Andy Warhol's Liz is a dazzling tribute to one of the major silver-screen goddesses in the artist's Pop pantheon. Painted at the height of Elizabeth Taylor's fame, Liz is a unique painting from a group of thirteen colorful portraits of the actress that Warhol executed in the fall of 1963. In this jewel-toned portrait, Warhol immortalizes the actress as an embodiment of the cult of celebrity. Closely related to the candy-colored Marilyn paintings that he executed in the previous year, Liz shows Warhol's genius for color in full force. The turquoise background offsets Taylor's luminous skin, as well as her trademark scarlet lips and violet eyes, magnifying the most characteristic features of her celebrated beauty. Although Warhol employed the mass-media technique of screenprinting, he brought a high level of personal involvement to the Liz series, carefully embellishing her skin, eyes and make-up with hand-applied paint.
During the early to mid-1960s, Liz was a frequent subject of media attention for her flourishing career, fragile health and complicated romances. Warhol depicted her in numerous roles, both personal and professional. She first appeared in one of his tabloid paintings, Daily News, a painting documenting her catastrophic illness of
1961, which had interrupted the filming of Cleopatra. She
resurfaced in allusion only, in The Men in Her Life, a work based on a 1957 photograph, which included both her current husband,
Mike Todd, and her future one, Eddie Fisher. Most often, however,
Warhol was obsessed with Liz as Hollywood starlet: he multiplied images of her characters in National Velvet and Cleopatra, or more
simply portrayed her celebrated beauty in numerous full-face portraits, as in the present work. Decades after his obsessive repetition of her
image, he eventually befriended Taylor. While in Rome in 1973, Warhol made a cameo appearance in The Driver's Seat, a film in which Taylor was starring.
As a canonization of the actress and as a comment on the manufactured nature of fame, Warhol achieved his desired aesthetic effect in the iconic Liz by employing silkscreen. As a process that he had begun on an experimental basis in 1962, Warhol recognized both the instant electricity and underlying artificiality it generated; indeed, the inky superimpositions of photo-derived screens on the bright hand-painted hues epitomized Pop in their brand-like distinctness and recognizability. Using the Duchampian methodology that he brought to his previous celebrity portraits such as the Marilyns, he created Liz using a publicity image of the actress, later cropping the bust-length image just below the chin, and sizing the screen to an enlargement of this detail.
Basing his process in the "readymade" and in the mechanical nature of the silkscreen, Warhol nonetheless brought a personal involvement to his portraits from the mid-sixties compared to some of his later more removed adaptations. With works like Liz, he started with a preliminary application of the screen on black canvas. Then, he brushed on background colors and each area of local color, such as the skin tone, eye shadow and lips, by hand in a rough appliqué of patterns. Finally, he added the black frame of the face to the colored map of the under painting. The effect, which is visible in the present work, was one of forced flatness, at once seductively alluring and shallowly artificial -- keenly in keeping with the glamorous faade of Hollywood. In the present portrait, Liz's luminous soft-pink skin, green-shadowed eyes, and arresting scarlet lips are of unrivaled beauty.
However, there is also that forced flatness: no significant depth and literally "all surface." In fact, Liz points to one of Warhol's most cryptic and telling comments that related to the superficiality of his own image, but extends to that of the portraits he did of others: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it" (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, "Nothing to Lose: Interview with Andy Warhol," Cahiers du Cinema, May 1967, p. 40).
However, despite its obviously crafted nature, Liz bears a poignant touch of humanity. Despite Warhol's celebrated comment "I think everybody should be a machine," his silkscreening process eschews the potential for machine-like perfection and instead installs irregularities, apparent in both premeditated misalignments and streaked surfaces (A. Warhol, quoted in G.R. Swenson, "What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters, Part I," Art News62, no. 7, November 1963, p. 26). Some intended effects, especially the thin, striated areas of paint on the right of this portrait, insinuate a physical dissolution that evokes a fleeting presence, indicating perhaps the transience of fame: "The silkscreened image, reproduced whole, has the character of an involuntary imprint. It is a memorial in the sense that it resembles memory -- sometimes vividly present, sometimes elusive, always open to embellishment as well as loss" (T. Crow, "Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol," After the Party: Andy Warhol Works 1956-1986, exh. cat., Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1997, p. 22). Warhol's insistent link between fame and nostalgia, in fact, is the very basis of these works, which are often generated from old photographs: the one used to create present work, for example, is a publicity photograph from 1950, which predates the painting by some thirteen years.
Inspired at a time when Elizabeth Taylor suffered bouts of debilitating sickness, Liz is an extraordinary instance of Warhol's celebrity portraits that both captures and transcends the vagaries of life. Seen here, more than forty years after its creation, Liz stands as an enduring icon of American culture and a symbol of feminine beauty. Created shortly before Warhol's serialized reproductions of the Mona Lisa, Liz can be thought of as a latter day version of enigmatic feminine appeal.