On Art

The art of the hype

Beyond its backstory, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ is both one of a series and an image made in part by a reproductive method

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How do you decide that a picture is worth $200 million? In the case of Andy Warhol’s 1964 screen print of Marilyn Monroe sold by Christie’s New York in early May, you swallow your dignity and turn huckster.

Talking up Shot Sage Blue Marilyn before the sale, Alex Rotter, the auction house’s chairman of twentieth and twenty-first-century art, locked himself in a bear hug with hyperbole. “Standing alongside Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” he claimed ecstatically, “Warhol’s Marilyn is categorically one of the greatest paintings of all time.” Categorically, no less.

Talking up Shot Sage Blue Marilyn before the sale, Alex Rotter locked himself in a bear hug with hyperbole

Despite this — and Rotter, incidentally, was the man on the end of the phone during the auction of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi in 2017 when the victorious bidder went to $400 million — this Warhol “icon”, “The last great Masterpiece to withstand the test of time” (Christie’s copywriters had a fun time of it), needed bolstering in ways that perhaps the Botticelli, Leonardo and Picasso do not.

The stellar sum mooted by the auction house was the first element. “Estimate on request”, said Christie’s website coyly, as if they had nothing to do with the $200 million figure that somewhat arbitrarily became the highest estimate ever given to a work of art at auction.

Th at figure was, at best, disingenuous since another picture in the Monroe series, Orange Marilyn, reportedly sold for €250 million in a private sale back in 2018, with the American hedge-funder and investor, Kenneth Griffin, the rumoured buyer.

So $200 million would not have been a record for a Warhol but rather for a Warhol at auction — his previous highpoint was the $105.4 million paid in 2013 for Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963. What Christie’s was really trying to do with the $200 million figure was topple Picasso, the auction record holder for a twentieth-century work with the $179.4 million shelled out for Les Femmes d’Alger(“Version O”) in 1985. They simply rounded the figure up.

Christie’s went further, however, than conjuring up an astronomical figure. In the lead-up to the sale, they projected the painting on to the facade of the Rockefeller Center in New York, the home of their headquarters, and screened archival film clips of Warhol at work onto the building’s sides.

The auction house also collaborated with various local businesses to hype the sale; so if your pockets weren’t deep enough for the picture itself you could at least join in the fun and buy a special Warhol-themed sweatshirt while listening to a 1960s playlist agreed with a record label and sipping a Warhol cocktail at a nearby bar, before enjoying a Warhol window display at a chocolatier’s round the corner.

Eye-catching, non-traditional marketing had eased the success of a recent Jean-Michel Basquiat sale and helped make the 2018 auction of the Rockefeller Collection the most lucrative single-owner auction ever, to the tune of $646 million. Christie’s knows that every gewgaw helps.

If your pockets weren’t deep enough for the picture itself you could at least join in the fun and buy a special Warhol-themed sweatshirt

Behind all the talking up of the painting, there is a colourful backstory. It is one of a group of five screenprints, each with a different colour background, taken from a cropped promotional movie still for Niagara. They were in Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory, in 1964 when a performance artist called Dorothy Podber asked if she could shoot them. Assuming she meant photograph them he agreed.

She then drew a revolver out of her handbag and fired a shot through the stack of pictures. One of the five, the turquoise variant, was hanging nearby; the others now each had a bullet hole. Warhol asked Podber never to return to the studio.

It’s a story that adds piquancy to the painting, but unlike the Mona Lisa, Venus etc, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is both one of a series and, for those who put a premium on closeness to the artist’s hand, an image made in part by a reproductive method.

Marilyn Monroe was also one of Warhol’s most reproduced subjects: “I just see Monroe as just another person,” he said. “As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colours: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful, and if something’s beautiful, it’s pretty colours, that’s all.”

He started producing versions of her image in 1962 using the same Niagara still, and some later editions numbered as many as 250. So not only are Warhol Marilyns far from uncommon, but the three other “Shot Marilyns” and the fifth that dodged the bullet are all in private collections and so could reappear on the market at any time.

Such caveats did not, in the event, affect the buyer and Christie’s marketing team proved uncannily accurate. The painting sold on 9 May for a hammer price of $170 million which, with fees, translated to $195 million. So Picasso was duly toppled and the picture became the most expensive American artwork ever sold at auction.

Warhol said of his screen prints that: “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.” For $195 million, one can only hope the buyer feels replete.

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