Andy Warhol’s 1964 Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is expected to sell for $200 million when offered at Christie’s New York. If so, it will become the most expensive artwork of the 20th century to sell at auction.
The silkscreen painting depicts the actress Marilyn Monroe’s face on a blue background. She wears a light blue eyeshadow and has intensely blonde hair; a feature emphasised by its uncomfortable contrast with the pink of her face and the surrounding blue. Her lips are pursed like a love heart, revealing a few of her front teeth, which are so white as to belong in a toothpaste advert.
Each detail of her face is emphasised or exaggerated, reflecting the difference between Marilyn the Person and Marilyn the Celebrity. We see her not as she actually is, but as what she is to us: the famous beauty, the blonde hair, the eyes, the lips. It’s an icon of the modern age—not too dissimilar to the ones Warhol grew up amongst in his Orthodox community in Pittsburgh.
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn belongs to a series of paintings which Andy Warhol started producing in the months following Marilyn’s death in August 1962. In the series, Warhol reproduced a photograph of Marilyn from the promotional photograph from the 1953 film Niagara, taken by Henry Hathaway, in bright colours.
But the Shot Sage Blue Marilyn differs from the bulk of this series, since it’s the product of Warhol’s later experiments with a more refined, labour-intensive screen printing technique which made difficult the kind of mass production used for the earlier Marilyns.
Alex Rotter, Christie’s Chairman of 20th and 21st Century Art, goes so far as to compare this Marilyn to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, calling it ‘categorically one of the greatest paintings of all time.’
Other than the sweepingly vague, sensational promoting of Christie’s, the best insight into the painting’s unique power is George Frei, Chairman of the Board of the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation, the painting’s current owner, who writes that ‘The spectacular portrait isolates the person and the star: Marilyn the woman is gone, the terrible circumstances of her life and death are forgotten. All that remains is the enigmatic smile of a distinguished lady, the Mona Lisa.’
The Mona Lisa comparison persists. That seems right to me. Both feature an intoxicating smile, and are the possessors of a uniquely inflated position in the History of Art. That’s not to criticise them, but to say they’re the products of excellent promotion and commercialisation. They’re not so much works of art as wider cultural symbols which transcend their initial discipline.