Nine Multicolored Marilyns (Reversal Series) brings together two of the greatest cultural figures of the last fifty years: the Pop artist Andy Warhol and the Hollywood movie star Marilyn Monroe. Painted towards the end of Warhol’s life, this large canvas is a triumphant return to the subject matter in which Warhol first visited in 1962, his iconic Gold Marilyn Monroe, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He subsequently returned to her likeness several times over the course of his career, making her one of his most enduring subjects. With its vibrant disco inspired palette and unique use of a ‘negative’ image, this more contemporary Marilyn (Reversal Series) demonstrates that, even years later, Warhol was still at the top of his game.
Against a backdrop of electric colors, Warhol presents a series of nine images of Marilyn Monroe. While much of her face looks like it has been plunged into deep shadow, her features—her famously luscious lips, her perfectly plucked eyebrows, and her twinkling eyes—all sparkle with high-keyed color. Even her famous beauty spot pierces the dark like a dazzling star in the night sky. In the Reversal series, the contrast between the multicolored and dark elements highlights Monroe’s physical beauty arguably more than any other of Warhol’s renderings of the artist, however there still remains a sense of personal darkness that consumed much of Monroe’s private life. Thus, perhaps more than any of his other Marilyn paintings, these later Reversals are a more reflective portrait of the real Monroe as she struggled to reconcile the superficial nature of movie superstardom with her own complex personality.
Like her legions of fans, Warhol found Monroe’s tantalizing allure mesmeric. He saw in the actress an individual whose personal identity was fashioned by public demand. She was emblematic of the contemporary culture that worshipped celebrities and neatly packaged stardom, and by the time this work was painted in the 1980s, the beginnings of a realization of the psychological damage that this can cause. Within weeks of Monroe’s unexpected and tragic death in August 1962, the artist began to create his famous images of her. Warhol built upon an extensive portraiture tradition that stretches back centuries. There has always been a demand to refashion human likeness, whether to unearth the sitter’s psychology, visualize personal ambition or convey a particular ideal. Here, Warhol challenged and revised classic portraiture through the use of non-naturalistic color, compositional focus on her larger-than-life face, and the serial arrangement of canvases. In this work, not only are we given one reproduction of Marilyn Monroe’s smoldering eyes and sensuous lips, but also nine unique and visually striking renderings of the legendary actress. In several images she sports striking Phthalo Green hair; in another, green or blue eye shadow. As an actress, Monroe was given many different faces through makeup and costumes, and across these works, Warhol shows us a radiant array of her guises.
In addition to updating his earlier portraits of Monroe, Warhol is also reconsidering and reconfirming his own artistic legacy. By the time he commenced his Reversal series, his 1960s images of Monroe had become as much a part of the American cultural vernacular as had his images of Campbell’s Soup cans or Coca-Cola bottles. Reflecting on his subject almost 15 years later, he still captured the star’s renowned beauty, but this time, in an altogether more striking way and one that is still—in a typical Warholian way—reflecting the zeitgeist of the age of disco in which it was created. By rendering Marilyn as a reversal, Warhol acknowledges and confronts head-on any fears he may have had about being criticized for re-visiting an old subject. By using a ‘backwards’ image of Marilyn and rendering her in a vibrant and new palette, he produces a work which in fact looks forward and speaks directly to a new generation of his peers, showing he is still the most adept chronicler of popular culture. As 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).
At the height of her career, Marilyn Monroe was the epitome of Hollywood glamour, but her real life story revealed much humbler beginnings. After spending much of her childhood in foster homes, Monroe began a career as a model, which soon elevated to a film contract in 1946 with Twentieth Century Fox. While her earliest film appearances were minor, her performances in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve in 1950 began to draw attention. By 1952 she had her first leading role in Don’t Bother to Knock and 1953 brought a lead in Niagara, the melodramatic film noir that profited on her seductiveness, and served as the source for Warhol’s Marilyn series. Her “dumb blonde” persona was used to comic effect in subsequent classics such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch. Limited by typecasting, Monroe studied at the Actor’s Studio to broaden her range. Her dramatic performance in Bus Stop was hailed by critics and garnered a Golden Globe nomination. She further received a Golden Globe Award for her iconic performance in Some Like It Hot, shortly before she completed her last film, The Misfits, in 1961.
The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”
In many ways, Marilyn Monroe was the perfect subject matter for Warhol. He viewed 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 5th 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 too. Marilyn (Reversal Series) allowed Warhol to raise intriguing questions about the nature of fame and re-examine his own responses to it. It gave him an opportunity to keep moving forward, to continue renewing and refreshing his art practice, bringing it forward into a new context and a new era of the 1980s.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).