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  • Making Money/Printing Painting:Warhol’s Dollar Bill Paintings
  • Neil Printz (bio)

The spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities. Money dominated society as the representation of general equivalence, namely of the exchangeability of different goods whose uses could not be compared. The spectacle is the developed modern complement of money where the totality of the commodity world appears as a whole, as a general equivalence for what the society can be and can do. The spectacle is the money which one only looks at, because in the spectacle the totality of use is already exchanged for the totality of abstract representation. The spectacle is not only the servant of pseudo-use, it is already in itself the pseudo-use of life.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1983)1

By his own account, Andy Warhol’s Dollar Bill paintings, which date from the early spring of 1962, were his first silk-screened works (figure 1).2 As he put it to Glenn O’Brien, who interviewed him in 1977, “I started [silk screening] when I was printing money.”3 Clearly, the logic of coupling printing with money was irresistible to Warhol. Printing, of course, had played an instrumental role in his work since the beginning of his career as an illustrator. His inked and blotted line drawings of the 1950s are, in effect, monoprints, as are the works he produced using gum erasers that he carved by hand, including numerous drawings of the mid-1950s, and the S&H Green Stamp and Airmail Stamp series of early 1962. Silk screening not only extended the practice to another medium, it took printing to another order of reproducibility. And what better way for Warhol to put this function into play than by printing money, with its [End Page 535] connotations of counterfeit and easy money, unearned wealth? It takes the enterprise outside the axes of exchangeability and into the realm of pseudo-use, to borrow Guy Debord’s term, and pseudo-representation, to coin another.

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Figure 1.

Andy Warhol, 192 One Dollar Bills (1962).

Courtesy The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, CT.

In a sense, the Dollar Bill paintings readily reaffirm all of the orthodoxies that cling to discussions of Warhol’s work: its seamless manifestation [End Page 536] of the signage of commercial culture; its internalization of the economies of mass production, distribution, and consumption; its passive reflection of the spectacle. If as Debord claimed, “The spectacle is the money which one only looks at,” it surely behooves us to consider more closely how Warhol looked at money. I mean this quite literally in both senses of the term: how Warhol felt about money, and how he chose to represent it. Let us begin with the former.

In the rhetorical figures that surround his work, Warhol himself seemed to propagate and authenticate the very myths that so narrowly defined him. Two not so very different narratives that we might think of as “myths of origin” have been in circulation concerning Warhol’s paintings of dollar bills. Their imbrication suggests that both were idealizations, underwriting their status as myth. The first account appears in 1970 in Calvin Tomkins’s essay “Raggedy Andy,” one of the seminal sources of Warholian myth. Let me cite it in full:

Andy was desperate for ideas. “What’ll I do next?” he kept asking his new art world friends. Ivan Karp and Henry Geldzahler, a young curator at the Metropolitan, who was taking an especially active interest in new artists, had urged Andy to develop images that were not being used by anyone else, but he couldn’t think of any. One evening early in 1962, in the apartment over Florence’s Pinup, Muriel Latow told Andy that she had an idea but it would cost him money to hear it. Muriel ran an art gallery that was going broke. “How much?” Andy asked her. Muriel said fifty dollars. Andy went straight to the desk and wrote out a check.

“All right,” Muriel said. “Now tell me, Andy, what do you love more than anything else?”

“I don’t know,” Andy said...


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