The brilliant, shimmering double-paneled Silver Liz is one of the most celebrated and acclaimed paintings of Andy Warhol’s entire career. Painted during the summer of 1963, Silver Liz is an early Pop Art masterpiece that illustrates Warhol’s newly-developed silkscreen technique with a power and gravitas unrivaled by other works. Warhol obsessed over Hollywood celebrities, particularly that rare kind of species that transcended fame itself to become enmeshed in the fabric of popular culture. Liz Taylor epitomized Warhol’s idea of a Hollywood icon—she was beautiful, rich and famous, yet her personal life was touched by tragedy. At the time Warhol painted Silver Liz, she was 31 years old, already an Oscar-winner, about to divorce her fourth husband, and recently recovered from a life-threatening infection. The peculiar blend of glamour, scandal and illness that plagued Elizabeth Taylor throughout her life made her the ultimate muse for Warhol, who’s Silver Liz epitomizes the star at the height of her glamorous career.
Since childhood, Warhol had been enraptured by the films of Hollywood. Growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1930s, he spent nearly every Saturday morning at the movies, though multiple childhood illnesses frequently confined him to his bed, where he would listen to the radio and collect pictures of movie stars. His home at 1342 Lexington Avenue in New York was a veritable shrine to the golden age of Hollywood cinema, with fan magazines scattered about the floor. For Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor was the penultimate example of Hollywood fame. When asked about his belief in the afterlife, he famously said that he would like to be reincarnated as a big ring on Elizabeth Taylor’s finger.
By the time Warhol began the Silver Liz series in the summer of 1963, Liz Taylor had become the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, having signed a $1 million dollar contract for her title role in Cleopatra. During filming, she became embroiled in a tempestuous love affair with her co-star Richard Burton, though she was married to Eddie Fisher at the time. Their rumored tryst was widely broadcast in newspapers and tabloids, even condemned by the Vatican, who described it as “erotic vagrancy.” Taylor was by then a definitive screen icon, known around the globe as the personification of style and glamour. Her beautiful “violet” eyes beguiled a nation, having captivated audiences from the age of twelve in the MGM production of National Velvet. A string of successful films garnered the actress four Academy Award nominations in four years between 1957 and 1960, and she finally won the Oscar for best actress for her role in Butterfield 8.
Despite her on-screen success and tumultuous love affairs, it was Taylor’s brush with death that propelled Warhol to paint her likeness. In 1960, Taylor traveled to London to begin filming Cleopatra, where she was struck by a particularly virulent respiratory illness, and she was briefly pronounced dead. An emergency tracheotomy rescued Taylor, who by her own account, died on nearly four separate occasions in her life. When asked why he started the Liz series, Warhol recalled: “I started those a long time ago, when she was so sick and everybody thought she was going to die. Now I’m doing them all over, putting bright colors on her lips and eyes” (A. Warhol, quoted in Gene Swenson, “Interview with Andy Warhol,” ArtNews, November 1963, p. 60).
Warhol painted the Silver Liz series at his Firehouse studio between the months of June and July of 1963, an extremely prolific period in which he produced a series of silver paintings including the Silver Liz and Elvis paintings. This crucial period of Warhol’s early career resulted in several fundamental developments. With the assistance of Gerard Malanga, who Warhol hired on June 11, 1963, Warhol radically altered the format of his paintings, moving from several images repeated across the canvas surface, to a single, solitary image centered upon a 40 x 40 inch square format. The extraordinary time, care and attention to detail that Warhol took in these early works belies the spontaneity and experimentation that pervades them. Despite his reputation of a vacuous Pop star, Warhol was a shrewd innovator with a keen eye and a strong work ethic.
Warhol’s Silver Liz is based upon a black-and-white headshot of Elizabeth Taylor that was distributed by MGM as a publicity photograph. Rather than simply copying from the original, Warhol made subtle enhancements. By cropping the photograph and zeroing in on the original, he brings her features closer to the picture plane so that the canvas is nearly saturated with her appearance. Warhol captures the alluring sensuality of Taylor’s most celebrated attributes, from the cadmium red of Taylor’s sultry lips to the phthalo green eye shadow surrounding her seductive, come-hither eyes. Her gorgeous raven hair is perfectly coiffed, the essence of a glamorous film star. The acra violet that Warhol hand-painted for her skin imparts an otherworldly, ephemeral quality that seems to hint at the immortality she has achieved as an icon of the silver screen.
Warhol envelops his penultimate portrayal of the Hollywood legend in a rich and evocative field of silver, which ushers the image into a new realm. “For the rest of Warhol’s life and beyond, silver would be the color most associated with him, the only color to warrant its very own passage in [his memoir] Popism. “Silver was the future, it was spacey—the astronauts wore silver suits—Shepard, Grissom and Glenn had already been up in them, and their equipment was silver too. And silver was also the past—the Silver Screen—Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets” (A. Warhol and P. Hackett (eds.), Popism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, 2006, p. 156). Warhol most likely intended the silver painted background of Silver Liz as a surrogate for the silver screen, which he also used in the concurrent Elvis series that summer, though its use must have had other expressive connotations. In Silver Liz, Warhol’s use of silver creates a mystical quality that seems to situate the screen goddess in a kind of pictorial ether, which immortalizes her image as the personification of style and glamour.
The Silver Liz paintings of 1963 were some of the last silver canvases he ever created. The series had its debut in September of 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, where they were exhibited along with Warhol’s silver Elvis paintings. Of the ten Silver Liz paintings that were included in the Ferus show, only nine have been definitively identified. The present painting was included in this seminal show, where it was exhibited as a single panel. Two years later, Warhol added the silver “blank” when he included the work as a diptych in the comprehensive exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1965. This same year, the work was consigned to the Castelli Gallery and was acquired by Holly Solomon. With its impeccable provenance of the Ferus Gallery, Leo Castelli Gallery and the distinguished collection of Mr. and Mrs. Horace H. Solomon, this painting is one of the most iconic pieces of Warhol’s work, and one of only five Silver Liz diptychs of this type.
Central to his pantheon of Pop icons, which included Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Elvis, Silver Liz is a double-paneled masterpiece that immortalizes Elizabeth Taylor as the embodiment of the cult of celebrity. The painting’s glistening silver background acts as a luminous mirror, reflecting her blushing skin, her trademark scarlet lips and sultry eyes. When Taylor finally received her own version many years later she wrote to Warhol, “Dear Andy, I’m so proud I finally have your ‘Liz’ and thank you for signing it so sweetly to me. I do love you” Elizabeth or Liz (of A.W.’s fame) March 21, 1977.”