Why did Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe remain a legend?


She may have been the definitive Los Angeleno, but for the second straight Monday, the specter of Marilyn Monroe’s legacy loomed over a major moment in New York high society. A week after Kim Kardashian wore one of the Hollywood legend’s most famous dresses to the annual Met Gala, the city’s art auction season got off to a strong start – when Christie’s put Andy Warhol’s Blow Sage Blue Marilyn on the auction block.

Kim’s take on Marilyn may have beaten the internet, but Andy’s will almost certainly break records. Estimates for the price of the painting, arguably the star of a set of five produced by Warhol in 1967 (later gunned down by performance artist Dorothy Podber), are around $200 million. It is widely expected to fetch the highest price ever paid at auction for an American work of art, and could very well break a similar record for any piece produced in the 20th century by the time the hammer falls.

The star of the collection left behind by the late Swiss art dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann, 20% of the sale price will benefit charity, but the timing will also be seen as a major test for the post-lockdown art market . As such, Christie’s pulled out all the stops to promote the sale, including a Friday night dinner at Indochine, a downtown eatery and Warhol’s 80s favourite. The event brought out an impressive mix of art-world luminaries, Warhol confidants and Christie executives, so asking the crowd how Warhol remained so relevant in 2022 would be like asking a physics symposium what that 2 + 2 equals. But why has Warhol’s painting of Monroe remained among his most iconic?

Bob Colacello and Per Skarstedt.

Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

“Marilyn Monroe was a classic, saint-like figure. A martyr. Andy was painting religious paintings for a secular culture,” said Bob Colacello, the writer who once ran Warhol’s Interview. “Jackie, Marilyn, Liz, Elvis, they were all martyrs to fame. (As for what Colacello thought of Kardashian’s recent tribute to Monroe, he had only one word for an answer: “Horrible.”)

“Every time you come to auction, it really resets the whole contemporary art market,” said Bonnie Brennan, Christie’s president for the Americas. Marilyn shot series. Warhol used a complicated and practical screen printing technique that he later quickly abandoned for the series, which contributes to their value, although Brennan also acknowledges that the iconography of Monroe itself adds to the equation. “It was all about the icon. This image of Marilyn Monroe is remembered almost more than herself. It is the perfect union of Andy Warhol in his highest quality work with the most iconic subject he has ever painted.

Graciela Meltzer, Alex Rotter, Lin Lougheed, Nancy Magoon and Neil Meltzer.

Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

“The Marilyn is so iconic because it symbolizes, in a real cultural way and in a popular cultural way, the same thing. It reminds us… Good Warhol reminds us of this by painting it: “I’m going to show you now what’s really going on in people’s minds and what interests them: glory, beauty, death and disaster”, adds Alex Marshall, vice- president of Christie’s. “We are surrounded by them every day. That’s all we pay attention to on a daily basis. Newspapers are full of it, movies are full of it, and Warhol captured it by portraying the most beautiful woman, in the eyes of the beholder, and the greatest tragedy.

Essentially, the ability of America’s attention span wrapped up in a single image and punctuated with a bullet hole. Kardashian garnered so much attention for wearing one of Monroe’s old dresses just as word spread that the Supreme Court was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade – dark as she is – proved her point.


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