A gleaming masterpiece that stands among the most iconic images of 20th century art, Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis [Ferus Type] faces us with visionary force. Elvis Presley, dressed as a gunslinger in a publicity shot for the 1960 Western movie Flaming Star, is doubled in black silkscreen upon a shimmering silver ground. He looms almost life-size, as if caught in a full-length mirror. The painting is at once striking, its six-foot star recognisable in a flash, and loaded with ambiguity. Warhol distills his famed serial production method into a succinct twinned image that reflects the overlapping nuances of celebrity, filmmaking, desire and performance in sixties America. Cropped slightly at the head, the two Elvises intersect at the knees, aligned in such a way that the left-hand figure appears to be holding both pistols. With our attention drawn to his pose and finely-tuned outfit, Presley as cowboy is the image of idealized American manhood wryly exposed as a costumed interloper. United with the silver canvas, he takes his place in a flat, empty surface that, for Warhol, functions as a looking glass. With subtle mastery, Warhol mirrors the cultural world of his time, both glorifying and destabilizing its glamorous, seductive fictions.
By 1962, having stunned the art world with his early paintings of Coke bottles, soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, Warhol had cemented his position as the king of Pop in New York. Created in the summer of 1963, the “Ferus Type” Elvises were conceived to conquer the West Coast. Warhol had already completed a group of initial “Studio Type” Elvises, whose half-tone backgrounds lent them a painterly sense of illusionistic space; for his upcoming show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood and the birthplace of the Western, he had something more dramatic in mind. With the help of his new assistant, the poet Gerard Malanga, he completed a new series whose composition would vividly embody the “silver screen” of cinema. Displaced from any sense of narrative or locale onto pure, shining surface, they became celluloid ciphers, highlighting the multiple artifice of Elvis’s performance.
The very method by which Warhol delivered them was playfully theatrical, and is almost as famous as the works themselves. Gallery director Irving Blum received not individual canvases but a single, enormous roll of canvas with a box of differently sized stretcher bars. “I called him and said, ‘Will you come?’ [to Los Angeles],” Blum recalls, “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 should ... they should be cut. I leave it to you. The only thing I really want is that they should be hung edge to edge, densely – around the gallery. So long as you can manage that, do the best you can.’ … And that’s exactly what I did” (I. Blum, interview by P. S. Smith, October 20, 1978, in Andy Warhol’s Art and Films, Ann Arbor, 1986, pp. 221-22). Today, eleven of the twenty-two extant “Ferus Type” works are in museum collections, including another Double Elvis from this series at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Warhol’s apparent relinquishing of control was in fact anything but: he had predetermined the size of each canvas with the stretcher bars he sent to Blum, which he knew would have to be matched to the groups of single, double and multi-figure Elvises. Shown in concert with a series of silkscreens depicting Liz Taylor, they made for a mesmerizing, iterated display of cinematic archetype. Importantly, 1963 saw the beginning of the artist’s own movie-making career. Warhol’s films display a decidedly anti-Hollywood sensibility, disregarding norms of length, subject matter, plot and even sound quality: his debut release, Sleep, shows us a hazy five hours and twenty minutes of the poet John Giorno sleeping, while his controversial Lonesome Cowboys (1968) subjects the Western to pornographic parody. In a similarly provocative vein, the Ferus installation can be read as a barbed comment on the repetitive nature of the Western genre. As a commercial form instantiating predictable rules and roles, the Western in fact constitutes a mass-produced product not unlike the Campbell’s Soup cans Warhol showed at the Ferus Gallery the previous year. The Elvises, themselves a packaged commodity, echoed the soup cans’ supermarket-style rows. David McCarthy writes that in its “combination of reverence and ridicule, of homage and parody, of veneration and dismissal … the Ferus exhibition was something of a put-on, a sham, a provocation by an Eastern hipster who was already making his own films and who had previously dismissed Hollywood stars as pure product … [The paintings’] camp humor mirrored back to Hollywood its essential vacuousness in churning out formulaic narratives in the pursuit of profit, at least when it came to Elvis Presley and Flaming Star” (D. McCarthy, “Andy Warhol’s Silver Elvises: Meaning through Context at the Ferus Gallery in 1963,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 2, June 2006, p. 365).
