Warhol’s Innovations and the Unimportance of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn
It seems that the rhetoric of salesmen must be inflated to match the prices of their products. Thus Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, to be auctioned in May, "among the most iconic paintings in history," and "one of the rarest and most transcendent images in existence." (Curiously, the painting's estimate is available only on request, but is described as "in the region of $200 million.") Alex Rotter of Christie's is quoted as saying that Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is "categorically one of the greatest paintings of all time," worthy of "standing alongside Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and Picasso's Les Demoiselle (sic) d'Avignon."
Since I am not an aesthetician, but instead a social scientist who studies creativity, let me pass over these statements of opinion, and discuss only one issue of fact.
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn has one major flaw. This defect means that it is not only not close to being one of the most important paintings of the 20th century, but that it is not even one of Andy Warhol's most important. The reason for this has to do with the nature of creativity.
Andy Warhol was a conceptual innovator. In 1962, he made three radical innovations that introduced new practices into advanced art: he used mechanical reproduction (stencils, then silk screens), he based paintings directly on photographs, and he often made these with serial imagery. The importance of these innovations is a function of their impact on advanced art, as all three have been widely adopted by important artists during the past 60 years.
Unlike the aesthetic innovations of experimental painters like Cezanne and Pollock, conceptual innovations are new ideas, and as in the sciences they are dated - and valued - by their introduction. Just as Nobel Prizes can hinge on priority, so too the art historical importance of conceptual artists' discoveries. And Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history, in choosing the works they present to students to demonstrate art historical importance. It is also of interest to note that Warhol's genuinely most important paintings, that appear most often in the textbooks - the Tate's Marilyn Diptych and the Whitney’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles - were made in 1962, and demonstrate all three of Warhol's innovations of that year.
We understand that art world talk is cheap. But facts do matter, even in our post-Trumpian society. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is lovely: I would be pleased to hang it in my living room. But one of the most important paintings of the past century? Please.
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