CULTURE

Why Have Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe Paintings Remained a Legend?

Marilyn Monroe depicted by Andy Warhol
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

She may have been the definitive Los Angeleno, but for the second Monday in a row, the specter of Marilyn Monroe’s legacy hung over a major moment in New York City 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 kicked off in full force—when Christie’s put Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn on the auction block.

Kim’s take on Marilyn may have broken the Internet, but Andy’s take 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 (and then shot with a pistol by performance artist Dorothy Podber), are around $200 million. It’s widely expected to fetch the highest price ever paid at auction for an American piece of art, and could very well break a similar record for any piece produced in the 20th century by the time the gavel falls. (Update: on Monday evening, the piece indeed sold for $195 million to dealer Larry Gagosian, who may have been bidding on behalf of a client).

The star of the collection left behind by the late Swiss art dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann, 20 percent of the sales price will benefit charity, but the moment will also be viewed as a major test for the post-lockdown art market. As such, Christie’s has pulled out all the stops for promoting the sale, including a Friday night dinner at Indochine, a downtown restaurant and ’80s favorite of Warhol. The event brought out an impressive mix of art world luminaries, Warhol confidants, and Christie’s execs, so asking the crowd how Warhol has remained so relevant in 2022 would be like asking a physics symposium what 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 making 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 Monroe tribute, he only had a one word as an answer: “Horrible.”)

“Every time one has come to auction, it’s really reset the entire contemporary art market,” Bonnie Brennan, Christie’s president of the Americas, says of the Shot Marilyn series. Warhol used a complicated and hands-on screen printing technique he soon abandoned afterwards for the series, which contributes to their value—although Brennan also recognizes the iconography of Monroe herself adds to the equation. “He was all about the icon. We almost remember this image of Marilyn Monroe more than we do herself. It’s the perfect union of Andy Warhol at his highest-quality work with the most iconic subject that he ever painted.”

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

Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

“The Marilyn is so iconic because she symbolizes, in a real culture way and in a popular culture way, the same thing. She reminds us... well Warhol reminds us by painting her, ‘I’m going to show you now what is really going on in people’s minds and what they care about: fame and beauty and death and disaster,’” adds Alex Marshall, a Christie’s vice president. “We’re surrounded by it every day. That’s all we pay attention to on a daily basis. Newspapers are filled with it, films are filled with it, and Warhol captured it by depicting the most beautiful woman, in the eye of the beholder, and the greatest tragedy.”

In essence, the capacity of the American attention span wrapped up in a single image and punctuated with a bullet hole. Kardashian garnering so much attention for wearing one of Monroe’s old gowns just as word leaked that the Supreme Court intended to overturn Roe v. Wade—bleak as it is—proved his point.