“These frozen images are modern-day Madonnas. Andy was a strict Catholic. His Marilyn, Liz and Jackie become religious relics, and like Leonardo's La Gioconda, they are portraits of women radiating beauty. They are not photographs of public stars but... icons of our time” (P. Brant, Women of Warhol, Marilyn, Liz and Jackie, exh. cat., C Arts, New York, 2000, p. 3).
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn is an intimate rendering of one of the 20th century’s most iconic visage—that of Marilyn Monroe. Executed between 1979 and 1986, the radiant beauty of the Hollywood superstar provides this work with its iconic subject matter and lasting resonance, extolled here in a glowing bubblegum pink hue that introduces a sense of electricity to the picture. More than any other of Warhol’s reversal subjects—Mao, Mona Lisa, Warhol himself—Marilyn was his epochal muse. Exceedingly glamorous, yet simultaneously tragic, Marilyn was his perfect subject.
Having resided in the Lévy collection since 1988, this iconic Marilyn canvas is rendered in a bright pink set against a saturated black ground. The predominant color is a pitch black, and the inky, depthless darkness threatens to engulf everything. But the face is instantly recognizable, both as star image and unique, incomparable, signature Warhol creation. Executed at the peak of Warhol’s fame, he expertly reversed the images of his earlier paintings resulting in a visually striking re-interpretation: “Warhol’s Reversals recapitulate his portraits of famous faces but with the tonal values reversed. As if the spectator was looking at photographic negatives, highlighted faces have gone dark while former shadows now rush forward. The reversed Marilyns, especially, have a lurid otherworldly glow, as if illuminated by internal footlights” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 378).
Warhol was drawn to Marilyn Monroe, as he sympathized with the idea of a fellow artist whose talents were underappreciated and whose very being was misunderstood. The beginning of Monroe’s life was tumultuous; she spent much of her childhood between foster homes, but her luck finally began to change once she entered her breakthrough modeling career. In 1946, she signed a film contract with Twentieth Century Fox and began appearing in films such as The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, both of which garnered critical acclaim, and, in 1953, Marilyn appeared as the lead actress in film Niagara, a melodramatic noir that exploited her sensuality. It was in this movie’s promotional images that Warhol found one of his most enduring images—a headshot of the actress which would become the source and inspiration for his Marilyn screenprints following the death of the actress in 1962. Warhol augmented her fame by focusing an entire series around her. Since then, Warhol’s immortalization of the actress has surpassed her very own celebrity and become emblematic of Warhol and the themes pervasive in his oeuvre—tragedy, glamour, death and artificiality.
In the late 1970s, Warhol embarked on a retrospective phase in his career, revisiting the creative potential of the early images that had made him so famous. Subjects he chose to re-incarnate included Mao, Flowers and, as demonstrated by the present lot, Marilyn. Borrowing from the catalogue of his subjects, Warhol reinvented the most iconic works, refreshing them for a new generation by providing a post-modern reinterpretation of his own art, effectively re-contextualizing an appropriation of an appropriation. The series also allowed Warhol to keep moving forward, to continue renewing and refreshing his art practice, bringing it forward into a new context and a new era. Through pastiche, re-appropriation and reinvention, the work brought him in sync with a younger postmodern generation of artists with an equally healthy disregard for art historical traditions and the canon, helping to break down stale divisions between what was considered high and low art. With this series, Warhol’s work took a step closer to the Conceptual art practices that had been developing contemporaneously with his own practice throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Beyond the meanings Marilyn has for critics and art historians, there is the image itself: stylish, captivating, glamorous, tragic, endlessly intriguing and a late career work that reaffirms the artist’s place at the forefront of contemporary art. It is mystique, fame and glamor distilled, electric with color, gleaming silver and darkness.