Executed at the peak of Warhol's fame, Four Marilyns belongs to the artist's retrospective Reversal Series, designated as such due to the artist's reversal of his earlier silk-screen images employed to create negative impressions of familiar subjects. Within the Reversal Series, produced between 1979 and 1986, the revisited motif of Marilyn presents us with the most haunting imagery and the most lasting resonance. David Bourdon explains, "Warhol's Reversals recapitulate his portraits of famous faces but with the tonal values reversed. As if the spectator was looking at photographic negatives, highlighted faces have gone dark while former shadows now rush forward. The reversed Marilyns, especially, have a lurid otherworldly glow, as if illuminated by internal footlights" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 378).
The famous image of the Hollywood star, whose glamour, celebrity and suicide had captivated Warhol in the early 60s, quickly became a powerful icon of the Pop movement and an instantly recognizable logo of Warhol's art. With the Reversal Series, initiated almost two decades later, Warhol explores the potential of his earlier Pop iconography that art history had already canonized. By revisiting these subjects Warhol is not only scrutinizing issues of authorship, authenticity and artistic value but also the legitimacy of his own artistic code. The result is a striking combination of old and new. By recycling his signature motif of Marilyn and re-contextualizing an appropriation of an appropriation, he demonstrates that his image of Marilyn had now become more famous than Marilyn herself. Furthermore, by silk-screening the negative image of the original photograph and illuminating its shadows, the resulting image seemingly presents the alter-ego of his celebrated muse. From the beginning of his career, Warhol was obsessed with the imperfections of his own appearance and questioned the nature of art and beauty. Within the image of Marilyn, Warhol found a memento mori that could unite the obsessions driving his career: glamour, beauty and death. With this later artistic exploit, Warhol not only brought his career full circle but also demonstrated the richness and versatility of his aesthetic at a time when many thought artistic relevance to be finished.
The image of Marilyn is widely considered the most successful negative form from the Reversal Series because it epitomizes the haunting and nostalgic representation of the film icon and the magical but shallow artifice of Hollywood. In this stunning black on black version, the haunting specter of the screen goddess takes on a sculptural quality, the reversal process bestowing on Marilyn the monumental and almost timeless quality of a classical sculpture. Repeated four times against the black background as if in a filmstrip, Four Marilyns is a stylish monument to Monroe, Hollywood and the illusion of the Silver Screen deliberately intertwined with the mystique of Warhol's own legend.