The woman who shot Warhol’s Marilyns

By Jeremy Miles

When, one day in the autumn of 1964, New York oddball, trickster and sometime photographer Dorothy Podber turned up at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio in midtown Manhattan, no one seemed very surprised.

After all 32-year-old Podber, a friend of Warhol’s house photographer Billy Name, seemed to fit right in with the Factory crowd. 

She was certainly weird enough. She hung out with the ‘mole people’, the homeless activists who lived in the disused subway tunnels and sewers beneath the city. Of course, that didn’t faze Andy Warhol. Crazy creatives were good for business. The more the merrier.

What happened next however changed the course of art history and is still having repercussions nearly 60 years later. Podber, dressed to the nines and accompanied by her dog, Carmen Miranda, spotted a stack of recently completed Marilyn Monroe paintings of varying colours leaning against the studio wall.

 Indicating her camera, she politely asked Warhol if she could shoot them. He agreed and, carefully putting on a pair of gloves, she reached into her bag, pulled out a small revolver and fired straight into the stack hitting Marilyn bang between the eyes.

A horrified Warhol watched as she walked out of studio and inspected the damage. He quickly let it be known that Podber woud not be welcome at The Factory again. Four of his five Marilyns had been in that pile. One red, one orange and two blue. They would become known as The Shot Marilyns and, with their bizarre provenance, gradually spiralled in price.

So it was that earlier this month Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was auctioned by Christie’s in New York and sold for $195 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist. The purchaser was international art dealer Larry Gagosian, thought to have been buying on behalf of an as yet unnamed purchaser.

At the time of Podber’s impromptu attack, which she later claimed was a Happening, a work of performance art, Warhol’s star was beginning to the rise – his Campbells Soup cans had already brought him major publicity – but his Marilyn Monroe paintings had yet to acquire their iconic status. He had decided to produce them after the shock of Monroe’s apparent suicide in 1962 provided him with a one-stop cocktail of his favourite subjects – scandal, death and glamour. He based the image on a publicity shot of the actress used for the  1953 film Niagara. 

Had he sold them at the time they would have fetched no more than a few hundred dollars. He may even have given them away. Three years later, in 1967, prices were rising and the soon to become famous and very rich art collector Peter Brandt paid $5,000 dollars for the other Shot Blue Marilyn. He was just 20-years-old at the time and it was the start of a multi-million dollar collection of art.

Warhol’s reputation was on the up and prices were rising at astonishing speed. Although he was undoubtedly a shrewd operator, quite how much Andy Warhol managed to manipulate his own artistic destiny is unclear. There has been inevitable speculation that he knew that Podber was going to shoot the paintings and perhaps even paid her to do so. I think not. No one could have predicted the eventual outcome and if Warhol had merely wanted to generate publicity, a bullet through just one painting would have done the trick. 

I think the biggest mistake people make when hearing that a painting has sold for nearly $200 million is to imagine that it really must be of unsurpassed quality. ‘A Mona Lisa for the 21st Century’ screamed one headline. 

Sadly at this level, art sales have more to do with the prestige of a small circle of obscenely wealthy dealers and collectors who almost certainly care more about the saleability of work than its actual quality.

At times of stock market volatility, the top-end of the art world provides a lucrative refuge for a certain type of investor by keeping the prices ludicrously high. It’s got little to do with art though.

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