The place of Presley himself in Warhol’s world was central to the subversion. Famous without precedent, he allowed Warhol to get to the heart of the 1960s. “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). Born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, Presley began singing as a small child. At the age of ten he made his first public appearance in a local talent contest singing a well-known folk song—he was placed 5th. In 1948, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee and at the age of 18, he paid for a couple of hours of studio time at Sun Records, and made a demo, in order—as he later claimed—to see what his voice sounded like. After taking a job as a truck driver, Presley continued to sing at a number of local venues and on the evening of July 5th, 1954, he was invited back into the studio to sing a number of songs for Sun Records owner Sam Philips. Philips was looking for someone who could popularize the traditionally ‘Black’ ballads that the studio specialized in, and bring them to a wider audience. At the end of the evening, after signing a wide range of different songs, Elvis launched into a rendition of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right. After the record received some airtime on a local radio station, the DJ was inundated with calls and messages keen to find out more about this new talent, and so began a music career that would result in Presley become the most successful musical act of all time.
According to Rolling Stone magazine it was Elvis who made rock ‘n’ roll the international language of Pop, making him an ideal subject for Warhol’s unique brand of art. In his role as the American music giant of the twentieth century, Presley single-handedly changed the course of music and culture from the mid-1950s onwards. Elvis’s first record was of rockabilly music—an up-tempo, beat driven offshoot of country music. But it was in 1956, when he released his first single under the guidance of his new manager Colonel Tom Parker, that his career really took off when Heartbreak Hotel went to number one in the U.S. Billboard charts; Presley would ultimately sell over 600 million records during his lifetime. In the mid-1950s he expanded his repertoire and embarked on a film career and over the next two decades he appeared in at least thirty-two movies, including Jailhouse Rock, Blue Hawaii and Flaming Star (from where the source material for the current painting was taken). Presley’s emergence as a cultural phenomenon coincided with the birth of the American teenager—a new consumer market that, thanks to the popularity of people like Elvis, would come to be worth billions of dollars. As early as 1956 the Wall Street Journal identified the potential of this new sector of buying power and identified the singer as a major contributor. Elvis’s popularity spawned demand for everything from new lines of clothing based on his black slacks and loose, open-necked shirts to pink portable record players for teenagers’ bedrooms. It was also responsible for a phenomenal growth in the sales of transistor radios which rocketed from sales of an estimated 100,000 in 1955 to 5,000,000 in just three years later.
In addition to the music, one reason for Elvis’s popularity amongst young people was his sense of rebellion. Compared the clean-cut appearance of his predecessors such as Frank Sinatra, this new generation was drawn to the King’s slicked backed hair, casual fashions and those famous gyrating hips. For many parents, Presley was “the first rock symbolism of teenage rebellion…they did not like him, and condemned him as depraved. …prejudice doubtless figured in the adult antagonism. Regardless of whether parents were aware of the… sexual origins of the phrase rock ‘n’ roll, Presley impressed them as the visual and aural embodiment of sex” (A. Shaw, quoted by R. Serge Denisoff, Solid Gold: The Popular Record Industry, New York, 1975, p. 22). Sinatra himself opined “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people” and the New York Daily News shrieked that following the King’s performance of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle show in June 1956, popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley” (B. Gross, quoted L. McShane, “Elvis Presley’s ‘grunt and groin’ act on ‘Milton Berle Show’ was Lady Gaga-esque act of 1950s,” New York Daily News, June 2012, accessed via www.nydailynews.com, September 7, 2014).
With his music, Presley straddled two segregated sections of society, and it was the racial tensions caused by his amalgamation of traditionally African American ballads with more mainstream musical traditions that caused the consternation and conflict amongst the generations. This upending of convention continued with the film Flaming Star, from which Warhol took the source image for Double Elvis. The storyline also deals with racial tensions as Pacer Burton, the name of Elvis’s character, is the son of a Native American mother and a white father, who encounters a conflict of loyalties when there is tension between the two communities. Thus, raising potentially uncomfortable questions about race was clearly part of the challenge that many felt Elvis interjected into the rapidly changing culture of 1950s America.
