platinum wig — the ‘Fright Wig’.
Self-portraits became an important feature of Warhol’s artistic oeuvre, as he portrayed himself through different decades of his life. Famous for his portraits of celebrity icons in the 1960s, Warhol too fashioned himself as a celebrity icon by producing images of himself several times. Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) is Warhol’s most enduring portrait and one iteration sold for US$32.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2010.
Another favourite from the Death and Disaster series, Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair paintings were first created in 1963 and are distinct in their macabre subject matter. Warhol completed many Electric Chairs in a variety of colours, from primary colours to metallic silver.
Portraying the infamous electric chair at Sing Sing prison, used to put Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death, these paintings are a fantastic example that no two Warhol paintings are the same, despite their repetition of subject matter. As Polsky explains in our exclusive series, I Authenticated Andy Warhol:
Immortalising one of the most iconic and glamorous faces of the 20th century, the Liz paintings epitomise Warhol’s Pop Art style that became synonymous with the movement itself. The painting is based on a publicity photograph of Liz Taylor from the late 1950s for her film Butterfield 8.
The eye watering prices that the Liz paintings have achieved at auction reflect its icon status. Liz #3 sold for US$31.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2014; Silver Liz (diptych) sold for US$28 million at Christie’s in 2015; and Liz No. 5 (Early Coloured Liz) sold for US$27 million at Phillips in 2011.