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 triggered a dedicatory series that isolated her beautiful and elusive visage against variously colored, almost acidic, backdrops. Newspaper accounts of the tragedy appeared on the East Coast on the morning of August 6, 1962, the day of Warhol’s 34th 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 the star’s “incredibly glamorous career” was veiled in personal trouble. The press coverage around her death was reminiscent of a remark the actress had 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 months after her death, Four Marilyns emerges as a poignant embodiment of an extinguished star.
Radiating with an electrifying palette of candy colors, Warhol’s inspiration for the Marilyn series was modestly sparked at the artist’s favorite sweet shop, Serendipity 3, where the walls were often covered in his early work and his checks were paid with drawings. Monroe, too, had been a famed regular at the dessert parlor. Often coming in with her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, Monroe, like Warhol, struck a close bond with the restaurant’s owner, Stephen Bruce. Eventually, Monroe would become quite comfortable leaving her chauffeur behind to quietly dine alone in the back with only Bruce to keep her company. Bruce has often famously recalled that, on one occasion, Monroe entered the parlor dressed coyly in a raincoat, babushka and mules. Sitting across from her, Bruce casually observed that she was completely unclothed beneath her raincoat. In fact, the movie star, like the artist, became such a staple at Serendipity that several days after her death, Bruce approached Warhol who was dining at the restaurant with his friend Ed Plunkett and pleaded, “Oh, Andy, will you do a book for us on Marilyn?” Indeed, Serendipity already sold several of Warhol’s 1950s style books illustrated with cherubs and cats, so when the artist agreed, “Well, okay,” no one could surmise what was to come next (T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, p. 125).
Throughout the 1960s Warhol would revisit Marilyn as his primary subject three distinct times. First, in 1962, with his chef-d’oeuvre, Gold Marilyn Monroe (Museum of Modern Art, New York), his 12 “Single Marilyns” or “Flavor Marilyns”—named for the dual ability of their titles to provoke not only a color but also taste—as well as a cycle of “Serial Marilyns,” from which such works as Marilyn Diptych (Tate, London), Marilyn x 100 (Cleveland Museum of Art) and the present work, belong. Later, in 1964, he would produce a set of five additional single Marilyns, four of which would notoriously be maimed by Dorothy Podber, a friend of Billy Name’s. Shortly after the creation of the five new Marilyns, Podber and Name visited Warhol at The Factory. When his guest asked if she could shoot the new works, Warhol agreed, believing she innocently meant to photograph them. Instead, Podber doffed a pair of white gloves, removed a small revolver from her handbag and fired a shot into the stack of four Marilyns leaning against The Factory wall, famously creating the celebrated series of “Shot Marilyns.” Though Warhol would revisit Monroe’s visage in one of his final artistic explorations, the Retrospective and Reversal series of the late 1970s and ‘80s, his last true study of the Hollywood actress came in 1967 with a portfolio of ten Technicolor edition prints.
Created in the wake of Warhol’s influential—though at the time not wholly successful—exhibition of Campbell’s Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe helped not only to secure his own stardom, but also bolstered the myth of the artist we know today. Indeed, the poignancy of his earliest Marilyn paintings was so powerful that he selected eight of his early single Marilyns to appear in his first solo exhibition in New York at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in November 1962. In later years, Warhol would recall the influential collection on view, noting: “[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 Sixties, New York, 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.
Famously harvesting complex relationships with Hollywood stars, Warhol spent much of his childhood daydreaming about Shirley Temple and other starlets and divas. Simultaneously exuding a sense of natural bliss and sexual mischievousness, Monroe’s sensual and breathily innocent persona greatly differed from the classic silk-and-steel stars of the 1940s and ‘50s. Yet, even so, her life was a source of continuous destruction. Both exceedingly glamorous and abundantly tragic, Marilyn was the perfect subject for Warhol. Regarding her as a kindred spirt, Warhol sympathized with the idea of a fellow artist, an actress, who was under-appreciated by her peers and whose creative talents were often misunderstood and rarely celebrated for their nuances. Indeed, the lives of Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, and Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Baker, dually unfolded as a rag-to-riches American saga, ultimately lending to their starstruck myths.
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 Warhol’s Marilyn series. 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 Actor’s 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. In fact, even 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 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 Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy and Elvis, Four Marilyns 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 widely circulated photograph taken by Gene Korman for the promotion of the 1953 film Niagara. Taken nine years before Marilyn’s death, the subject of Warhol’s canvas is not the ill-fated star of the 1960s, but rather the celebrity at the peak of her youth. A symbol of innocence when juxtaposed with the downward personal spirals and career missteps that were to follow, Warhol’s image of Monroe is idealized to the extent that no amount of glorification could prevent the viewer from feeling the pathos of her later years.
“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).
The sense of spontaneity and risk, where no two canvases are the same, is what sparked Warhol’s enthusiasm for this method of image making, along with the fact that it enabled him to harvest the mass of media images for his source material. Although often regarded as being the antithesis of so-called “Action Painting,” Warhol felt the silkscreen process alluded to a similar artistic language. For the Pop artist, the gestural nature and energy needed to force the ink through the screen replicated the energetic methods of Pollock’s drops and de Kooning’s brushstrokes.
