Painted in 1963, Andy Warhol’s The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) is a unique work positioned at the dawn of the artist’s exploration of the silkscreening technique that would become the hallmark of his career. One of only three images silkscreened onto paper, these early experiments with the medium had a profound influence over the development of Warhol’s silkscreen paintings. Printed by Warhol himself, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) retains the hand-made appearance and varied texture that define his early works. Despite the existence of another version of the present work—now housed in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago—Warhol considered each of these works to be unique since variations in ink saturation during the printing process gives each work its own singular textural appearance. “With silkscreening,” Warhol said, “you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across so that the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it” (A. Warhol, quoted in A. Warhol and P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Florida 1980, p. 28). Both innovative in medium and subject matter, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) would form an iconographic bridge between Warhol’s celebrity portraits and his Death and Disaster series. Taken from a scene from the 1931 motion picture, Dracula, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) portrays acclaimed horror star, Bela Lugosi, in the eponymous role, about to bite into the neck of the female protagonist, Mina, played by Helen Chandler. With her head thrown back and eyes closed in an expression of apparent ecstasy, Mina bares her white neck to Dracula’s predatory bite. Mina’s impending transformation into a vampire simultaneously signals her death and enables her immortality, a paradoxical possibility that establishes a connection between this image and Warhol’s contemporaneous portraits of glamorous and beautiful American celebrities: Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy, and most famously, Marilyn Monroe.
In 1962 the Sidney Janis Gallery hosted the New Realists exhibition, introducing the international Pop Art movement to the New York art scene. Including work by American artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Warhol, the exhibition showcased the individual style of each artist. Known as the Prince of Pop, Warhol’s oeuvre interrogated icons of American mass culture, particularly the seductive world of Hollywood, from which an ever expanding pantheon of movie stars projected visions of an idealized life into everyday American homes. Warhol’s own preoccupation with the glamorous stars of the silver screen harked back to his early career as a commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s where he developed a fascination with the fashion and glamour industries. With Marilyn Monroe’s tragic suicide in August 1962 Warhol found a vehicle for his favorite subjects: death and the cult of celebrity. Like Mina, in The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Warhol’s Monroe is made immortal in death, her celebrity secured for eternity. Recalling fellow Pop artist Lichtenstein’s Kiss series, begun in 1962, Warhol’s title plays with the romantic emblem of the kiss. What at first appears an intimate moment between lovers is, in fact, a parasitic pact imbued with horror. Alongside his investigations into consumer culture and the darker side of celebrity, in 1963 Warhol produced a series of works centered around disaster and catastrophe that speak directly to his preoccupation with the kitschy horror portrayed in The Kiss (Bela Lugosi). From his Electric Chair and Race Riot silkscreens, to images of road traffic accidents and violent death, like his poignant images of Monroe, the Death and Disaster series operates within the theme of the vanitas picture, portraying the pervasive, if subversive theme of death.
In the summer of 1963 Warhol bought his first camera and began to explore the world of filmmaking. In his first film, Sleep, Warhol trains the camera across the sleeping figure of John Giorno. The resulting edit was a five-and-a-half hour long slow-motion film of sustained voyeurism characterized by its total lack of narrative. Within just a few weeks Warhol had made several other films that followed this same template, including an eight hour film of the Empire State Building at night and Kiss. Directly connected to The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Kiss, made in late 1963, comprised of several three minute close ups of different couples posed in motionless kissing. Alluding to this connection, Patrick Smith observes, “Just as the kiss of a vampire promises eternal life in death, the Kiss series by Warhol contracts the artist’s participants to a cinematic immortality” (P. Smith, Andy Warhol’s Art and Films, Ann Arbor 1986, p. 122). With these early films Warhol instantly earned cult status in avant-garde filmmaking circles, and shortly after their debut he awarded the Independent Film Award from Film Culture, a publication edited by the celebrated filmmaker Jonas Mekas. Warhol would later go on to reinvent the genre with his Screen Tests, portrait films shot between 1963 and 1966 at the Factory.
The Kiss (Bela Lugosi)
Silkscreen inks on paper, handprinted by the artist
WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF ILEANA SONNABEND AND THE ESTATE OF NINA CASTELLI SUNDELL
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Warhol, January-February 1964.
Princeton Art Museum, Princeton University; Austin, Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Selections from the Ileana and Michael Sonnabend Collection: Works from the 1950s and 1960s, February 1985-March 1986, p. 103, no. 78 (illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Andy Warhol in the Sonnabend Collection, January-February 2009, pp. 122 and 148 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
30 x 40 1/4 in. (76.2 x 102.2 cm.)
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, acquired directly from the artist
By descent to the present owner