Offered on 17 May in New York, this 1963 work unites two of the most venerated figures of modern times — the King of Rock’n’Roll and the Prince of Pop Art
Andy Warhol had held an almost obsessive fascination for the glittering allure of Hollywood since boyhood. As a child, he kept a scrapbook of movie-star photographs and continued to collect such images and movie posters later in life.
The curator Walter Hopps once recalled that when he had visited Warhol’s house in 1961, the floor had been ‘covered wall-to-wall with every sort of pulp movie magazine, fan magazine, and trade sheet, having to do with popular stars from the movies or rock’n’roll. Warhol wallowed in it’.
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. Before long, the artist himself would 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.
Warhol intuitively understood that appearance, glamour and fame were paramount in an era dominated by the media, and his artistic approach sprang from the popular culture that surrounded him. In a way, Presley was an obvious choice of subject.
Like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol’s most famous female portrait subject, Presley’s celebrity status was established in the 1950s. His distinctive sound and explosive stage performances became a touchstone of rebellious post-war youth culture. The vastly expanded reach of celebrity in the era of mass communication ensured Presley was instantly recognisable around the globe.
The photograph Warhol chose to reproduce for this series was a studio portrait taken for Flaming Star, a Western made in 1960 — the year in which Presley returned from his service in the US Army. The singer’s two-year absence from America and his subsequent stream of formulaic Hollywood movies and assembly-line soundtracks meant that his status as a genuine cultural force had been neutered. While his films were always box-office hits — and Warhol himself was a fan — they were universally panned by the critics. The aroma of failed seriousness, itself a kind of tragedy, made Presley a ripe subject for Warhol’s 1963 exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood, which had been founded by Walter Hopps in 1957.
This painting is a unique variation from a group of portraits of single and multiplied Elvises created especially for what was Warhol’s second solo exhibition at Ferus. 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.
Double Elvis features two black screen-printed images of the King on a silver-painted ground. A bold, high-contrast figure is accompanied by its ghostly duplicate, collapsing Warhol’s strategy of serialisation into a single frame, while also providing an eerie reminder that Presley was a twin, even though his brother was lost at birth. Through the faint doppelgänger that accompanies the primary figure, Warhol has also suggested that stardom eventually fades.
The silver background and the repetition of the image in Double Elvis reflect the silver screen and celluloid respectively. The artist first began using silver in his work in 1963, and this same metallic sheen came to dominate his working environment when he established the Silver Factory at 231 East 47th Street the following year.
The influence of cinema in Warhol’s work is abundantly clear in this period. The artist acquired a small movie camera just before he travelled to Los Angeles to see his show in September of 1963, and the impact of Los Angeles, of Hollywood, and of the camera combined to set him on one of the most important paths of his career, that of film-maker as well as artist.
Double Elvis is a satirical take on both the super-macho image of the cowboy and America’s favourite morality play
Warhol’s reputation was already established on the West Coast thanks to his 1962 presentation of his Campbell’s Soup Can paintings at the Ferus Gallery. This time, however, he tailored his work specifically for the context in which it would be displayed, using the serial quality of his art to reflect on the manufactured nature of celebrity and Hollywood’s most ingrained stereotype — the cowboy.
Warhol’s Double Elvis documents and decodes the conventions of popular imagery. It is a satirical take on both the super-macho image of the cowboy and America’s favourite morality play. Presley’s status as a teen idol emphasises the juvenile nature of the Western, while his gun-toting posture — emulated by every boy at play — underlies the violence that lies at the heart of this fantasy.