Which is the first Mona Lisa in Mona Lisa Four Times? Which is the third? Which is the fourth? None of these questions is answerable because Warhol's serial work subverts the very notion of original representation as it aspires to the "unpresentable presentation" of the infinite (J. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. G. Bennington and I. McLeod, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 125). There is no limit to this image. By completely covering the canvas with images, Warhol suggests that the picture plane continues into infinity and that there are always more images beyond the frame. Indeed, this implied repetition exterior to the painting takes place in the imagination. Gilles Deleuze points out that "repetition is itself in essence imaginary... it makes that which it contacts appear as elements or cases of repetition" (G. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York, 1994, p. 76). What is here substantiated is an imaginary instance of Mona Lisa beyond her history, her future, her cultural ubiquity.
By quadroupling the image on one canvas, Warhol makes the viewer even more immediately aware that the image is a replicate by showing a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Reproducing four images of Mona Lisa on one canvas reveals the already infinite nature of the act of copying. Moreover, these repetitions are rendered by Warhol in a grid pattern which implies the infinite through the Euclidian geometry of the picture plane where the parallel lines never meet and infinite perpendiculars frame the same image. Reveling in the nature of seriality, Warhol shows a prescient understanding of the past and the future of the images in this work. The work as a whole, rather than the singular silkscreen, is analogous to the Neitzchean moment--the gateway from which eternal recurrence precedes and recedes--since the painted canvas is the object of an infinite artwork come into being as a tangible presence, a commodifiable object.
That Warhol chose the image of the Mona Lisa to here explore the infinite is not accidental. The Mona Lisa is one of the world's most reproduced images. It has been the model in countless advertising campaigns and now even serves as the theme of a boutique hotel in Paris where each room contains a focused reproduction of part of da Vinci's lady. The Mona Lisa has come to represent so many things that it represents nothing and everything at once. The identity of the subject of the Mona Lisa, Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, is almost irrelevant. Some historians even deny her existence and see the image as a transvestite portrait of da Vinci; some tell of an apocryphal love affair between her and the (now thought to be homosexual) artist. Yet, the Mona Lisa has also been seen as an ideal in portraiture, the perfect infusion and revelation of a sitter's character by an artist. This uncertain multiplicity in the identity of Mona Lisa--the subject and the painting--is the fruit for Warhol's serious reappropriation.
In Roland Barthes' terms, Warhol's appropriational strategies are "archetypal acts" in their "imitating and repeating the gestures of another" (R. Barthes, "That Old Thing, Art" in The Responsibility of Forms, New York: Hill and Wang, 1985, p. 202). Warhol is not the first artist to use the Mona Lisa to stamp modernity. One would be remiss to not mention the debt that Mona Lisa Four Times owes to Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.: A postcard-sized reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece upon which the artist drew a mustache and a thin goatee. Beyond the well rehearsed fact that Duchamp's Mona equates a museum standard with vulgar vandalism and cheap reproduction and substantiates high art as low commodity, it is Duchamp's title that is most interesting in Warhol's context. When pronounced in French, L.H.O.O.Q. sounds like "Elle a chaud au cul," which translates, colloquially as "She has a horny ass." After the laughter subsides, we realize that L.H.O.O.Q. is about imagination as the Mona Lisa (in all of her incarnations) is only shown from the waist up. What exists down below exists in the truth of the imaginary. Duchamp not only vandalizes the canvas in his declaration of modernity but, more importantly, breaks the frame. And, it's at the broken gates of this Bastille that Warhol begins his Mona Lisa Four Times.
In Mona Lisa Four Times, we see that not only are all works repeated, but they are repeatable, and therefore always already repetitions of themselves. Warhol is showing us the impossibility of an irreproducible work of art no matter how great. This reproduction of images reveals that all images are reproductions in a system of infinite citability. For Warhol, there is no Platonic Ideal, no definite instance, no original. Warhol's art recites the simulacrum nature of art in Post-Modern times. Warhol's art isn't a mimetic imitation of an image awaiting reproduction, but the very act by which representation and originality is overturned. Mona Lisa Four Times is a work for all time.