Staring out over the shoulder of the viewer towards some distant adversary, Single Elvis, executed in 1963, is filled with dramatic action. The sense of imminent violence, heightened by the raised pistol in his hand, makes this a confrontational work. Elvis is invading our world and challenging the critics and the crowds.
Unlike some of the glamorous pictures of other stars that Warhol had used previously, his images of Elvis had an open association with violence and action. This links Single Elvis with the Marlons and the Cagneys rather than the more 'posed' pictures of Troy Donahue, Marilyn or Liz. This picture is filled with a sense of immediacy. Indeed, Warhol taps this immediacy even further by using Elvis, one of the Twentieth century's most celebrated stars. Even the viewer's reflex act of recognition makes this work more accessible, thrusting this oversized superstar into our domain.
This combination of action and the oversized, billboard-like presentation of the famous singer helps to bridge the gap between the everyday world and high art. The image in Single Elvis was taken from a publicity still from Presley's film 1960 Flaming Star, a cinematic source that embraces America's own culture and enshrines it on the walls, on canvas, as an example of High Art. Where mass portraits were once used to show royalty, Warhol has used his methods to show a portrait of the King. This sense that Elvis is being enshrined as part of the new royalty of the modern era is increased by the silver background on which he is presented.
This silver screen is at once a reference to cinema, a dulled mirror, a gaudy backdrop and a metallic, almost futuristic surface. As much as the image itself, it embodies so many of the paradoxes of the modern era, and of Warhol's art. This picture manages to appear as both an ironic criticism and an overt celebration of the capitalist culture of the United States. Indeed, in his own incarnation of Pop Art, Warhol, who had previously worked in advertising, repeatedly illustrated the fact that capitalism is America's culture.
It was more than culture that Warhol saw in the modern world of image and ad. In real life, Elvis was the subject of almost religious fervor from his worshipping fans, and so Single Elvis appears as a strange icon to a modern saint, presented not with a halo, but with a silver background which mimics the gold of Orthodox Christian art. Warhol understood, and here shows, that modern America was creating its own new gods and new forms of worship. Warhol, by capturing his image in this quasi-religious format, has distilled this essence and created from it an art form. But by taking a touched-up advertising image as his source, Warhol has bought into the capitalist mechanics of desire. Single Elvis condenses desire, the need to acquire - in short, it condenses consumerism itself. For many in the Twentieth century, whether they knew it or not, the old order had been replaced by a new one, and salvation and gratification had become seemingly similar.
Much of Warhol's idea of modernity centered on the concept of mass production, and through this he created a new iconography of consumerism. Just as his use of famous and popular source images brought everyday subjects to the world of art, so this process brought everyday methods to its production. Warhol believed that the silkscreen process imitated factories, and therefore the modern era. However, there was a deeper-seated reason for him to use this process, and that was the removal of his own artistic intervention and human fallibility. By making art in a process that imitated the modern systems of production, Warhol was creating something far more universal and modern than anything that he himself, as an individual, as an expressive and emotive artist, could create. By taking a popular image and reproducing it in this way, he believed that he was removing himself as far as possible from the artistic process, acting as a mere catalyst.
Warhol exhibited these Elvises in a now famous show at Los Angeles' Ferus Gallery in 1963. This exhibition consisted of various Elvis paintings of the same height and presented them cheek by jowl throughout the gallery's front rooms. The works produced for the Ferus Gallery showed the image cropped at the head and feet, with Elvis apparently bursting from the frame, as with Single Elvis.
When shown together, Warhol's Elvises were almost like a film strip. The repetition of the image created an impression of mass production that had rarely been seen before in an artistic context. This crowd of cloned Elvises, some of them superimposed on one another, were at once confrontational yet became an almost anonymous backdrop. Their endemic presence in the Ferus Gallery both increased the sense of cult yet removed some of the distance of celebrity, making these repeated images approachable, claiming them for the everyday world.
The influence of cinema in Warhol's work can be seen to have culminated in this period. The silver background of Silver Elvis and the repetition of the image in the Ferus show reflect the silver screen and celluloid respectively. On a more biographical level, though, Warhol acquired a small movie camera just before he went to see his show at the Ferus Gallery. The impact of Los Angeles, of Hollywood, and of the camera combined to set him on one of the most important paths of his career, that of film maker as well as artist. Thus the Elvis pictures marked a fulcrum in Warhol's career as he made the transition from the viewer of movies to the maker of them. This was the point at which Warhol was, in his own right, truly becoming a star.
Nat Finkelstein, Andy, Bobby, and Elvis, c. 1965 c Nat Finkelstein
First exhibition of Elvis paintings, Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1963 Courtesy Irving Blum
Flaming Star promotional poster c Photofest
Publicity still of Flaming Star c Photofest