In 2023 Barbie enjoyed her biggest year since her creation in 1959, when Greta Gerwig’s hit movie found new resonance in the classic children’s toy.
In 1986 Barbie was the subject of work by another artist, Andy Warhol. It might seem that the doll was a natural subject for an artist who had famously painted Marilyn Monroe and also had interest in consumer culture and mass production. But Warhol actually came to Barbie in a strange and roundabout way.
As recounted in this BBC story, Warhol was at first interested in painting Billy Boy, a figure in the world of art and fashion. Billy Boy, however, did not want to be painted. But Billy Boy was a big Barbie fan. He had a collection of more than 11,000 Barbie dolls (with 3,000-plus Ken dolls as well) and authored a book titled Barbie: Her LIfe and Times.
After turning down Warhol’s repeated requests, he reportedly told the artist, as a blow-off, that he should paint a Barbie doll instead:
“Out of annoyance I said to him, ‘Well if you really want to do my portrait, do a portrait of Barbie because Barbie, c’est moi.
“He took it literally. He took a Barbie that I had given him and turned it into a portrait and called it ‘Portrait of Billy Boy’.”
The painting would end up being Warhol’s last, as he died on Feb. 22, 1987. There actually ended up being two versions of his Barbie portrait: The original version sold at auction for $1.1 million in 2014. A second version was created for and purchased by Mattel, the company that gave us Barbie. The bonds between the worlds deepened when Mattel introduced a limited edition doll of Barbie done up as Andy Warhol.