"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).
In Marilyn (Reversal), the familiar features of the glamorous movie star glow in a bright blue and sea green against the saturated black of the screened image. The instantly recognizable features of the actress are clearly visible despite the minimum means with which they have been rendered. There is more to Marilyn (Reversal) than the obvious observations of the bright contrasting color and Warhol’s refreshed approach to composition.
Starting with the paintings from the early 1960s, Warhol’s representation of Marilyn has surpassed the fame of the actress herself, and has instead become emblematic of Warhol and the themes pervasive throughout his body of work: glamour, beauty and death. The vibrant blue-green background, wholly in keeping with the disco era in which it was created, is in sharp contrast with the eerie x-ray image resulting from the innovative format. This air of mystery brings about a haunting realization that the kind, generous, humble and funny character of the young woman who died a tragic and premature death in 1962 has been overshadowed and is no longer regarded as a relevant part of the story associated with this iconic pop symbol. Essentially, the likeness of the star has been stripped of its humanity. “[Warhol’s] Marilyn, Liz and Jackie become religious relics, and like Leonardo’s La Giocanda, 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&M Arts, New York, 2000, p. 3).
In the late 1970s, Warhol embarked on a retrospective phase in his career revisiting the creative potential of the early images which had made him so famous. Subjects he chose to re-incarnate included the self-portrait, Mao, the 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. Marilyn Monroe’s glamour, celebrity and suicide had captivated Warhol in the early 1960s and his treatment of her likeness, sourced from a cropped section of a film still from the 1953 film Niagara, has become a powerful icon of the Pop movement and an instantly recognizable representation of Warhol’s art.
Executed at the peak of Warhol’s fame, Marilyn (Reversal), belongs to the Reversal Series created between 1979 and 1986. In this innovative series, Warhol 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). Of all the paintings from this series the Marilyns are the most successful and make the most lasting impression in their haunting intensity. Warhol was a tireless innovator, and the negative images that he used in the Reversal Series show his continuing willingness to experiment.