Tapping into the collective consciousness at the precise moment when Marilyn Monroe the star became Marilyn Monroe the myth, White Marilyn emerges as an emblem of 1960s Pop. Directly following the success of his first solo exhibition at Los Angeles' renowned Ferus Gallery in July 1962, White Marilyn belongs to the twelve "single Marilyns" mentioned by Andy Warhol in POPism, all of which measure twenty by sixteen inches. White Marilyn was one of eight Mar ilyns I selected for Warhol's one-man exhibition in New York at Eleanor Ward's legendary Stable Gallery in November 1962, and was once part of her personal collection. In later years Warhol would recall the influential collection on view at The Stable Gallery : "[It] had the large Campbell's Soup Cans, the painting of a hundred Coke bottles, some Do-It-Yourself paint-by-numbers paintings, the Red Elvis, the single Marilyns, and the large gold Marilyn" (A. Warhol, quoted in POPism: The Warhol '60s, by Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, 1980). This embrace of supermarket essentials and larger-than-life stars heralded Warhol's move from a secure career as a commercial illustrator into the emblem of the emerging Pop Art movement. He had staged a startling and prescient panorama of American consumerism, commercial art, mass media, and popular entertainment.
As a golden legend of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe held particular fascination for Andy Warhol. Her suicide on August 5, 1962 struck a personal chord and precipitated a commemorative series that isolated her beautiful and henceforth elusive visage against variously colored backdrops. Newspaper accounts of the tragedy appeared on the East Coast on the morning of August 6, 1962, the day of Warhol's thirty-fourth birthday. He undoubtedly saw the extensive coverage in The New York Times, where the headings of the various columns announced: "Star's Body is Found in Bedroom--Pills Near--Police Say She Left No Notes--Official Verdict Delayed"--suggesting that her "incredibly glamorous career" veiled an array of personal troubles. The press coverage around her death was reminiscent of a remark the actress made in a recent interview, which had just been published in the August 1962 issue of Life magazine: "I was never used to being happy, so that wasn't something I ever took for granted." Created in the month after Monroe's death, White Marilyn is one of the earliest of such manifestations; it is a poignant embodiment of the extinguished star.
It was not well known, but during his life Warhol remained a religious man. Ever since his childhood, when he worshipped at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Pittsburg with his mother, he was influenced by the glittering religious iconography that filled the apse behind the alter during his numerous childhood visits to church. In the increasingly secular 1960s, Warhol was quick to recognize that movie stars had replaced these religious figures of his childhood, as the idols which the population at large chose to worship.
And yet, the conception of Warhol's most iconic series grew from seemingly modest beginnings, when several days after the star's death, Warhol's friend, Ed Plunkett, invited the artist to Serendipity. Upon their arrival at the restaurant, the owner-who sold Warhol's 1950s-style books of cherubs and kittens-pleaded, "Oh, Andy, will you do a book for us on Marilyn?" to which Warhol agreed, "Well, okay" (T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, 125). As with many of the artist's most prolific cycles, this outwardly fleeting exchange sparked monumental output.
Warhol famously harvested a complex relationship with Hollywood stars. While he spent much of his childhood daydreaming about Shirley Temple and other Hollywood divas, Marilyn's sensual and breathily innocent persona differed from the classic silk-and-steel stars of the forties and fifties. Her image exuded sensual mischief and childlike pleasure, but her life was a continuous disaster. As a result, she came to embody the gap between glamorous appearance and personal tragedy.
After spending much of her childhood in foster homes, Monroe began a career as a model, which soon elevated to a film contract in 1946 with Twentieth Century Fox. While her earliest film appearances were minor, her performances in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve in 1950 began to draw attention. By 1952 she had her first leading role in Don't Bother to Knock and 1953 brought a lead in Niagara, the melodramatic film noir that profited on her seductiveness, and served as the source for White Marilyn. Her "dumb blonde" persona was used to comic effect in subsequent classics such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch. Limited by typecasting, Monroe studied at the Actors Studio to broaden her range. Her dramatic performance in Bus Stop was hailed by critics and garnered a Golden Globe nomination. She further received a Golden Globe Award for her iconic performance in Some Like It Hot, shortly before she completed her last film, The Misfits in 1961.