In Double Elvis, Warhol plays up the artifice of his subject. Elvis was no born film star, but a rock-and-roll artist transferred into Hollywood by the logic of commerce, much like Frank Sinatra or Buddy Holly before him. His movies were box office hits but often critically panned. As McCarthy notes, he was perhaps particularly ill-suited to the grizzled genre of the Western. “Unlike James Arness and Chuck Connors of television, or Gary Cooper and John Wayne of the screen …. Presley was hardly the living embodiment of rugged, western masculinity. His greased hair, made-up face, delicately turned collar, and tailored costume—all duly noted in the silver paintings—read as a carefully staged, and therefore utterly unconvincing performance” (D. McCarthy, “Andy Warhol’s Silver Elvises: Meaning through Context at the Ferus Gallery in 1963,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 2, June 2006, p. 361). Through Double Elvis’s spaceless silver background, we are made all the more acutely aware that what we are seeing is an actor posing for the camera—adopting a stock pose for a publicity shot—rather than a film still cut out from narrative sequence. The repetition is rigid and unmoving. Double Elvis pictures not the West’s cowboy ideal, a second-hand type-figure being played, somewhat ineptly, by the character of Elvis Presley.
In his study of Warhol’s oeuvre, Richard Meyer discusses the manner of the Ferus installation that not only heightens the sense of Presley as product, but also explores the commercialization of desire. Warhol offers not just an Elvis pair but a serial progression of Presley clones, a battalion of six-foot tall Elvises who fan out across the gallery walls in seemingly endless repetition. In considering this proliferation of Presleys, we might consult the following scenario from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, from A to B and Back Again: “So today if you see a person who looks like your teenage fantasy walking down the street, it’s probably not your fantasy but someone who had the same fantasy as you and decided instead of getting it or being it, to look like it, and so he went and bought that look that you like. So forget it. Just think of all the James Deans and what it means. One does not possess or become James Dean (or Elvis Presley) but purchases his look and, in doing so, begins to attract other celebrity impersonators as well. A loosely organized collective (‘All the James Deans’) is generated through the communal imitation of an ideal image of desirability, through the mirroring of parallel fantasies played out across the surface of the body” (R. Meyer, “Most Wanted Men: Homoeroticism and the Secret of Censorship in Early Warhol”, Outlaw Representation: Censorship & Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, Oxford 2002, pp. 151-52).
Was Warhol as detached from his subject as it appears? The biographer Victor Bockris cites an intriguing angle taken by John Carlin, whose study The Iconography of Elvis proposed artistic similarities between Warhol and the King. “Both came from humble backgrounds and meteorically captured their respective fields in a way that seemed to break entirely with the past. Each betrayed his initial talent as soon as it became known, and opted for a blank and apparently superficial parody of earlier styles which surprisingly expanded, rather than alienated, their audience. Both went into film as a means of exploring the mythic dimensions of their celebrity. On the surface both men shared a scandalous lack of taste. Particularly as both took repetition and superficiality to mask an obscure but vital aspect of their work: the desire for transcendence or annihilation without compromise, setting up a profound ambivalence on the part of both artist and audience as to whether the product was trash or tragedy” (G. Carlin, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, New York 1989, pp. 124-25).
While there are perhaps parallels in these elements of myth-making and parody, a more convincing equivalence might be drawn not between the artist and Elvis, but between Warhol and the blank, silver surface on which the image of Elvis is screened. Warhol’s own manufactured persona was that of a vacuum or mirror: he took on a role of empty, passive receptivity, conceiving his Pop art as reflective of the external world around him. There is a serious truth to his oft-cited maxim that “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, then 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, “Andy: My True Story”, The East Village Other, November 1, 1966). In his early interviews, he commonly adopted a mirroring strategy of refusing to answer questions, instead bouncing them back to his interviewer. As well as the large-scale use of silver paint in the Elvis works, 1963 saw Warhol’s associate Billy Name cover the entire interior of the Factory in reflective aluminium foil; that same year, Warhol replaced his own grey hairpiece with a metallic silver wig. His use of reflection would reach its apotheosis in the Silver Clouds, floating balloons first shown at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966, which Warhol saw as dematerialized paintings. “I thought that the way to finish off painting for me would be to have a painting that floats,” he said, “so I invented the floating silver rectangles that you fill up with helium and let out of your window … I like silver” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, “Andy: My True Story”, The East Village Other, November 1, 1966). These weightless mirror-surfaces echoed Warhol’s own role as elusive, free-floating observer, accepting and refracting his surroundings. He is present, too, in the silver blankness of Double Elvis, which reflects not only the constructed codes and conventions of Hollywood fiction, but also the real societal mechanisms they embody, in a cold dressing-room mirror.