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'Shot Sage Blue Marilyn' rakes in the green

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Andy Warhol's paintings of Marilyn Monroe were some of his most iconic work. Now, one of them, known as Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, has set the record for the most expensive work by an American artist sold at auction. Yesterday it sold for $195 million at Christie's in New York. To talk about this stunning sale is art critic Blake Gopnik, who wrote about it for the New York Times this morning. Blake, thanks for joining us.

BLAKE GOPNIK: Nice to talk to you, Adrian.

FLORIDO: I think a lot of people would recognize this 1964 silkscreen painting if they saw it, but describe it for us, would you?

GOPNIK: It's a gorgeous silkscreen painting of Marilyn Monroe glowing with beautiful colors. I think, as you say, most people would recognize it because it's just about Warhol's most famous painting. It was reproduced on posters all over the place in the 1970s, so people really became familiar with it.

FLORIDO: And what made this painting so influential?

GOPNIK: You know, it's kind of a distillation of everything that Warhol is about. A lot of people talk about the importance of Marilyn as a subject, and I guess she's important. But I think it's the Warholishness (ph) of it that really makes it grab people - weirdly because it lacks originality. It's Warhol appropriating an image - a really trivial old 1952 image of Marilyn from Hollywood - and then giving it a kind of new fine art life. It really stands for everything that Warhol ever did.

FLORIDO: Well, as I said, this one that sold last night, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, sold for $195 million, and it reached that price in less than four minutes of bidding. Why did it go for so much money?

GOPNIK: Well, I guess you could say why didn't it go for more? There were a lot of people who thought it might go for 400 or even half a billion dollars because there was a Leonardo da Vinci - the Salvator Mundi - that went for - what was it? - $450 million just a few years ago. And a lot of people thought someone's going to want to own the most valuable picture in the world, and if it's only the second-most valuable picture, it's less interesting. So there was actually a kind of disappointment in the art world that it only went for $195 million because it's a truly great and important Warhol. The Leonardo wasn't that, and it still went for half a billion dollars almost.

FLORIDO: So this painting brought in less money than it was expected to bring in. But I was looking at some of the other paintings that Christie's sold during this auction yesterday, and some sold for 10, 20 times what they were expected to bring in. What are these eye-popping prices saying about the art market right now?

GOPNIK: You know, the art market has been insane. And the truth is, the price tags attached to works of art really have almost nothing to do with their cultural value or their art historical value. They've really become completely untethered. You know, if an NFT of a digital illustration can go for $69 million, it really tells you that the correlation in price and quality really is pretty much nonexistent these days.

FLORIDO: Blake, you are the author of an extensive biography of Andy Warhol. And I'm wondering, while he was alive, what did the artist himself think about these Marilyn Monroe paintings, and would he have expected them to become this popular?

GOPNIK: Well, the funny thing about Andy Warhol is he very rarely talked about his own work. And when he did, he pretended to be a kind of simpleminded naif, which was absolutely far from the truth. His goal in life was to be the most exciting, important avant-garde artist that existed, and I think he thought he was just that. So I think he'd think that this price and all the attention the Marilyn is getting would be completely appropriate - and I happen to agree with him, of course.

FLORIDO: Blake Gopnik is an art critic, a biographer of Andy Warhol and a contributor to the New York Times. Thanks for swinging by to talk with us about it.

GOPNIK: A real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.