The silver Elvis paintings that Warhol made in the summer of 1963 are among the defining icons of his oeuvre. Representing the culmination of several series of celebrity portraits that Warhol made in the early 1960s, these definitive ‘icons of an icon’ rank amongst the most resonant, enduring and unforgettable pictorial statements of his art. Double Elvis pays tribute to a larger-than-life superstar whose international fame brought him the level of celebrity Warhol himself so coveted and admired. Before long, the artist himself would reach the same dizzy heights of fame, having reshaped the visual arts with his profound awareness of the way mass media defines the norms of contemporary experience. Double Elvis therefore unites two of the most venerated men of modern times—the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Prince of Pop—who both came from humble backgrounds and meteorically captured their respective fields in a way that broke with the past.
Warhol intuitively understood that appearance, glamour and fame were paramount in an era dominated by television, film, and glossy gossip magazines and his artistic approach sprang from the popular culture that surrounded him. In a way, Presley was an obvious choice of subject for him. Like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol’s most famous female portrait subject, Presley’s celebrity status was established in the 1950s. His distinctive sound and explosive stage performances ignited the rock ‘n’ roll revolution and he became a touchstone of rebellious post-war youth culture, while his name, image, and voice became instantly recognized around the globe, thanks to the vastly expanded reach of celebrity in the era of mass communication. “Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century,” said composer Leonard Bernstein. “He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything—music, language, clothes. It’s a whole new social revolution—the sixties came from it” (L. Bernstein, quoted in P. Clarke Keogh, Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend, New York, 2004, p. 2). And in the words of John Lennon: “If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles” (J. Lennon, quoted in S. Templeton, Elvis Presley: Silver Screen Icon, Johnson City, Tennessee, p. 144).
Yet Warhol’s Double Elvis does not portray Elvis the hip-shaking musician but rather Elvis the actor playing a role in the 1960 movie Flaming Star, a liberal-themed Western in which Presley plays Pacer Burton, a half-Kiowa youth torn between two cultures. The painting is a unique variation from a group of portraits of single and multiplied Elvises created especially for Warhol’s second solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles—the centre of America’s entertainment industry. Of the twenty-two extant ‘Ferus Type’ Elvis works, eleven are in museum collections, including the canvas Bob Dylan received in exchange for his presence in a Warhol film, now housed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Double Elvis features two black screenprinted images of the King on a silver painted ground. A bold, high-contrast figure is accompanied by its ghostly duplicate, collapsing Warhol’s strategy of serialization into a single frame, while also providing an eerie reminder that Presley was a twin, his brother being lost at birth. When the crowd of cloned Elvises were shown at the Ferus Gallery, the paintings were both confrontational and an almost anonymous backdrop. Their ubiquitous presence both increased the sense of cult yet removed some of the distance and aura of celebrity, making these repeated images approachable, claiming them for the everyday world of Coke bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans.
The repetition of the image created an impression of mass production that had rarely been seen before in an artistic context. The effect was of great interest to artists like Larry Bell, who wrote in response to the exhibition: “It is my opinion that Andy Warhol is an incredibly important artist; he has been able to take painting as we know it, and completely change the frame of reference of painting as we know it, and do it successfully in his own terms. These terms are also terms that we may not understand ... In any event, nothing can take away from it the important changes that the work itself has made in the considerations of other artists” (L. Bell, quoted in J. Russell, Pop Art Redefined, New York, 1969, p. 115).
The silver background and the repetition of the image in Double Elvis reflect the silver screen and celluloid respectively. Indeed, Warhol’s Elvises were almost like a film strip when they made their debut. The artist first began using silver in his work in 1963, the year that Double Elvis was painted, and the same metallic sheen came to dominate his working environment when he established the Silver Factory at 231 East 47th Street the following year. The influence of cinema in Warhol’s work can be seen to have culminated in this period. The artist acquired a small movie camera just before he went to see his show at the Ferus Gallery and 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. The Elvis pictures therefore marked a fulcrum in Warhol’s career as he made the transition from the viewer of movies to the maker of them. Indeed, the juddered figure in Double Elvis would be echoed in Warhol’s use of strobe cuts within his future films, where the technique was used to distance the viewer and highlight the artificiality of the medium.
Presley is the only Hollywood celebrity painted by Warhol whose body stretches the full length of the canvas. Marilyn Monroe only appeared in bust-length portraits, as did stars like Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood and Troy Donahue, while Elizabeth Taylor was presented in both bust- and half-length format. Marlon Brando and James Cagney appeared in three-quarter length, but never span the canvas. Warhol’s decision to depict Presley in full indicates the singularity of this series. Presenting his entire figure allowed viewers to observe the look and stance of a typical Western hero—a mythology deeply embedded in every American’s psyche. The Western genre was enormously popular and profitable at the time Double Elvis was made, and Presley himself was already one of the most famous people of all time. Conceived in the golden age of American capitalism, the painting combines the man and the myth that had been successfully merchandised and marketed the world over. Warhol throws a mirror up to this phenomenon and in doing so he created a new iconography of consumerism. Warhol shows us that Elvis has become a mere product, a mass-marketed idol cast as a popular stereotype.
