"If the notion of glamour still has any validity it must be attached to the Mona Lisa both for the painting's supremacy as a work of art and for the spell it has cast upon successive generations"
In 1980, Andy Warhol returned to the iconic Mona Lisa, which he had explored years before in 1963 when the painting first visited the United States. First travelling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece drew 1.6 million visitors in just seven weeks. The spectacle and celebrity that surrounded it fascinated Warhol, who remarked, "Why don't they just have someone copy it and send the copy. No one would know the difference" (A. Warhol, quoted in R Hughes, The Mona Lisa Curse, Channel 4, 18 September 2008). As coolly as he adapted the famous faces of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, Warhol flawlessly co-opts Leonardo's portrait through his signature silkscreen technique. In Four White on White Mona Lisas, the artist transforms the familiar portrait into ghostly apparitions that dissolve into the background, and the Mona Lisa of the sixteenth century becomes impossibly blurred in our minds. With its quiet, echoing forms, the 1980 work offers an alternative rhetoric, introducing the Mona Lisa as part of Warhol's own mythic legacy.
In Warhol's Reversal Series, the artist flips tonal values, layering lighter shades on dark ground so his subjects appear like photographic negatives. By 1980, Warhol silkscreen technique was characterized by a more casual, glossy sketchiness, and increasingly used white on white to dematerialize his subject into an abstracted, nearly unrecognizable portrait. Along four vignettes, each Mona Lisa is rendered slightly differently in each one: her famous enigmatic smile, and the details of her hand or eyes gradually become indistinct in our memory. Coated with slick layers of semi-gloss paint, Warhol's directional brushstrokes create an immediacy that further distances the reverberating Four White on White Mona Lisas.
Warhol's choice to co-opt Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece was a distinctly modern gesture, recalling Marcel Duchamp's 1919 work, L.H.O.O.Q.--a postcard-sized reproduction of the Mona Lisa, upon which the artist drew a mustache and goatee. While Duchamp was attempting to subvert the pretenses of museum and high-art culture, Warhol takes Leonardo's subject as a readymade icon, the ultimate celebrity of art history, or a brand as famous as Campbell's Soup and the Brillo Box. In 1963, the painting was particularly well-suited for Warhol since, to celebrate the Mona Lisa's arrival in New York, museum vendors and tourist shops sold endless reproductions on coffee cups and tote bags. In fact, the artist's source image in the 1960s was taken from a Metropolitan Museum's exhibition brochure. Four White on White Mona Lisas, included an even more layered method of appropriation as the work copied Warhol's past motifs, which replicated the brochure, that reproduced the original, four times over. The artist gleefully frees the Mona Lisa of its clear referent, as it has become so intermingled with different stages of Warhol's own art. Adopted into his iconography, Four White on White Mona Lisas, memorializes Warhol's own canon of famous women, showing his mastery of appropriation and transformative imagery.
In the 1980 work, Warhol draws on the seductive glamour and rebellious spirit of the early 1960s, when the zeitgeist required you to "live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse." But Warhol's increasing preoccupation with mortality--which followed his near-death experience when Valerie Solanas attempted to assinate him in 1968--is amplified in works of the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, Warhol's work becomes increasingly personal, still mediating on themes of death and violence, but more often, in terms of his own limited lifespan. His apt plundering of past motifs finds special resonance in Four White on White Mona Lisas, as she represents an image that has endured for over five hundred years. Warhol's eerie white coloring recalls the Renaissance tradition of casting death masks that preserve the likeness of the recently deceased. Similarly, in his 1980 work, he revisits his 1960s icon by using his past silkscreen, which will preserve his two-toned subject ad infinitum. As the de facto leader of Pop Art, Warhol seamlessly interweaves notions of consumerism, high art, artifice and mortality via the perpetual reproduction of imagery. His super-flat surfaces and silhouettes of ghostly white pigment point to a metaphysical nothingness beyond his glossy surface of paint, recalling his famous statement, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it" (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, "Nothing to Lose: Interview with Andy Warhol," Cahiers du Cinema, May 1967, p. 40).