Andy Warhol’s Liz is an iconic tribute to one of the major silver screen goddesses in the artist’s Pop pantheon. Painted at the height of Elizabeth Taylor’s fame, Liz is a unique painting from a group of thirteen colorful portraits of the actress that Warhol executed in the fall of 1963. In this cerulean blue portrait, Warhol immortalizes the actress as an embodiment of the cult of celebrity. Closely related to the candy-colored Marilyn paintings that he executed in the previous year, Liz shows Warhol’s genius for color in full force. The brilliant blue background offsets Taylor’s luminous skin, as well as her trademark scarlet lips and violet eyes, magnifying the most characteristic features of her celebrated beauty. Although Warhol employed the mass media technique of screen printing, he brought a high level of personal involvement to the Liz series, carefully embellishing her skin, eyes and make-up with hand-applied paint.
As perhaps the greatest cinematic icon of the silver screen in the latter half of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Taylor was clearly a fitting subject for Warhol’s celebrity-oriented art. For a man who—ever since boyhood—had held an almost obsessive fascination for the glittering allure and glamour of Hollywood and for young female starlets like Shirley Temple and Natalie Wood, it would seem in retrospect only to have been a matter of time before such a major iconic presence such as Liz Taylor entered the Warholian canon. Indeed, of all the many famous stars that Andy Warhol knew and painted, he seems to have held Elizabeth Taylor in especially high regard, seeing her throughout his life as the absolute epitome of glamour. When asked once in 1964 if he would like to meet her, he immediately became coy and bashful, cooing ecstatically in response, “Ohhhh, Elizabeth Taylor, Ohhhhh. She’s so glamorous” (A. Warhol quoted in K. Goldsmith, I’ll be your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, New York, 2004, p. 26). When later in life Warhol met Taylor, growing to become friends with her in the late 1970s and 80s, he was famously heard to quip how as a choice of afterlife, he would like to be reincarnated as a “big ring” on Taylor’s finger. Not only was Elizabeth Taylor one of the great screen goddesses of her age and an enduring icon of glamour, it was her history as a child star, her many marriages and, in the early 1960s, the relatively recent tragedy of the death of her husband Mike Todd and rumored scandal of her romance with Richard Burton, that led to her status as a superstar who was seldom out of the gossip columns and her image rarely out of the papers.
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: Taylor’s catastrophic illness in 1961, Monroe’s suicide in August 1962, and John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Indeed, during the early to mid-1960s, Liz was a frequent subject of media attention for her flourishing career, fragile health and complicated romances. Warhol depicted her in numerous roles, both personal and professional. She first appeared in one of his tabloid paintings, Daily News, a painting documenting her catastrophic illness of 1961, which had interrupted the filming of Cleopatra. She resurfaced in allusion only, in The Men in Her Life, a work based on a 1957 photograph, which included both her current husband, Mike Todd, and her future one, Eddie Fisher. Most often, however, Warhol was intrigued with Liz as Hollywood starlet: he multiplied images of her characters in National Velvet and Cleopatra, or more simply portrayed her celebrated beauty in numerous full-face portraits, as in the present work. Of his 1963 portraits, Warhol claimed, “I started those a long time ago, when she was so sick and everybody said she was going to die. Now I’m doing them all over, putting bright colors on her lips and eyes” (A. Warhol, quoted in After the Party: Andy Warhol Works 1956-1986, exh. cat., London, 1997, p. 69). In this respect, the present painting is outstanding, and indeed recuperative in many respects. This example not only incorporates a blue background, which reprises the dominant color of Warhol’s earlier Cleopatra image, but it also includes a deep violet hue in Liz’s irises, reproducing Taylor’s actual eye color, a most characteristic feature of her celebrated beauty.
As a canonization of the actress and as a comment on the manufactured nature of fame, Warhol achieved his desired aesthetic effect in the iconic Liz by employing silkscreen. As a process that he had begun on an experimental basis in 1962, Warhol recognized both the instant electricity and underlying artificiality it generated; indeed, the inky superimpositions of photo-derived screens on the bright, hand-painted hues epitomized Pop in their brand-like distinctness. Using the Duchampian methodology that he brought to his previous celebrity portraits such as the Marilyns, he created Liz using a publicity image of the actress, later cropping the bust-length image just below the chin, and sizing the screen to an enlargement of this detail.
Basing his process in the “readymade” and in he mechanical nature of the silkscreen, Warhol nonetheless brought a personal involvement to his portraits from the mid-sixties compared to some of his later more removed adaptations. With works like Liz, he started with a preliminary application of the screen on black canvas. Then, he brushed on background colors and each area of local color, such as the skin tone, eye shadow and lips, by hand in a rough appliqué of patterns. Finally, he added the black frame of the face to the colored map of the under painting. The effect, which is visible in the present work, was one of forced flatness, at once seductively alluring and shallowly artificial—keenly in keeping with the glamorous facade of Hollywood. In the present portrait, Liz’s luminous soft pink skin, green-shadowed eyes, and arresting scarlet lips are of unrivaled beauty.
Despite the compositional crafted nature and forced flatness, Liz bears a poignant touch of humanity. While Warhol famously quipped, “I think everybody should be a machine,” his silk screening process eschews the potential for machine-like perfection and instead relishes in premeditated misalignments and compositional irregularities (A. Warhol, quoted in G.R. Swenson, “What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters, Part I,” Art News62, no. 7, November 1963, p. 26). The intended effects, insinuate a physical dissolution that evokes a fleeting presence, indicating the inherent transience of fame: “The silkscreened image, reproduced whole, has the character of an involuntary imprint. It is a memorial in the sense that it resembles memory -- sometimes vividly present, sometimes elusive, always open to embellishment as well as loss” (T. Crow, “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” After the Party: Andy Warhol Works 1956-1986, exh. cat., Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1997, p. 22). Warhol’s insistent link between fame and nostalgia, in fact, is the very basis of these works, which are often generated from old photographs; the one used to create present work, for example, is a publicity photograph from 1950, which predates the painting by some thirteen years.
Inspired at a time when Elizabeth Taylor suffered bouts of debilitating sickness, Liz is an extraordinary instance of Warhol’s celebrity portraits that both captures and transcends the vagaries of life. Seen here, more than forty years after its creation, Liz stands as an enduring icon of American culture and a symbol of feminine beauty. Created shortly before Warhol’s serialized reproductions of the Mona Lisa, Liz can be thought of as a latter-day version of enigmatic feminine appeal.