Warhol's portraits of Marilyn Monroe are the foremost icons of Pop art and a testament to the enduring sharpness of Warhol's vision and the cool, hard-edged style of painting he developed in 1962.
Orange Marilyn is one of the first Marilyn portraits that Warhol made in the summer of 1962. On August 5th of that year the shocking news broke of the suicide of one of Hollywood's most legendary stars and the following weeks were dominated by frenzied press speculation on the cause of the tragedy. A keen admirer of Monroe's glittering career, Warhol, like everyone else, was stunned and fascinated by the news of her death. He was also impressed by the degree of publicity it generated. Within a few days of Monroe's death, Warhol purchased a publicity shot of her. The image he selected is a publicity still from her 1952 film Niagara. This image would become the basis for all of Warhol's legendary portraits of Marilyn, which the artist intended to be seen as funereal and commemorative icons.
Painting large areas of the canvas by hand with the garish pink, red, yellow and green cosmetic colors of her face, lips, hair and eyes, Warhol would outline general areas of color before printing the black and white silkscreened image of Marilyn on top of them. This repetitive process allowed for significant variations and discrepancies to exist between one image and the next and Warhol was advised by his printing assistant to mark up each canvas so that Marilyn's silkscreened image would allign perfectly each time with the coloured shapes he had painted. Warhol preferred however, not to do this and to allow each work to vary slightly thereby attaining its own unique identity, despite being part of a repeated-image series.
Warhol's Marilyns were first exhibited at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York in November 1962 alongside his other portraits of Elvis Presley and Troy Donahue. Here, they caused a sensation and proved a career breakthrough for Warhol confirming him as the foremost Pop artist of his generation. With the Marilyns, Warhol had incorporated celebrity into the canon of Pop art imagery and it was this that distinguished his art from that of his fellow Pop artists who relied solely on supermarket and advertising imagery and, in the eyes of the critics, clearly elevated him above them. As Michael Fried wrote of the show, "Of all the painters working today in the service - or the thrall - of a popular iconography, Andy Warhol is perhaps the most single-minded and the most spectacular, I admit, to register an advance protest against the advent of a generation that will not be as moved by Warhol's beautiful, vulgar, heart-breaking icons of Marilyn Monroe as I am" (Quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 134).
The strikingly iconic single-head portrait of Orange Marilyn is fitting as a funereal commemoration to the dead star. Warhol intended his portraits to emphasize the notion of celebrity as a manufactured commodity. Marilyn was the quintessential Hollywood star. Her glittering transformation from unknown starlet Norma Jean to superstar Marilyn represented the essence of the Hollywood fairytale. At the same time her tragic demise was steeped in the seamy underside of Tinseltown. Among all of Warhol's Marilyn paintings, the Orange Marilyn emphasizes this aspect of the star most strongly, for it is in these works that the image of the youthful beauty of Niagara is most strongly contrasted with the garish synthetic colours that seem to speak of the artificiality and shallowness of the world of the silver screen.
Fig. 1 Willem de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, 1954, State University of New York at Purchase, Neuberger Museum
Fig. 2 Daily Mirror cover of Marilyn Monroe's suicide
Fig. 3 Caravaggio, Head of Medusa, Uffizi