Why are Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe paintings still a legend?

She may have been the ultimate Angelina, 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 gowns to the annual Met Gala, the city’s art auction season kicked off in full force, as Christie’s put on Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Blue Sage Shot on the auction block.

Kim’s version of Marilyn may have broken the internet, but Andy’s version is sure to break records. Estimates of the price of the painting, possibly the star of a set of five produced by Warhol in 1967 (and later shot from a pistol by performance artist Dorothy Podber), are around $200 million. It is 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 when the hammer falls.

The star of the collection left behind by the late Swiss art dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann, 20 per cent 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 has gone to great lengths to promote the sale, including a Friday night dinner at Indochine, a downtown restaurant and a favorite of Warhol’s in the 1980s. The event brought together an impressive mix of luminaries from around the world. art critics, Warhol confidants and Christie’s executives, so asking the crowd how Warhol has stayed so relevant in 2022 would be like asking a physics symposium what 2+2 equals. But why has Warhol’s Monroe painting 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 tribute to Monroe, she only had one word for an answer: “Horrible.”)

“Every time one goes up for auction, it really resets the entire contemporary art market,” says Bonnie Brennan, president of Christie’s America, of the shot marilyn Serie. Warhol used a complicated and practical screen printing technique that he soon abandoned for the series, which adds to its value, though Brennan also acknowledges that 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 herself. It is the perfect marriage 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 culture and in a popular culture, the same thing. She reminds us… well Warhol reminds us by painting it, ‘I’m going to show you now what’s really going on in people’s minds and what matters to them: fame, beauty, death and disaster,’” adds Alex Marshall, vice president of Christie’s. “We are surrounded by her every day. That’s all we pay attention to on a daily basis. The newspapers are full of her, the movies of her are full of her, and Warhol captured her by representing the most beautiful woman, in the eyes of the beholder, and the greatest tragedy.”

In essence, the American 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 news broke that the Supreme Court intended to overturn Roe v. Wade, grim as he is, proved her point.

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