Executed in 1961, One Dollar is a rare masterwork by Andy Warhol depicting his most celebrated subject: money. An early precursor for his later series based on the monetary symbol, the present lot represents a pivotal moment in Warhol’s career. Produced when Warhol was still painting and drawing all of his work by hand, it would be just a few months before the artist would employ the silkscreen methodology that would not only define his later work, but heavily influence the greater course of 20th century art history.
There are several stories that trace the genesis of Warhol’s portrayal of money. One such story goes that the interior designer Muriel Latow suggested he paint “Something people see every day ...” (M. Latow, quoted in G. Indiana, Warhol and the Can that Sold the World, New York, 2010, p. 82). Alternatively, the genesis of the subject matter may have stemmed from a meeting the artist had with Emile de Antonio, a personal friend, and Eleanor Ward, director of the Stable Gallery in New York. As Warhol later recalled: “She took out her wallet and looked through the bill compartment. She then held up a two dollar bill and said, ‘Andy, if you paint me this, I’ll give you a show’” (E. de Antonio, quoted in C. Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York 1983, p. 26). In 1962, she did indeed give him a show after Warhol had produced a series of dollar bill paintings. Whatever the actual source, Andy Warhol’s fascination with money, and all that it symbolized, is well documented between anecdotes such as the above and the detailed diary he kept tracking the cost of each and every cab ride he took. The attraction to money would extend beyond its physical nature to become an obsession with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and everyday American mass-market consumables.
There are five known major drawings from the early 1960s all based on photographs taken by Warhol’s friend Edward Wallowitch. Throughout his career, Warhol found inspiration in source imagery and for this series of large scale drawings he referred to Wallowitch’s images of single, crumpled and rolled bills in various compositions. Executed in the early 1960s, these compositions on paper were comprised of bills represented in a variety of formats including a flattened dollar, dollars rolled into thick rolls and a heap of dollars in overlapping planes. One Dollar is derived from a photograph depicting three banknotes in a triangular configuration, with an inverted note on the bottom making up the base of the triangle. Typically, Warhol would work directly from the composition of the source image, but for One Dollar he chose to rotate the photograph and zoom in on the dramatic shadow cast by the upper right corner of one of the bills.
This series of master drawings is a departure from Warhol’s early work as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s. As he aspired to become a “fine artist” the transition from the early clean, linear and graphic depictions to the powerfully dramatic drawings of the early 1960s demonstrated a shift in his artistic approach. One Dollar signifies a significant development in his methodology as he breaks the rigidity of early compositions and explores the versatility of the pencil with cross hatching, varying degrees of shading and hard edge lines. Using these tools he is able to convey a sense of realism and three-dimensionality not present in his earlier output.
In One Dollar Warhol fills the picture plane with a detailed drawing of the upper right corner of a one dollar bill. The precise graphite rendering of the familiar design characteristics of the banknote contrast sharply with the expressionistic strokes of crimson watercolor painted with an uncharacteristic abandon. With its vigorous hatching and shading and slightly exaggerated curvilinear lines the drawing is undeniably handmade. The combination of the larger-than-life composition, the painterly swaths of watercolor and the looming abstract shadow in the background result in a dramatic illusionistic depiction of the American currency that successfully blurs the line between the “low art” of the everyday object the “high art” of fine art—a ubiquitous theme throughout Warhol’s oeuvre.
Exploring the subject of money led Warhol to adopt the process of silk-screening in the spring of 1962. Wanting to repeat dollar bills in a larger grid format, he realized that cutting a stencil as he had done previously would have been too tedious. Because reproducing a photograph of a dollar bill would have constituted forgery, Warhol had a screen made from one of his drawings of a bill. In his choice of common imagery, Warhol was no doubt influenced by Pop precedents like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who were part of a generation of artists who fought to dismantle the divisions between “high” and “low” art and culture in the mid-1950s. In 1962, Warhol takes this mindset to the next level with the mechanization of his process. Warhol’s signature style of exposing art as a commodity is nowhere more ironic or literal as in his depictions of American currency.
With its impactful composition and meticulous rendering, One Dollar elevates the ubiquity of the subject matters into the realms of high art. An artist who often downplayed his personal talents in favor of the collective production that defined much of his output, Warhol’s unparalleled sense of design and conception is nowhere more apparent than in his drawings.