In September of 1963, Warhol travelled westwards for the opening of his exhibition at the Ferus Gallery. It would be his first time in Los Angeles, the source of all the celluloid fantasies and celebrities he had admired for so long. During the drive cross-county, he contemplated how few people had yet to ‘tune in’ to the glorious kitschiness of popular culture, concluding that, “Once you ‘got’ Pop you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop you could never see America the same way again” (A. Warhol & P. Hackett, ibid, p. 50). Warhol’s reputation was already established on the West Coast as one of the most important artists associated with the Pop art movement following the 1962 presentation of his Campbell’s Soup Can paintings at the Ferus Gallery. But this time Warhol tailored his work specifically for the context in which it would be displayed, using the serial quality of his art to reflect on the manufactured nature of celebrity and Hollywood’s most ingrained stereotypes.
The Ferus Gallery’s director, Irvin Blum, had tried to press on Warhol the idea of a mini-retrospective, writing, “your exhibition should be the most intense and far reaching composite of past work, and the Elvis paintings should be shown in the rear of my gallery area” (I. Blum, quoted in G. Frei and N. Printz, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, Vol. 01, New York, 2002, p. 355). Warhol, however, insisted on focusing on his new work and planned to utilize the gallery’s physical space as part of a highly conceptual installation. Before his arrival, Warhol instructed Blum to line the front room with his series of Elvis paintings and the back room with portraits of Elizabeth Taylor. He sent the smaller, headshot paintings of Taylor already stretched, but the Elvises arrived at the Ferus Gallery on rolled canvas with a box of assorted stretcher bars. Blum later recalled: “I called him and said, ‘Will you come?’ And he said, ‘I can’t. I’m very busy. Will you do it?’ I said, ‘You mean, you want me to cut them? Virtually as I think they should be cut and placed around the wall?’ And he said, ‘Yes, cut them any way that you think they should be cut ... The only thing I really want is that they should be hung edge to edge, densely – around the gallery...’” (I. Blum, quoted in P. Smith, Warhol: Conversations About the Artist, Ann Arbour, Michigan, 1988, p. 222). Much like the collaborative process Warhol used to silkscreen his canvases, this act of delegation helped break down the aura of sole authorship and the criterion of authenticity in art, moving him closer to his impersonal mechanical ideal. The staged studio-produced photo used to make Double Elvis likewise calls the notion of authenticity into question. The constructed nature of the photo and its repetition in Warhol’s painting (not to mention Presley’s role as an actor) presents an eternal return to the simulacrum—there is no beginning, no ‘original’, and no end.
The installation of Double Elvis and its cohorts was site specific in more ways than one. The subject matter was a clear response to the filmmaking capitol of America, and the carefully choreographed arrangement of celebrity royalty (Elvis being the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Taylor the recent star of Cleopatra) seemed to acknowledge the kind of clichéd gender binaries being played out in popular culture, where men and women are typically represented within the formulaic realms of action and romance. Warhol was also eagerly anticipating the opening of Marcel Duchamp’s retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum during his Los Angeles sojourn and it is conceivable that the spatial division between male and female in his Ferus display was a tribute to the Dada artist’s masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915–23. The Large Glass depicts the erotic encounter between the ‘Bride’, in an upper pane of glass, with her nine ‘Bachelors’ gathered below. As art historian David McCarthy has identified, Presley’s splay-legged pose mimics the abstract form of Duchamp’s ‘Malic Mould’ bachelors, while the installation at the Ferus “linked perhaps Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor with its most notorious bride” (D. McCarthy, ‘Andy Warhol’s Silver Elvises: Meaning Through Context at the Ferus Gallery in 1963’, The Art Bulletin, June 2006, p. 368).
Warhol had held an almost obsessive fascination for the glittering allure of Hollywood since boyhood. As a child, he kept a scrapbook of movie-star photos and continued to collect such images and movie posters later in life. The curator Walter Hopps recalled that when he visited Warhol’s house in 1961, the floor was “covered wall to wall with every sort of pulp movie magazine, fan magazine, and trade sheet, having to do with popular stars from the movies or rock ‘n’ roll. Warhol wallowed in it” (W. Hopps, quoted in J. Stein and G. Plimpton, Edie: An American Biography, New York, 1982, p. 192). Warhol’s familiarity with this material would ultimately be an important factor in his transition from commercial art to Pop art in 1961–62. Significantly, Elvis Presley would be the only subject Warhol took with him from his days as a successful commercial illustrator in the 1950s into his new career as a fine artist in the 1960s.
