“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’”
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn (Reversal), portrays an intimate, close-up view of the classic 20th century Hollywood icon, from a series of reversals the artist created between 1979 and 1986. This portrait of Marilyn Monroe is notable in its simultaneously bold and gentle treatment. The effect of the reversal here is a minimal one, emphasizing Marilyn’s most dominant features as colorless silhouettes. This absence of color, like a photographic negative, also conjures up associations of the silver screen, calling to mind the legendary actress and model’s short-lived yet illustrious career.
Several central themes to Warhol’s oeuvre are at play in this work, including the frequently contemplated tropes of celebrity, tragedy, glamour, death and artificiality, all in one. What makes this portrait so special is also its merging of subject and technique, where in appropriating his own earlier image of the star, Warhol helped reinforce his own legacy and relationship with fame by associating himself with Marilyn’s likeness. At once nostalgic and verging on the abstract, Marilyn (Reversal) presents the starlet as an almost otherworldly apparition. This mythical presence brings to mind the haziness of memory in a reverential fashion. The reversal technique, darkening negative space while bringing forward the actress’s main features in a lighter grey accentuates what we would recall as her most notable features: wavy light hair, long thick eyelashes, and bold lips. All of these aspects speak to the legend and aura of Marilyn, who by the time this work was created, several years after her untimely death, truly began to stand for a more abstract notion of glamor, beauty, and the darker undercurrents of the Hollywood star system. In this sense, over time, the reputations of Warhol and Marilyn themselves have become so closely intertwined like two sides of the same coin: one touting the importance of fame, the other falling to its downfalls.
By focusing closely on a single view of her face, in the most neutral of reversed tones—black and a silvery grey—it’s as if Warhol is distilling the true essence of Marilyn. In this way, this picture differs from other reversal works, where Warhol might use a specific color, be it blue, pink, green, and so on, to perhaps call to mind other aspects of his subject’s identity. This achromatic version presents the single icon, in a dark compact square that says so much in the most elegant of ways. Marilyn’s face and story are a central part of 20th century visual iconography today, and her likeness has been reproduced over and over again in film, print and art, that her history has become legend; part fairytale, part cautionary tale. Warhol, in producing this repeatable portrait as a silkscreen, based on a still from the 1953 film Niagara, has created something that is at once consistent with a mechanically reproduced likeness of the star, but in a way that each version has its own unique character.
“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).
If we consider the context in which Marilyn (Reversal) was created it is interesting to note that it was adapted from a portrait created in response to the actress’s death in 1962 and re-appropriated over the years by its own creator. In the late 1970s, as he entered a more retrospective phase in his career, Warhol returned to several images that had made him so famous earlier on, imbuing them with a new sensibility and wisdom. In images ranging from portraits of Mao, Marilyn, Liz, or his flowers, his reinterpretation of these images refreshed them for a new generation and they carried with them a double layer of association: an appropriation of an appropriated image. In this visual cycle, Warhol tells an ongoing story in which the only constant is the essence of the source image, and whether you look at the original film still, the 1962 version, or this more recent one, the woman is the same, but the symbol has evolved.
Warhol was long-captivated by Marilyn’s story; her glamor, celebrity and suicide had enthralled him early on, and from the 1960s her likeness was a powerful icon of the pop movement. His post-modern interpretation of her portrait is a prime example of dedication to his chosen forms of expression along with a relentless innovation and passion for creating new visual modes from the familiar and famous.