QUESTION: Are Marilyn and Troy significant to you?
QUESTION: Why? Are they your favourite movie stars?
("Pop Art? Is It Art? A Revealing Interview with Andy Warhol", in Art Voices, December 1962, pp. 3-5 in K. Goldsmith (ed.), I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews: 1962-1987, New York 2004, p. 4).
A strange and very modern-- or even Post-Modern-- reincarnation occurred when Marilyn Monroe died on 5 August 1962. Across on the other side of the continent, an artist had been experimenting with silkscreens of American stars. The death of Marilyn provided Andy Warhol with the perfect pretext to capture, in a range of monochrome and multi-coloured works, her celebrated visage smiling out with a pout rendered slightly rictus by association... In Two Marilyns (Double Marilyn), one of the early images on this theme executed in the months immediately following the star's death, these features have been printed in black on the primed canvas, creating an elegant, even austere Pop stele to the tragic star. It was Two Marilyns and its sister-pictures both ushered in Warhol's own fame while cementing that of the star.
Marilyn had died during Warhol's famous, though not at the time wholly successful, exhibition of Campbell's Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. This was the very dawn of Warhol's success as a Pop artist, and he was gaining exposure day by day, capturing a range of subjects from disasters to commercial products to actors in his silkscreens with the same deadpan distance. But when his Marilyns were shown for the first time at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery, they struck an immediate chord with many people. One was even purchased from the exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art. Warhol himself discussed the evolution of his work and the chance event that led to his stumbling upon what would become one of his most famous, iconic themes:
"In August '62 I started doing silk-screens. The rubber-stamp method I'd been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect. With silk-screening, you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple - quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face-- the first Marilyns" (Warhol, quoted in G. Celant, SuperWarhol, exh. cat., Milan, 2003, p. 62).
Warhol took a publicity shot from the film Niagara, from 1953-- nine years before Marilyn's death-- and cropped it, focussing on the face itself, removing all extraneous details, allowing only the merest hint of one shoulder to peep in by the neck, and resulting in an intense, highly concentrated composition. In Two Marilyns, he has presented the images one above the other, introducing a verticality that lends a degree of elegance to this tribute to the recently-dead star. At the same time, the combination of the deliberately restrained palette and the vertical positioning of the two images appears to mimic the appearance of a strip of celluloid, the medium in which Marilyn had been immortalised and with which Warhol himself would soon come to be profoundly involved.
In paintings such as Two Marilyns, Warhol revealed himself as a very cool artist, both in terms of the search for current material and in terms of its presentation. He had a natural eye for what is right, for what is good, and this is shown in the careful composition of Two Marilyns. At the same time, he deliberately retained a cool and clinical distance from the artistic processes that resulted in his works. The screen-printing process that became his hallmark was a million miles from the gestural styles of painting that had dominated the New York avant-garde for so long. In taking a photographic source and reproducing it, Warhol shunned the world of brushes, of expressionism, of Action Painting. At the same time, the emphatically figurative subject matter appeared as a direct assault to the abstraction that had hitherto been such a force in artistic circles. Rather than occupy himself with the profundities of nature, metaphysics and philosophy, with all the high-falutin' concepts that were of such import to artists such as Rothko, Still and Pollock, Warhol took a photo of an actress, of someone from popular culture, and elevated it, placing it on the plinth that is the gallery space. He had dragged the supposedly Low Art imagery that surrounds the everyday Westerner into the realm of art and granted it a new life and new status. On the one hand, this marked a perverse rebellion, yet on the other, it revealed a new democratic bent in the art world, an endorsement of the everyday that was emphasised by the repetition of the image in Two Marilyns and by the deliberate artifice of its execution. "'Pop... Art'... is... use... of... the... popular... image," as Warhol explained, and in August to September 1962, nothing was more popular than Marilyn, whose face adorned newspapers around the world as their readers reeled from the news of her death (Warhol in 1963, quoted in J. Giorno, "Andy Warhol Interviewed by a Poet", pp. 21-26, in Goldsmith (ed.), loc. cit., 2004, p. 23).
Death, which had fascinated Warhol for some time, fortuitously combined in the Marilyns with his love of celebrities-- he had certainly seen his subject in the flesh and, according to David Bourdon, possibly even met her a couple of times. At the same time, there is more than a hint of the creation of a new religious iconography in his presentation of this very secular saint, whose spiralling decline and tragic death made her appear the victim-- or martyr, even-- of the very media and Pop machinery upon which Warhol's work thrived. In Marilyn, Warhol had found a new Madonna for our information-saturated, celebrity-obsessed age, allowing him to keep a toe in the door of his own Ruthenian Catholic background and its gilt icons and iconography, and another in his fascination with the less spiritual idols of the silver screen.
Marilyn's life, as much as her death, and her constant presence in the spotlight and limelight, made her the perfect subject for Warhol's pictures. Where Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, his earlier subjects, had been used in part for their self-evident star quality, for that little glimpse of magic and beauty that their faces (in part by association) brought to the canvas, Marilyn was already a cult figure with a following that exists to this day and one might ascribe some of this celebrity staying power to the prompt artistic apotheosis that Warhol granted her. For the artist obsessed with fame and with death, Norma Jeane was the perfect muse, a woman who had come from nothing, had enjoyed a meteoric and incredibly public rise to stardom. She had had the magic wand of that most American of dreams waved over her and had been miraculously transformed. From the unstable and unpromising beginnings with her mentally ill mother, a succession of foster parents and orphanages, and thence to Hollywood... This was the ultimate journey to the other end of the rainbow; and yet her well-publicised fall from grace and tragic death revealed the extent to which these artificial paradises of the mind are mere escapes, veneers, under which the same old problems continue to exist. In a world preoccupied with the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of happiness, Marilyn showed the degree to which the former is a more achievable goal than the latter. Perhaps it was in part this that Warhol recognised, as well as the mythic status that her death had bestowed upon her, when he declared that, "I wouldn't have stopped Monroe from killing herself. I think everyone should do whatever they want to do and if that made her happier, than that is what she should have done" (Warhol, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London 1989, p. 151).
Only a few months after Warhol created Two Marilyns, Michael Fried was prompted to write rapturously that, 'Of all the painters working today in the service-- or thrall-- of a popular iconography Andy Warhol is probably the most single-minded and the most spectacular.' Fried was amazed by the combination of topicality and beauty in Warhol's Stable Gallery show in late 1962, and by the boldness of the ultra-contemporary themes that the Pop artist tapped. From the perspective of the day, Warhol had tapped into the Zeitgeist; in some ways, it is fascinating to find that, from our perspectives almost half a century later, those concerns remain largely the same, while Two Marilyns provides us with an insight into the history of actress and artist alike. For Fried, technique was very much subordinate to theme:
"the success of individual paintings depends only partly (though possibly more than Warhol might like) on the quality of the paint-handling. Even more it has to do with the choice of subject matter, with the particular image selected for reproduction-- which lays him open to the danger of an evanescence he can do nothing about. An art like Warhol's is necessarily parasitic upon the myths of its time, and indirectly therefore upon the machinery of fame and publicity that market these myths; and it is not at all unlikely that the myths that move us will be unintelligible (or at best starkly dated) to generations that follow. This is said not to denigrate Warhol's work but to characterise it and the risks it runs-- and, I admit, to register an advance protest against the advent of a generation that will not be as moved by Warhol's beautiful, vulgar, heart-breaking icons of Marilyn Monroe as I am" (M. Fried, "New York Letter", from Art International, December 20, 1962, in S.H. Madoff (ed.), Pop Art: A Critical History, Berkeley & London 1997, p. 267).