Los Angeles/New York

Andy Warhol

Gagosian Gallery/D'Amelio Terras

About money, Andy Warhol was nobody’s fool. He was, of course, the first artist to explore art explicitly as a business, which is to say, business as an art. He was as quick to encourage others to bring home the bacon (he told Lou Reed to write more songs—“It’s work, the most important thing is work”) as he was to do so himself: portraits were rarely done for free, and one reason Warhol started modeling was to ensure that he would be paid even for his appearance. And yet it is still surprising to see how beautiful Warhol’s late paintings of the dollar sign are. Sinuous, hypnotic, pulsing in hues native to the Las Vegas strip as well as Giverny, many of the paintings on view recently in Los Angeles (all 1981) contain just a single dollar sign, silk-screened and lovingly hand-tinted; a few small paintings hum with three overlapping dollar signs against a lush black; in one dazzler, four rows of five dollar signs dance on a field of rose. Each painting’s signs shake and shimmer against their own outlines, abrading their shadows; the surface of the canvas bounces with the exuberance of a child’s crayon coloring. Along with the paintings were works in graphite, stark black on white, panning in and zooming away from the signs, as though they were the curves of a nude.

In the catalogue essay, Arthur Danto suggests that the meaning of Warhol’s imagery is complicated by the various works he was painting simultaneously. While I think Danto is correct in showing that “the complex of myths, dollar signs, crosses, and weapons might together form a window into his mind at the beginning of the Eighties,” the dollar-sign paintings are also money shots. Punning on the raison d’être of gay porn, the paintings resonate with the beauty transactions of Warhol’s entire career—from the many movies he made in no small part to display the wares of Lil’ Joe Dallesandro, through My Hustler (1965), Interview magazine’s many beefcake “Intermen,” the “Torso” series, and all the commissioned portraits.

Often considered a sexual loser or retard, Warhol accomplished two things rarely commented on: he was able to dramatize his desire better than any other contemporary artist so that a public fascination with him (and his work) became a folie à deux, more often than not creating the presence of a lack when there was usually only the lack of a presence; and he used his own failure, shyness, and passivity—his retardation—as a thematic. Silver Clouds, 1966, on view recently in New York, combines these accomplishments. Breathtakingly installed to complement and interact with Yayoi Kusama’s penile, mushroomlike, dusky silver A Snake, 1974, Warhol’s reflective pillows wander around the room like awkward partygoers, or get stuck in corners like wallflowers, their mirrory surfaces turning anyone looking at them into what only embarrassment allows them truly to be. The pillows’ seam-ruching provides an elegant counterpoint to their trippy stupor. Bloated, buoyant, funny, and forlorn, Silver Clouds wins by embracing the loser in beauty, and by reflecting the inner loser within beauty itself: bumping into the viewer, they seem to yearn to be touched. The clouds suggest that whatever art is, the experience of encountering it is akin not to surety but to dumbfoundedness—but “sweet” in the manner of Jane Campion’s heroine in Sweetie (1989), who was a wreck and a wonder like many of Warhol’s stars, and had “new doors to open.” Warhol is opening them still.

Bruce Hainley