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Why we should care about Warhol

Ore Gazit considers why modern art matters and why it reaches such hefty price tags.

Andy Warhol famously noted the irony that American capitalism is a system in which the richest and the poorest consumers can buy virtually the same things. Perhaps this was true of Campbell’s soup and cans of Coke, but his own works have proven otherwise time after time, and the last major Warhol sale was certainly no exception. 

Christie’s auction house in New York recently sold Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, the fourth in his print series made in 1964.The work is an unmistakable icon of the American Pop Art movement, feature Warhol’s vivid, blaring colours and the face of America’s most prominent sex symbol. Sold for an eye-watering $195million (£158.2m), the work has become the most expensive modern painting ever to sell at auction.

The Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was one of many depictions of the actress that came out of Warhol’s studio in the 1960s. 1962 was an important year in Warhol’s early career, in which he completed his first and most memorable works, such as Campbell’s Soup Cans and the Coca Cola series. In that same year, Warhol created the monumental Marilyn Diptych, now hanging at the Tate Modern in London. One half shows Marilyn in blazing pinks and hot oranges, whilst the other is a sombre, monochrome portrayal that slowly fades away, as Marilyn did shortly after the work was completed. By 1964, Warhol’s studio began producing films and creating more artworks of the western world’s favourite stars. Warhol’s Triple Elvis, a screenprint of singer Elvis Presley, sold at Christie’s in 2014 for $81.9 million (£62.6 million). 

The Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’s hefty price tag is partly due to its eventful life, and a photo ‘shoot’ gone wrong. Upon asking Warhol if she could ‘shoot’ the collection of Marilyns Dorothy Podber, a performance artist and friend of Warhol’s, took out a revolver and shot the paintings literally, hitting the Marilyns directly in between the eyes. The name Shot Marilyns was given after the incident, and Podber was barred from entering the studio again. Now, the evidence is hardly noticeable to the naked eye, with only a rough pink patch to cover up the damage. Podber’s contribution remains inextricably linked to the work, and her daring persona and frivolous character are forever imprinted onto Warhol’s canvas. 

So the question remains – why should you care? Fellow Cherwell reader, I know you are likely eyeing up the meal deal section at Tesco, and looking to Broke Mondays for your source of post-work day entertainment. I am too- and neither of us are in a position to even consider purchasing a work of this calibre and price tag. However, the growing demand for modern art from an increasing number of collectors is a cause of both celebration and lament for the rest of us. The work’s sale brings art from their walls to the public eye, encourages visits to museums and inspires the creation of exhibitions, such as the one Christie’s themselves held for the work for the public to see. What’s not to love about being reminded of good art? 

Yet, with each work going back into private hands, so too we must say goodbye to it for the foreseeable future. The private sale of Warhol’s Marilyn means it will not be readily available for admiration on a museum wall. If we’re lucky, it could be loaned to temporary exhibitions, before returning to its owners. Art historians will only be able to admire it from afar, making use of digitized images rather than taking in the ‘real thing’. As the work breaks yet another Christie’s record, it is clear that private collectors are hungry for more. As such, both the academic and the regular gallery-goer can only do one thing until they hope to see it again: wait. 

Warhol’s artworks have become rarer, and more sought-after, in the private art market. Their iconic status has led to a cult of Warhol collectors, who remain a very small and exclusive club of magnates. One likely candidate to purchase the work was Israeli businessman Jose Mugrabi, known for his impressive collection of 800 works by Warhol, the most of any existing private collection. 

The Sage Blue Marilyn is another record-breaker in a long line of the world’s most expensive works sold at public auction. In 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450.3 million (£342.2 million), making it the most expensive artwork ever sold. Other landmark works like Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers and Modigliani’s Nu Couché have also made it onto this prestigious listFollowing the sale, the Marilyn has become the fifth most expensive work ever sold, both privately and at auction. As all eyes turn to the rostrum this summer, the Sage Blue Marilyn will undoubtedly become its highlight, marking a historic achievement in the world of art. 

Image credit: Eugene Kornman / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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