Marilyn was also one of the first paintings in which Warhol introduced what became his signature range of vibrant colors. Although the Pop Art movement was defined partly by its often vivacious use of pigment, much of Warhol’s earlier work was executed in monotones and it was only in 1962 that he first began to use an increasing number of colors on the same canvas. Marilyn’s background of fresh cadmium orange is electrified next to Monroe’s halo of golden hair and the fleshy pink tones of her complexion. The bold swaths of color helped to map out the broad areas of the composition while the half-tone screen that was applied in black gave the face its particular definition. The finishing touches of detail—the eyes, lips and other facial features—were then added with a final flourish of the artist’s brush.
With her face stamped across the four quadrants of the canvas, Four Marilyns embodies the masterful use of repetition for which Warhol’s work has come to be known. While Warhol repeated everything from Coca-Cola bottles to self-portraits, he is perhaps best known for his serial images relating to his Death and Disaster series as well as his most iconic celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy and Elvis Presley. “I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper; 129 DIE,” he recalled in a 1963 interview with Gene Swenson. “I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like ‘four million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect” (A. Warhol, quoted in D. Fogle, ANDY WARHOL / SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962-1964, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2005, p. 13). Warhol’s repetition of Monroe’s image was as much an homage to a recently departed American icon as it was a reflection of the rapaciousness of both Hollywood and the media in creating, consuming and disposing of stars.
Combined with Marilyn’s iconic publicity still, Warhol’s electrifying chromatic vision was stunningly visionary in terms of garnering a reaction from his intended audience. Upon their debut in November 1962 at the Stable Gallery, the Marilyn paintings struck both a sensitive and tragic chord with their viewers. Likened to a religious zealot confronted by the death of a martyr, Warhol has attested that he had observed several of the exhibitions attendees visibly saddened when confronted by the youthful radiance of his Marilyn paintings in the aftermath of the morose and often grim coverage of her recent death. Indeed, the influence of Andrew Warhola’s Byzantine Catholic upbringing in Pittsburgh would manifest as a studding artistic catharsis in his later life. Influenced by the glittering religious iconography that filled the apse behind the alter of St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, where he worshiped with his mother, Warhol was quick to recognize that movie stars had replaced these religious figures of his childhood as the idols that the population at large chose to worship. Like a Catholic saint, Warhol had helped Marilyn Monroe transcend her celebrity, even after her death. As art historian Germano Celant has described, “[Marilyn] is a heroine whose face is represented like that of Christ or the Virgin in eleventh-century mosaics: a hieratic, isolated, popular figure, magnificently ritual. On the surface, Warhol merges everyday life and holy life, except that the latter presents a movie figure as its saint—a super icon whose image is reproduced ad infinitum, so as to induce imitation and identification to satisfy the media-related beliefs of the world” (G. Celant, SuperWarhol, Milan, 2003, p. 4).
And yet, while the immediately exposed struggles of countless other celebrities and public figures have lent them an element of sympathy in the American imagination, no one other than Norma Jeane Baker has been so enshroud in the posthumous pantheon of the American mythos. While her suffering was not unique, the stark contrast between her public persona and private life was. “The object of veneration here is not a Blessed Virgin but a slightly lewd seductress, the image of whose face is still suffused with erotic magic,” Kynaston McsShine has described in the 1989 introduction to Warhol’s much celebrated retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This sensuous radiance transforms the unhappy Marilyn of real life—the victim of abuse, failed marriages, affairs, and finally suicide. In Warhol’s paintings of her, the very human Marilyn becomes a symbolic image of the need for love and to be loved” (K. McShine, Introduction, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, pp. 17-18).
Establishing his own artistic foundation and discovering his own ability to create myths in the American consciousness, Warhol was not looking to complete an art historical loop begun centuries before him. Indeed, the shock of Warhol’s ingenuity at capturing not only the true essence of celebrity, but also the zeitgeist of the 1960s impressed many critics at his 1962 show at the Stable Gallery. Pinpointing Warhol’s gift with overwhelming eloquence, Michael Fried reported, “An art like Warhol’s is necessarily parasitic upon the myths of our time, and indirectly therefore on the machinery of fame and publicity that market these myths; and it is not unlikely that these myths that move us will be unintelligible (or at least starkly dated) to generations that follow. This is...to register as advance protest against the advent of a generation that will not be as moved by Warhol’s beautiful, vulgar, heartbreaking icons of Marilyn Monroe as I am. These, I think, are the most successful pieces in the show...because...Marilyn is one of the overriding myths of our time.” (M. Fried, quoted in G. Freid and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York, 2002, p. 247). It is a demonstration of the enduring nature of Warhol’s art that Fried’s worries about the lasting impact of the Marilyn series have proved to be unfounded, and that Warhol’s image of Monroe has become one of the most admired and sought after of the past half-century.