Consisting of twenty garish and differently-colored monochrome portraits, Warhol's Miriam Davidson is one of the first and finest of an early series of commissioned portraits the artist made in the 1960s. A large and unique work, it is both a multiple portrait of its sitter and a Pop monument to portraiture itself.
Throughout his childhood Warhol was fascinated by Hollywood; by its stars, its prominence in people's lives and by all the shining glitz and glitter that this mythic cathedral of dreams seemed to represent, particularly during its golden era in the 1930s. From an early age up until his late teens, Warhol kept annotated scrapbooks of many Hollywood stars and collected their signed portraits in albums that seemed to encapsulate and make fetishistic icons of both his screen idols and the seemingly unattainable nature of his own dreams. By early 1965, when this painting was made, Warhol had, through his art, turned the conventions of such stardom inside out, and, in the process perhaps, seemingly attained his own ambitions towards celebrity. By conferring star status on everyday objects of mass-consumerism such as the Campbell's Soup Can, the Coca-Cola bottle and the dollar bill, Warhol had become both a media star and a leading avant-garde figure in his own right. He had also taken an important step in demonstrating the universal power and appeal of celebrity in a capitalist economy and exposed its essentially fickle and shallow nature. Similarly, in appropriating the image of such societal idols as Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley or Marlon Brando and in transforming these stars into brand-like icons of celebrity, and in endlessly repeating them as if they too were commodities, he had exposed the fascinating artifice of fame. As John Cage observed, "Andy has fought by repetition to show us that there is no repetition really, that everything we look at is worthy of our attention" (J. Cage cited in C. Tomkins, "Raggedy Andy," Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1970, p. 13).
This 1965 portrait of Miriam Davidson is a dramatic extension of this direction in Warhol's work-- one that would culminate in the now famous prophesy the artist made in 1968 that "in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." The commissioned portrait, for so long the mainstay of an artist's productivity, had almost entirely disappeared from the work of the Post-War avant-garde, yet, for Warhol, at this time, it represented a logical extension of the universal and provocative aesthetic of his art. Everyone and everything could be a Warhol "star" or "superstar" as he was soon to call them, and Warhol was as eager to make this point as he was to accept patronage for his work.
Ever keen to explore the apparent boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, in a kind of reversal of his carefully-chosen celebrity portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, Warhol experimented with the self-reflexive and essentially Duchampian concept of the assisted ready-made photograph as produced by the mechanical photobooth. A cool and impersonal slot-machine mechanically churning out images, the photo-booth offered itself to Warhol as a perfect foil for his celebrity images and as a kind of robotic alter-ego of the way the artist was beginning to see himself. In his first commissioned portrait, the Portrait of Ethel Scull 36 Times now in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Warhol took his sitter, the wife of Pop art collector Robert Scull, to a photobooth in 42nd St. where, using the large amount of small change that he had garnered for the occasion, Scull made a sequence of auto-portraits of herself. From the resulting photostrips Warhol assembled the now famous multi-paneled portrait of Ethel Scull and inaugurated a new tradition of Pop portraiture.
His portrait of Miriam Davidson follows a similar format in that it too is an assemblage of separate multi-colored single images arranged in a sequence and is based on a photobooth portrait of its sitter. Like his sequence of Jackies, Flowers and the box sculptures that followed the portrait of Ethel Scull, Miriam Davidson too follows the newly emerged pattern in Warhol's work of being a composite sequence of separate individual elements that can, theoretically, be assembled in a variety of different ways.
The painting was commissioned from Warhol in March 1965 following Warhol's exhibition at the Jerrold Morris International Gallery in Toronto by Roger and Miriam Davidson-- two prominent collectors of American art living in the city. To some extent the execution of the work followed the procedure Warhol had established with the 1963 Portrait of Ethel Scull 36 Times but with distinct and important differences. The source images were made in a photobooth by Miriam Davidson, but wholly without Warhol's participation. Acting on Warhol's instructions Davidson had images made of herself in a photobooth in Toronto and then sent these to Warhol in New York. Warhol chose two of these images from which to work and ultimately selected only a single three-quarter view to be repeated twenty times. This image was screened over twenty prepared canvases spray-painted in a range of flamboyant colors. The resulting image is one of the clearest examples of sequential repetitive imagery in Warhol's work since his 1963 painting of the Mona Lisa, Thirty are Better than One. It is not the mechanical nature of reproduction so effectively demonstrated in this work that Warhol emphasizes in his portrait of Miriam Davidson, but the unique ability of the pictorial language of Pop to confer star status upon his attractive but otherwise unknown sitter.
