Sometime late in the summer of 1962, Andy Warhol began to silk-screen the face of Marilyn Monroe onto canvas, on backgrounds painted green, blue, red, orange, black — sometimes even gold. Those repeating Marilyns, which sold for all of $225, were some of the most radically novel and influential works of the 20th century; they filled much of Warhol’s first New York show of Pop Art.
The silk-screened Marilyn that sold last night at Christie’s auction house in Manhattan, for the almost incomprehensible sum of $195 million, was not one of those groundbreaking canvases.
That 1964 Christie’s painting, the “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” — despite the title, no bullet ever pierced it; the title comes from an early scholar’s error — is what I’d have to call a “retread” of those earlier works, ordered up from the artist a full two years later by the art entrepreneur Ben Birillo, for resale to the Pop collector Leon Kraushar. (In a 1998 interview, Birillo told me that the money to pay Warhol had come from a backer named Waldo Díaz-Balart, a wealthy Cuban exile who had been Fidel Castro’s brother-in-law.)
The original Marilyns from 1962 had been strange, distressed images, crudely silk-screened to leave blotches and blank spots that convey the decay and distress of the fallen movie star — it’s said Warhol conceived them right after Marilyn’s death, though there’s reason to believe that’s a myth. The 1964 repeats, of which Warhol did five, are much cheerier works, bigger and brighter and crisper, far more celebratory than mournful. If I were a collector — in 1964, or 2022 — I’d certainly prefer to have one of those over my sofa than one of the sad, tough versions from 1962.
The change that came about between Warhol’s two Marilyn series paralleled a change in Pop Art as a whole, which in just two years had gone from being a threatening new movement that shocked the art world to being the American public’s favorite new trend, with endless coverage on TV and in print. You could say that in 1964, with the viewer-friendly repeats of his Marilyns, Warhol was embracing the movement’s new popularity, making works that were not just Pop Art but also truly popular art. Instead of commenting on mass culture from the peaks of fine art, as his earliest Pop works had seemed to do, by 1964 Warhol was silk-screening images that could take their place among the commodities of mass culture such as Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo pads and Marilyn in her cheeriest “Seven Year Itch” incarnation.
Warhol himself was not completely comfortable with the change that Birillo’s commission was helping to bring about. He and his assistants referred to the 1964 retreads as “Dead Paintings.” (In addition to the Marilyns, Warhol was being paid to repeat the Campbell’s Soup paintings that had first won him attention in 1961.) But Warhol’s move toward repetition made a kind of sense, artistically: How better to talk about popular culture and its commodification than by letting your art plunge right inside? As “mere” repetitions of the 1962 works, the retreads invoked the replication that powers consumer culture.
The first Marilyns were already hinting at that, just through their use of silk-screening: The technique had first been perfected to print the humblest of souvenir pennants. By offering those Marilyns for sale in multiple “colorways,” Warhol went still further in invoking a world of mass-produced textiles. The 1964 Marilyns were also offered in multiple hues, but they had none of the messes that had added a hint of decay to Warhol’s first Marilyns, making them look handmade and heartfelt. Silk-screened with a new perfection, Warhol’s retreads achieved the visual impact, and directness, of a popular image always meant for mass production. If they risked being “dead” as innovative fine art, they had new life as mass imagery. Yesterday at Christie’s, intense spotlighting made “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” glow like an image you’d Google up on a screen, as though it best revealed its true self when displayed as pure simulacrum.
More than almost any other single image by Warhol, the sage-blue Marilyn has lived out its life in such public glare. In 1971, when the Tate museum in London welcomed Warhol’s first full-scale retrospective, it released a mass-produced poster featuring that very painting. For decades, you could buy the Tate poster in almost any museum shop or poster store; to this day it’s for sale everywhere on the web, in vintage versions and reproductions.
It was thanks to that ubiquity that I got to know the Christie’s Marilyn more intimately, probably, than any Warhol expert on earth: For much of my childhood, I sat studying it at least once a day — in the bathroom where my parents had hung the poster version.
We normally think of a poster, or any reproduction, as pointing back at a pathbreaking original that it copies. Maybe Christie’s $195 million “retread” of Marilyn should truly be prized for pointing forward to its own reproduction.
Blake Gopnik is the author of “Warhol,” a comprehensive biography of the Pop artist.