Andy Warhol’s likeness of Marilyn Monroe has become one of the most iconic images of the last half century and marked the beginning of the Pop Art revolution. The actress was the perfect subject for Warhol who regarded her as a kindred spirit; a fellow artist who was under-appreciated by her peers and whose creative talents were often misunderstood and rarely appreciated for their nuances. The general public was quick to gauge Monroe’s physical attributes but few bothered to praise her talents as an actress and comedienne. Immediately after her tragic death on August 5, 1962 Warhol became so preoccupied by the idea of Marilyn as a pre-fabricated media product that he translated her familiar image into an image that would not only define his career, but also the actress’s legacy.
Ever since 1962, when Warhol first captured the lustrous splendor of Monroe’s face in Gold Marilyn Monroe (Museum of Modern Art, New York), the artist had been captured by her beguiling beauty. He would return to her image a number of times throughout his career included his later Reversal series which he began in 1979. In Four Marilyns (Reversal Series), the iconic features of the actress Marilyn Monroe are shown in negative, conjured up like a ghostly apparition by swaths of white paint. Repeated four times across the surface of the canvas, her visage is seared onto our consciousness, a spectral reminder of the actress in her glory days. As well as celebrating a much loved movie icon in this work, Warhol also began to address his own fame and the extent to which it had saturated contemporary culture. By plundering his own visual lexicon and using the icons which he himself had helped to create, he sought not only to reappraise their careers but also his own. However, as was often the case in Warhol’s work, there was a twist: in these new incarnations, the palettes of his originals were inverted, creating images that were largely dark yet were illuminated by flashes of lightning-like color. In this way, Warhol managed to subvert yet continue his own legacy, shifting himself into a new, post-modern realm.
Revisiting his subject, Warhol successfully captures Monroe’s famous beauty, but this time in an altogether more striking and poignant way; one that still—in a superbly Warholian way—captures the zeitgeist of the age in which it was created. Rendering Marilyn as a reversal, Warhol acknowledges and confronts, head-on, any fears he may have had about being criticized of re-visiting an old subject. By using a ‘backwards’ image of Marilyn and rendering her in a vibrant new palette, Warhol produces a work that looks forward and speaks directly to a new generation of his peers, showing he is still the most adept chronicler of popular culture. The critic David Bourdon points out, “By ransacking his own past to produce the Reversals and Retrospectives, Warhol revealed himself to be one of the shrewdest of the new wave of post-modernists. While modernism had been an ideal that survived throughout most of the 1960s, continuing its self-conscious search for new forms of expression, post-modernism, which gained currency in the ‘pluralist’ 1970s, reflected an ironic attitude towards all aesthetic camps and displayed an indifference to the traditional hierarchies of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 380).
Warhol’s recycling of his most famous image reveals a sense of ironic detachment to his own work that—like Duchamp and his portable museum—refuses to accept the hierarchical status that history has given to his works, preferring to see them as valid only in the context of his own production. In his ‘reversal’ paintings Warhol was re-exploring the potential of his earlier works to become something new and different from the ‘icons of Pop’ that art history has turned them into. By silkscreening the negative image of the original photograph and ‘throwing light’ on its shadows, the resultant image seemingly presents the alter-egos of his celebrated icons. From his Mona Lisa to Mao or even his wallpaper cow, the most successful of Warhol’s reversals is the image of Marilyn Monroe which in negative form becomes a truly haunting and nostalgic representation of this icon of the magical but shallow artifice of Hollywood.
By appropriating his own appropriation, Warhol demonstrates himself to be a tireless innovator, and Four Marilyns (Reversal Series) demonstrated his continuing willingness to experiment. Indeed, the last decade of his life was considered by some to be of the most innovative of his career. In addition to his Reversals, we see works that show the artist to have been brimming with pioneering ideas, both in terms of content and of technique. Warhol was extremely proactive in constantly developing his art, and the present work is clear evidence of his belief that, “They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself” (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art, Cologne 2000, p. 90).