The Silver Liz paintings that Andy Warhol made in the summer of 1963 are among the defining icons of his oeuvre. Representing the culmination of several series of portraits of Elizabeth Taylor that Warhol made in the early 1960s, these definitive 'icons of an icon' rank amongst the most resonant, enduring and unforgettable pictorial statements of his art.
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-orientated 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 Elizabeth Taylor in particular, 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.' When later in life Warhol was to meet 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 her finger. But, 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.
It was in this role, as perhaps the dominant figure of the contemporary American media in the early 1960s that Warhol first selected her as a subject for his painting, drawing on a series of images of her multifaceted life published in a feature devoted to her in Life magazine in 1962. His original intention appears to have been to perhaps create a series of paintings forming a collective biographical portrait of her in the manner of his recent series Let us now Praise Famous Men based on a sequence of images of Robert Rauschenberg. In these first early portraits of Taylor made in 1962, Warhol selected images that specifically identified her in a number of roles: as the child star of National Velvet, as the darling of the gossip columns in The Men in Her Life and as the $1m femme-fatale screen goddess rumored to be having an affair with Richard Burton in an image from Cleopatra. In these first screenprint paintings of Taylor it was with the grand drama of her life in the spotlight of celebrity and its impending sense of Greek tragedy with which Warhol was concerned. These paintings, executed at the same time as his first portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Troy Donahue and his first 'disaster' paintings, were all essentially part of a 'death and celebrity' period in Warhol's career when the artist appeared to be exploring the seamy underside of America's celebrity-obsessed culture.
Elizabeth Taylor was included in this pantheon of 'death and disaster' because of her recent brush with death when she suffering from pneumonia she had had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy in order to save her life. As Warhol later explained, he "also did movie stars - Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Troy Donahue - during my 'death' period (because)... Marilyn Monroe died then. I felt that Elizabeth Taylor was going to die too, after her operation. I thought that there were a lot of people who were going to die--like Troy Donahue" (A. Warhol quoted in K. Goldsmith, ed.. I'll be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, New York, 2004, p. 99).
Warhol's return to the subject of Elizabeth Taylor, in the Silver Liz's' of the summer of 1963, marked a distinct contrast to these earlier, more morbid and biographically-orientated images of her as a potentially doomed figure of celebrity: "I started (the first portraits of Taylor) a long time ago" Warhol told Gene Swenson in the autumn of 1963, "when she was so sick and everybody thought she was going to die. Now I'm doing them all over, putting bright colours on her lips and eyes" (Interview with G. Swenson, Art News, November 1963, p. 60). In his new works Warhol evidently now sought to enshrine an image of Taylor as an almost immortal figure, the quintessential screen goddess, an archetype of glamour and beauty set against an appropriately silver-screen like background.
Apart from a brief series of monochrome silver images of Taylor drawn from an alternate publicity shot, the first fully colored versions of these new silver images of Liz came to be known as the 'Ferus-type' Silver Liz paintings because they were made for Warhol's second one-man show held at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in October 1963. Warhol's first exhibition at the Ferus Gallery had been his famous 1962 exhibition of soup cans. As a follow-up to this radical and groundbreaking show with its serial imagery of inanimate consumerist celebrity, and because the gallery was situated in the home of Hollywood, both Warhol and the gallery's director Irving Blum believed that images of Hollywood-related celebrity would prove an appropriate choice for Warhol's second West Coast show. As a consequence Warhol subsequently produced a long series of silver images of Elvis Presley taken from the Hollywood movie Flaming Star and ten large square-format Silver Liz paintings of which this work is one.
Executed on a series of square 40 x 40 inch canvases that would subsequently become a standard format for many Warhol paintings, Warhol chose his image of Taylor from a black and white publicity shot of her which he cropped around her chin in a manner not unlike that with which he had formerly cut down his equally famous image of Marilyn Monroe. Like that of his Marilyns Warhol's choice of image in this instance ultimately helped to define the public image of the star herself becoming, as Liz Taylor was years later to point out to Warhol in a letter she wrote to him, at least as famous, if not more so, than she was. Warhol's selection of a generic image of Taylor in this case, was crucial. He did not choose one of her playing a role nor one with a specific setting or any image drawn from any identifiable moment in her life (unlike the previous 1962 images he had used), but rather a simple and powerful portrait image that, allows and indeed encourages her face to be seen and recognized as a kind of archetype or icon.
Choosing a flat full-face and commanding image of the star looking directly out of the picture, Warhol presents Taylor's famously striking features and distinctive jet black hair in a rich purple-pink adorned with a lurid emerald green eye make-up and blood red lips in a way that is both sensitive to and actively heightening of the almost demonic nature of her beauty. Indeed, in Warhol's hands, Taylor's arresting face is here made even more so to the point where it becomes almost Medusa-like in its power to transfix the viewer's gaze and convey a powerful sense of an enduring and resonant image now forever fixed and frozen in a moment in time.
The choice of color for the background of these works was obvious. Not only was silver symbolic of the 'silver screen' of Hollywood and therefore the logical choice for a series of paintings anchored around a Hollywood theme, but in the summer of 1963 silver was also the color of the moment. "Silver was the future, it was spacy" Warhol remembered, "the astronauts wore silver suits, Shepherd, Grissom and Glenn had already been up in them, and their equipment was silver too. And silver was also the past - the Silver Screen - Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets" (A. Warhol, Popism, New York, 1980, pp. 64-65) For Warhol, silver was also a 'Pop' color, being the color of consumerism, of silver foil and tin cans, of chrome plating, rockets, jet planes and fast cars. It was in 1963 that Warhol sported silver hair and when his studio first became the 'Silver Factory' papered throughout in silver. "Well you might say" Warhol once told an interviewer on the subject, in a masterpiece of understatement, "I have a fondness for silver" (K. Goldsmith (ed). I'll be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, New York, 2004, p. 98).