One of the most iconic images of 20th-century art, Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis presents us with the image of idealised American manhood wryly exposed as a costumed interloper.
Elvis Presley, dressed as a gunslinger in a publicity shot for the movie Flaming Star, takes his place in a flat, empty surface that, for Warhol, functions as a looking glass that reflects the overlapping nuances of celebrity, filmmaking, desire, and performance in Sixties America.
Warhol had been fascinated by the glittering allure of Hollywood since he was a child. Double Elvis, painted in the summer of 1963, pays tribute to a larger-than-life superstar whose international fame brought him the level of celebrity Warhol so coveted and admired.
Having already cemented his position as the king of Pop in New York, the artist himself would go on to reach the same dizzy heights, having reshaped the visual arts with his profound awareness of the way mass media defines the norms of contemporary experience.
Presley allowed Warhol to get to the heart of the 1960s. ‘Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century,’ said the composer Leonard Bernstein. ‘He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything — music, language, clothes. It’s a whole new social revolution — the sixties came from it.’
Warhol’s his first reference to the singer had been made earlier, in 1956, while still working as a commercial illustrator. In a series of collage drawings of shoes shown in a two-page spread in Life magazine, Warhol had given each the name of a celebrity — James Dean, Julie Andrews and Truman Capote being among the others.
The ‘Elvis Presely [sic]’ was an old-fashioned cavalier’s boot in gold leaf, adorned with a floral rosette and studded with stars. The ‘James Dean’, by contrast, was a sturdy, spurred jackboot.
For his 1963 exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood, Warhol chose a 1960 studio portrait of Elvis Presley to reproduce. When the picture was taken, Presley had recently returned from his two-year service in the US Army. His absence from America and his stream of formulaic Hollywood movies and assembly-line soundtracks meant that his status as a genuine cultural force had been neutered. Hollywood’s product-like packaging of Presley made him ripe subject matter for Warhol.
Warhol had already completed a group of initial ‘Studio Type’ Elvises but for the show at the Ferus Gallery he had something more dramatic in mind. With the help of his new assistant, the poet Gerard Malanga, he completed a series whose composition would embody the ‘silver screen’ of cinema. Displaced from any sense of narrative or locale onto pure, shining surface, they became celluloid ciphers, highlighting the artifice of Elvis’s performance — and were conceived specifically to conquer the West Coast.
The very method by which Warhol delivered them is almost as famous as the works themselves. The gallery’s director Irving Blum did not receive individual canvases but a single, enormous roll of canvas with a box of differently sized stretcher bars. Warhol’s instructions to Blum were to cut them and hang them as he saw fit.
This apparent relinquishing of control was anything but for Warhol had predetermined the size of each canvas with the stretcher bars he sent to Blum, which he knew would have to be matched to the groups of single, double and multi-figure Elvises. Shown in concert with a series of silkscreens depicting Liz Taylor, they made for a mesmerising, iterated display of cinematic archetype.
The Ferus installation can be read as a barbed comment on the repetitive nature of the Western genre, a mass-produced product — like Presley himself — that was not unlike the Campbell’s Soup cans Warhol showed at the gallery the previous year.
It can also be argued that Warhol was playing up the over-amped artifice of his subject. Through Double Elvis’s spaceless silver background, we are made all the more aware that what we are seeing is an actor posing for the camera. The repetition is rigid and unmoving; Double Elvis presents not the West’s cowboy ideal but a second-hand type-figure being played, somewhat ineptly, by the character of Elvis Presley.
There were also similarities between Warhol and Elvis, as the author John Carlin has pointed out: ‘both came from humble backgrounds and meteorically captured their respective fields in a way that seemed to break entirely with the past. Each betrayed his initial talent as soon as it became known, and opted for a blank and apparently superficial parody of earlier styles which surprisingly expanded, rather than alienated, their audience.
Warhol’s own manufactured persona was that of a vacuum or mirror
‘Both went into film as a means of exploring the mythic dimensions of their celebrity. On the surface both men shared a scandalous lack of taste. Particularly as both took repetition and superficiality to mask an obscure but vital aspect of their work: the desire for transcendence or annihilation without compromise, setting up a profound ambivalence on the part of both artist and audience as to whether the product was trash or tragedy.’
Perhaps a more convincing equivalence might be drawn not between the artist and Elvis, but between Warhol and the blank, silver surface on which the image of Elvis is screened. Warhol’s own manufactured persona was that of a vacuum or mirror. ‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,’ he said, ‘then just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.’ In his early interviews, Warhol commonly adopted a mirroring strategy by bouncing questions back to his interviewer.
As well as the large-scale use of silver paint in the Elvis works, 1963 saw Warhol’s associate Billy Name cover the interior of the Factory in reflective aluminium foil. And in that same year, Warhol replaced his own grey hairpiece with a metallic silver wig. His use of reflection would reach its apotheosis in the Silver Clouds, floating balloons first shown at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966.
Of the 22 extant ‘Ferus Type’ Elvis works, 11 are in museum collections, including the canvas Bob Dylan insisted on taking in exchange for his presence in a Warhol film, which is now housed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.