Between 1955 and 1957, Warhol was the sole illustrator for shoe manufacturer I. Miller and made drawings of shoes each week for ads in the New York Times. These commissions fed into his personal, non-commercial projects, culminating in an exhibition at the Bodley Gallery in 1956 entitled The Golden Slipper Show or Shoes Shoe in America. The show presented gold-leaf shoe collages dedicated to celebrities, with an ‘Elvis Presley’ boot featuring prominently among them. LIFE magazine devoted a double page spread to a selection of the artworks and described the ‘Elvis’ as “a buccaneer type of boot with flowery ornamentalism to give it foppish quality.” Comparing this elaborate footwear with the decidedly more macho James Dean-inspired spurred boot, Warhol’s ‘portrait’ of Elvis intuits a certain camp quality about the rock ‘n’ roll star whose sex appeal was not felt exclusively by screaming hordes of teenage girls.
This element of campness may have been an essential factor in Warhol’s judicious image selection for the silver Elvis paintings. For, despite the vigorous action scenes in Flaming Star, Presley’s sensual, androgynous beauty and his (sometimes shirtless) role as a sensitive singing cowboy were far removed from the rugged tough-talkers routinely played by the likes of John Wayne. Double Elvis seems to make it abundantly clear that Elvis is a kitsch approximation of a cowboy, made faintly ridiculous by the obvious artifice of his performance. Warhol was no-doubt keenly aware of ‘the cowboy’ trope that was a staple ingredient of gay pornography and his silver Elvises may in part be an attempt to undermine the resolutely heterosexual image of Hollywood’s most macho character-types. He would later stress their homoerotic quality by stating, “I always thought cowboys looked like hustlers. That’s nice. Cowboys and hustlers are quiet. They don’t know many words” (A. Warhol, America, New York, 1985, p. 165). Seeing cowboys as cyphers charged with underlying meaning, he would continue to honor and parody them throughout his career, as seen in his films Horse (1965) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968).
Presley appeared again in the artist’s earliest experiments with photo silkscreening in 1962, featuring among the serially repeated headshot portraits of movie stars in his first solo Pop exhibition in a New York gallery. For these early Elvis paintings, Warhol very deliberately chose an image of Presley from the beginning of the rocker’s career. This strategy plays out once again in Double Elvis. Warhol was certainly familiar with the surfeit of media images of Presley and could easily have selected a different photo to reproduce. Instead, he chose a studio portrait taken for a Western film made in 1960—the year Presley returned from his service in the US Army. The musician’s two-year absence from America and his subsequent enlistment in an endless stream of formulaic Hollywood movies and assembly-line soundtracks meant his status as a genuine cultural force had been neutered or at least completely commodified by the mainstream. His films were always box-office hits—Warhol himself was a fan—but they were universally panned by the critics. This whiff of failed seriousness, itself a kind of tragedy, made Presley a ripe subject for Warhol’s exhibition in Los Angeles, the home of the mythological cowboy hero. Keenly attuned to the vagaries of celebrity, the artist has not only visualised the repetition of the cowboy character in the popular imagination by doubling Elvis’s image in the present work, but has also suggested that stardom eventually fades through the faint doppelganger that accompanies the primary figure.
The ‘horse opera’ experienced its peak success in the years preceding the creation of Double Elvis, dominating sliver screens and television sets alike. A LIFE magazine article on ‘the western hero’ released a few months after Warhol’s 1963 show in Los Angeles observed that, “Americans have always regarded the cowboy as a national symbol and the movies have made him so all around the world” (D. Moser, ‘The Western Hero: America’s Cowboy Rides the Range the World Over’, LIFE, December 20, 1963, p. 104). Described as “the most stylized dramatic form since Greek tragedy” in LIFE, the celluloid Western was also prophetically interpreted by Marshall McLuhan in his groundbreaking 1951 treatise The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man as an ideal contrast to the pressures of industrialized society. According to McLuhan, the Western was a “rigidly adolescent” genre that was spawned from a deep-seated nostalgia brought about by rapid change and it was aimed at men who had lost confidence in their place in the world. It is hard to believe that Warhol, who was an insider to the world of advertising, hadn’t at least heard of McLuhan’s book, which described in depth how films, comics, advertisements and magazines exert their persuasive powers. The artist’s own first-hand experience and keen interest in mass-media culture made him acutely aware of its manipulations and distortions.
Contrary to the critical perception that Warhol’s images were an enthusiastic surrender to mass culture, the artist in fact spoke of it from a distance. His particular form of realism—bestowed with the symbolic systems of consumerism—introduced a cool and reticent voice. He did not present transmissions from the psyche, like the painterly work of his New York School forebears, but instead offered an aloof and consistently analytical engagement with the contemporary world. In typically playful fashion, Warhol’s Double Elvis documents and decodes the conventions of popular imagery. It is a satirical take on both the super-macho image of the cowboy and America’s favourite morality play. Presley’s status as a teen idol emphasizes the juvenile nature of the Western, while his gun-toting posture—emulated by every boy at play—underlies the violence that lies at the heart of this fantasy. With the aid of hindsight, the symbolism evident in Warhol’s Elvis paintings seem almost prescient, for the optimistic post-Cuban Missile Crisis period in which they were created would be shattered by President Kennedy’s assassination before the year was out.