The final years of Monroe's life were marked by illness, personal problems and a reputation for unreliability. The circumstances of her death, from an overdose of barbiturates, have been the subject of conjecture. Though officially classified as a "probable suicide," the possibilities of an accidental overdose or a homicide have not been ruled out. And yet, regardless of her tragic demise, Monroe's image is just as strong today as it was at the height of her career. In 1999, Monroe was ranked as the sixth-greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute. In the decades following her death, she has often been cited as both a pop and a cultural icon as well as the quintessential American sex symbol. Central to his pantheon of Pop icons, which included Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Elvis, White Marilyn immortalizes Marilyn Monroe as the embodiment of the cult of celebrity. Created at approximately the same time as his depictions of electric chairs and car crashes, Warhol's full-face images of Marilyn, Jackie and Liz followed on the heels of deaths and disasters in all three of his subjects' lives: Monroe's suicide, Taylor's catastrophic illness in 1961, and John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. "I don't feel I'm representing the main sex symbols of our time in some of my pictures, such as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor," the artist stated of his penchant for tragic female stars. "I just see Monroe as just another person. As for whether it's symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colors: it's beauty, and she's beautiful and if something's beautiful it's pretty colors, that's all. Or something. The Monroe picture was part of a death series I was doing, of people who had died by different ways. There was no profound reason for doing a death series, no victims of their time; there was no reason for doing it all, just a surface reason" (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Celant, SuperWarhol, exh. cat., Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, 2003, p. 69).
In the weeks prior to Monroe's death, Warhol had been exploring an eccentric and highly topical approach to realist art. By utilizing the silkscreen, Warhol was taking his first steps in the Duchampian tradition of using a "readymade" image, in this case a photograph, as the basis for a work of art. He used the silkscreen process to stencil a photo-derived image on top of a hand-painted background. Head shot portraits of the attractive young actors Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty were initially his main focus, and his custom-made silkscreens reproduced the kinds of publicity photographs that abounded in the latest teen and movie magazines. Warhol soon learned how to make the inky detailing of the silkscreen stand out against the flat color beneath, creating an electric effect. For his new Marilyn series, he ordered a silkscreen enlargement of a detail of a bust-length photo taken by Gene Korman for the promotion of the film Niagara (1953).
"In August '62 I started doing silkscreens," Warhol explained. "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 silkscreening, 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" (Ibid., p. 65).
Throughout the 1960s, Warhol would produce three distinct Marilyn series-the "Flavor Marilyns' of 1962--named for the dual ability of their titles to provoke not only a color but also taste--to which White Marilyn belongs, a group of five paintings in 1964, and a portfolio of editioned prints from 1967. Executed at the same time and with the same screen as Warhol's celebrated Gold Marilyn, which is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, White Marilyn and Gold Marilyn made their public debut together at the Stable Gallery in 1962. Whereas the canvas for Gold Marilyn is much larger than the twenty by sixteen "Flavor Marilyns," which borrow the same canvas format as the series of Campbell Soup Cans Warhol executed during the early months of 1962.
While all but two "Flavor Marilyns" implement the use of brightly colored inks, White Marilyn is particularly compelling because its pared-down palette of black and white refers not only to Warhol's earlier creations, as well as his interest in black and white cinematography, but also to the broader tradition of radical experiments in the history of abstraction. As Newman demonstrated, such a palette could be a powerful tool of discovery and renewal, which he used to great effect in works such as his famed Stations of the Cross. "When an artist wants to change, when he wants to invent," Newman once said (discussing the 1948 and 1950 pictures of de Kooning and Kline), "he goes to black; it is a way of clearing the table-of getting to new ideas" (B. Newman quoted in, Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969, Baltimore, 1979, pp. 13-14). An extension of Warhol's black and white paintings of singular commodities based on advertising images, Warhol's austere palette was originally used to heighten the visual effect of the graphically distorted advert images. The choice of palette not only echoes the photographic source material that Warhol used for his portraits, but pays homage to Marilyn as an actress, thereby linking her to the silver screen from which she emerged.
After Warhol died in 1987 the world quickly learned of the remarkable collections, hoardes, and accumulations of things he stored in both his home and studio. Predictably, there were numerous film stills and publicity photographs of Marilyn Monroe in his estate, and one hundred of them are illustrated in a catalogue published by The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (The Warhol Look, 1998). Accompanying the photographs is a poignant quote from Warhol's 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, which underscores his passionate belief in beauty as an inspirational force: "When a person is the beauty of their day, and their looks are really in style, and then times change and tastes change, and ten years go by, if they keep exactly their same look and don't change anything and take care of themselves, they'll still be a beauty." Warhol's White Marilyn keeps one such beauty alive and forever in style. Such traits of individuality extend to Monroe herself. Compared to the perfectly coiffed media propagated publicity images of the actress, she appears touched by humanity in White Marilyn; indeed, she appears as vulnerable and fragile as she was in life. She transcends reality to become a modern icon, both an every-woman and a goddess, a latter day Mona Lisa.