In November of 1962, Andy Warhol exhibited his candy-colored paintings of Marilyn Monroe at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in New York, to great critical and commercial success that skyrocketed him to fame as a Pop Art superstar. Five years later, as the Factory was in full swing and his celebrity status reached around the globe, Warhol again selected Marilyn Monroe as the inaugural image for a new print portfolio that would be published through his own company, “Factory Additions.” The present work is one of only a few trial proofs that are known to have survived from Warhol’s creative process in advance of the Marilyn portfolio, a rare work on paper that provides profound insight into the artist’s working process.
Rather than opting for verisimilitude, Warhol’s Marilyn is vividly-colored, in wild combinations that evoke the psychedelia of the era, revealing the confidence of a mature artist at the height of his powers. Rendered in a heady Pop palette of lavender, green, yellow and blue, Marilyn celebrates its subject's glamorous life, but hints at the ephemeral nature of fame and fortune, a subject that would haunt the artist for the duration of his career.
Set against a soft lavender background, Warhol renders the starlet’s flesh in crisp, cool blue, its iciness held in stark contrast to the warm tones of her coifed blonde hair. A screen of grassy green describes Marilyn’s sultry facial features, and the effect of her green lips, eyes and eyebrows is at once naturalistic and otherworldly. Warhol seems to convey her star power and the effect of her celebrity persona in supernatural terms, elevating her status from star of the silver screen to modern-day icon. Warhol’s close friend and confidant, David Bourdon, described: "Warhol's Marilyn silkscreens are even more vivid and lurid than his earlier portraits of her on canvas. He chose lush, non-naturalistic colors, with the blazing hues in startling combinations. … From the beginning, Warhol's Marilyns were considered the most desirable of all his prints. For a few years, it was virtually impossible to make the rounds of savvy art collectors' homes without encountering Marilyns at every turn. Their initial popularity was due in large part, of course, to Monroe's enduring appeal. But the prints' artistic staying power is due to Warhol's audacious originality as a colorist" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, Abrams, 1995, p. 26).
Warhol’s Marilyn is composed of four distinct screens; one that carries the photographic image and three distinct areas of color, each a different pastel-colored hue. Although Warhol often relished the off-register look that imparted a rough or hasty feel to the finished image, in the present lot the application is nearly flawless. In a profound encapsulation of Warhol’s working process, each screen is overlaid with precision and care. In the case that one screen slightly overlaps the other, the choice appears to be deliberate (in the application of Marilyn’s birthmark on her cheek and the outlining of her hair, the two screens are registered slightly off-center). The jumpy interaction of the two convergent screens lends a palpable rawness to the otherwise perfect image. Indeed, Warhol relished a rough look and embraced the “imperfections” as part of his signature process.
For Warhol, Marilyn Monroe exuded the sultry glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a powerhouse of the silver screen whose personal life was nevertheless plagued with tragedy. Though she was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, she was never considered seriously as an actress, and struggled with addiction throughout her short life. Her three high-profile marriages—to James Dougherty, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller—all ended in divorce. Her apparent suicide in Los Angeles in early August 1962 galvanized the nation. Newspaper accounts of the tragedy appeared on the east coast on the morning of August 6, 1962, which happened to be the day of Warhol's thirty-fourth birthday. He doubtless saw the extensive coverage in the New York Mirror, where the headline announced: "Marilyn Monroe Kills Self -- Found Nude in Bed … Hand on Phone … Took 40 Pills.”
Warhol loved the mix of glamour and tragedy that Monroe personified, and upon learning of her death, he immediately set to work on her portrait. As in these early paintings and in the present work, the lively coloration of Warhol’s portrait hints at the artifice behind the star’s made-up, silver-screen persona that masked her true identity and the humble origins from which she rose to great fame. An expert colorist, Warhol combines lavender, yellow, blue and green, in an unlikely grouping that ironically lends a striking sense of realism to the piece, hinting at a truer understanding of Monroe’s complicated personality than a realistically-rendered portrait could. The catalogue raisonné of Warhol’s prints describes this phenomenon: “However Warhol intended his portraits to be seen—as vanitas images, history painting, or simply glamour poses—he did more than any other artist to revitalize the practice of portraiture, bringing renewed attention to it in the avant-garde world. He reflected the desires and dreams of a new decade" (C. Defendi, F. Feldman and J. Schellmann, Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1987, New York, 2003, p. 23).
Typical to his working fashion, Warhol often specifically created works to coincide with gallery or museum exhibitions. In this case, he did so in preparation for an upcoming survey of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The exhibition was conceived as an alternative to the traditional retrospective, and its opening in February of 1968 was quite spectacular. It included Warhol’s cow wallpaper, five hundred Brillo boxes and several large-scale transparent polyethylene "clouds." Twenty of the Marilyn prints were included, lining a back wall of the museum in full-blown Technicolor.
For this 1967 portrait, Warhol used the same 1953 photograph as he had used in earlier examples, showing Monroe as she posed for the camera to promote the film Niagara in 1962. Zooming in on the starlet’s face, Warhol presents a tighter, more closely-cropped portrait, which he’s adjusted and refined in the years following its earlier counterpart. He selected a bright canary-yellow for her signature coif, which displays a more detailed and nuanced outline as it stands out against the lavender background than in earlier versions. Near her left ear, a stray curl of blond hair loops delicately away from her face -- an honest detail that Warhol lifted from the 1953 publicity photograph but did not include in his earlier 1962 paintings. Warhol would retain this palette and composition for use in the Marilyn portfolio, with only one or two slight adjustments.
Placed against an ethereal background of soft lavender, Warhol’s Marilyn retains the allure of its original creation. Haunting and mysterious, its brilliant Pop palette evokes the shimmering ephemerality of a Byzantine icon and the bygone era of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Receding into the sublime lavender background, Warhol’s Marilyn lingers just beyond our reach, embodying the projection of an impossible dream.