Reflecting the synthetic décor of Warhol's recent Flower paintings, the alternating sequence of colorful images in Miriam Davidson, arranged into a random but composite unity, asserts itself like a pictorial manifesto of Pop style. Indeed, it was as just such an icon of the new Pop aesthetic then sweeping America that this painting appeared on the cover of Canadian Art magazine in January 1966. This issue was a follow-up to a previous issue on Pop art which, with a Silver Liz adorning its cover, had had a major impact on the Canadian art scene in 1965. The portrait of Miriam Davidson's elevating of an apparently ordinary and even mundane image to the level of the exceptional reverses the tendencies that Warhol had explored in his paintings of Liz Taylor but uses the same icon-making techniques to do so. The epitome of Warhol's signature style-- a style that has since become almost a clichi of 1960s chic appearing on post-cards and T-shirts-- Miriam Davidson is a quintessential 1960s work expressing the essence of Warhol's unique take on Pop.
"I can't tell you what Pop Art is, it's too involved. It's just taking the outside and putting it on the inside or taking the inside and putting it on the outside, bringing the ordinary objects into the home. Pop Art is for everyone. I don't think art should be only for the select few, I think it should be for the mass of American people and they usually accept art anyway. I think Pop Art is a legitimate form of art like any other" (A. Warhol cited in G. Berg, "Andy: My True Story," Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
Interview with Miriam Davidson
SR: Can you tell us about the origin of this portrait?
MD: At the point a wedding gift was being discussed between Roger Davidson and myself I had thought that I would give him a professional photograph of myself but I had no idea that he was at that time thinking about a portrait by Warhol and so it was really an enormous surprise and shock and maybe a little intimidating
SR: You and Roger were very young at the time of the commission but went on to become prominent collectors of contemporary art in Toronto [in fact, another work in our sale, Four Foot Flowers, 1967 was once in his collection]was this one of your earliest acquisitions?
MD: Well at the time we were engaged and about to be married we were only about twenty-two years old and so for me it was absolutely the first. But Roger had started [to collect] at an earlier stage. He had a profound interest in art since his early teens and in our last year at University, he borrowed works of art from parents and friends and put on a contemporary art show that was for me, it was a tremendous eye-opener.
SR: I heard that Roger had asked his parents for Claes Oldenberg's Soft Bathtub as a graduation present. Was Pop art a particular fascination?
MD: Yes, and in addition to the Oldenberg he had also purchased some Rosenquists at this early stage. Roger was a student of art and Pop was what was happening at the time. He could afford to collect these works.
SR: When did you first become acquainted with Warhol? He also had a show at the Jerrold Morris International Gallery in 1965 and it was shortly afterwards that your portrait was commissioned. Was this show the catalyst to your decision?
MD: Yes, it was indeed a catalyst. I met Warhol at the show and the various people of his entouragethe decision to make the portrait was made shortly afterwards.
SR: Was there a particular work in this show that made an impact?
MD: Oh well, the whole show made an impact. For me it was like seeing major Picasso show for the first time - it was totally out of my experience. I had never imagines that the Electric Chair would be a work of art let alone the Brillo Pads or the Soup Cans and [to see those works] in combination with the Silver Liz and the Marilyns in the show were absolutely beyond my realm of experience.
SR: Warhol did something quite revolutionary in Miriam Davidson He completely changed the traditional relationship between the artist and sitter. I mean, compared to his Ethel Scull portrait, which involved a great deal of direction, he distanced himself from you by requesting that you send him a photograph that he had no involvement in making. He was also very specific about the kind of photograph he wanted, which is important considering both the Duchampian and egalitarian element he was introducing to the once elitist realm of commissioned portraiture. Can you describe the process?
MD: Well, I originally sent him a portrait done by a professional photographer but this is not what he wanted at allhe sent it back and gave me the instructions for the photo-booth picture that he wanted. I felt rather shy and rather somber about it but got on with it anywayI went to the train station after work, took a number of strips of film at the photo-booth there and sent them off to him. I was not sure about what would come of it at all.
SR: Considering its source in the photo-booth, the result is quite iconic. How did you feel about it?
MD: It was so overwhelming...the field of colors was absolutely exquisite and the play of dark black ink on it was high drama for me larger than life[the portrait] was both me and not me at the same time