'My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face - the first Marilyns' (Warhol, quoted in G. Celant, SuperWarhol, exh. cat., Milan 2003, p. 62).
And so began an artistic legend. The icon of the screen was rapidly transformed into the icon of Pop Art, securing lasting fame for Warhol and ironically helping to assure Marilyn's own posterity. Three Marilyns dates from this legendary moment in the history of art. It is one of the first multiple images that Warhol made of the deceased star, and is particularly rare in its verticality: of these 1962 Marilyns, only one other is recorded with a single strip of vertical images, and in that case there are only two, in black and white. Here, though, with the triple repetition, Warhol manages to give this silk-screened image of Marilyn Monroe a filmic appearance, as though it were itself related to the strips of celluloid of her cinema career.
Almost the moment that Marilyn died, Warhol went out and bought a publicity shot of the actress. He then selected which portion of that photograph he intended to use for his images. These took two formats, one larger for some of the works showing her head a single time, and a slightly smaller format for the multiple Marilyns such as the present work. These pictures occupied the artist for some time, reflecting his enthusiasm for the theme. For this was the first time that two of his great interests had finally collided: celebrity, and death. In interview, Warhol had stated that he had long been fascinated with stars, and pointed out that some of his first works of art had been pictures of Hedy Lamarr and Joan Crawford. He had a collection of publicity shots and memorabilia of various celebrities, and these figures also came to feature in early works such as his silkscreens of Donohue and Beatty. In the Marilyns, this finally conjoined with his interest in death, in mortality. The slight inanity of those earlier works, which was in a sense part of their strength as strange and vacuous Pop icons, evaporated and was replaced by something darker, something brooding. For death, and its implication of fleeting life, of the impermanence of trends, fashions, celebrities and people in general, had long intrigued the artist. Warhol was being overly ingenuous when he dismissed the profundity of this decision when he stated that:
'I don't feel I'm representing the main sex symbols of our time in some of my pictures, such as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor. I just see Monroe as just another person. As for whether it's symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colours: it's beauty, and she's beautiful and if something's beautiful it's pretty colours, that's all. Or something. The Monroe picture was part of a death series I was doing, of people who had died by different ways. There was no profound reason for doing a death series, no victims of their time; there was no reason for doing it at all, just a surface reason' (Warhol, quoted in ibid., p. 68).
This surface reason was not a superficial reason. Instead, it was more of a reaction to the strange numbing, the anaesthetisation that the media age has introduced when faced with death and disaster. By repeating the image of the dead Marilyn, Warhol makes her appear more abstract and therefore deliberately dissipates the sense of tragedy, an effect that is heightened by the colours, Pop bright to the point of being lurid. 'I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE,' Warhol recalled on the subject of death in his works.
'I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day - a holiday - and every time you turned on the radio they said something like '4 million are going to die.' That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect' (Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol Death and Disasters, exh. cat., Houston 1988, p. 19).
And this effect, this gradual immunisation to the gruesome, was the case even in the case of Marilyn, whose tragic suicide was the source of such international mourning and sensation.
America's-- and Warhol's-- fascination with Marilyn owed much to her looks and much to her history. For who could better have encapsulated all that was good and wholesome about the USA than Marilyn, born Norma Jeane and by the time of her death moving in the highest circles, marrying heroes of sport and culture-- Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller-- and even singing 'Happy Birthday' to the President... Nothing is more Warholian than the American Dream, except perhaps those moments in which it crashes to Earth and is shown to be so much hope, so much bubble, so little substance.
As well as reacting to themes of mortality and the American Dream, in his Marilyns Warhol was reacting to what had become the status quo amongst American artists. The cool stencilled appearance of Warhol's screenprints provided a stark contrast to the Abstract Expressionism that had held sway over the art scene in New York for over a decade by the time Three Marilyns was executed. In this picture, unlike the Action Painting of Pollock and de Kooning, the artist has deliberately kept himself at a distance through the manufacture-like process of execution. In addition to this, he has insisted not only on a figurative theme, but one that is from the 'vulgar' world of celebrity tittle-tattle. This is art with a tabloid inspiration, and as such provides a deliberate contrast to the lofty ideals and epic concerns of many of the Abstract Expressionists. ''Pop... Art'... is... use... of... the... popular... image,' as Warhol drawled to the poet John Giorno the year after Three Marilyns was executed (Warhol in 1963, quoted in J. Giorno, 'Andy Warhol Interviewed by a Poet', pp. 21-26, K. Goldsmith (ed.), I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews: 1962-1987, New York 2004, p. 23). As such, it was anathema to many of his predecessors on the New York scene, as demonstrated by Rothko's well-documented horror at even being invited to the same parties as Warhol and his Pop comrades. It is a tribute to the breadth of his influences and to the deliberateness of his reaction to the Ab Ex giants that Warhol stated that, 'De Kooning gave me my content and motivation' (Warhol in 1969, quoted in K. McShine, Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York 1989, p. 18). Yes, de Kooning painted Marilyn Monroe in 1954, yet two works could hardly, regardless of shared motif, be more different than that picture and Three Marilyns. This latter is an active assault on the hegemony of the previous generation, albeit one in which Warhol may slightly and slightingly doff his cap. For in looking at Three Marilyns, one can see the impossible distance that lies between it and de Kooning's 1954 masterpiece, Marilyn Monroe-- in using this screenprint image of the screen goddess, Warhol managed to topple as many pedestals as possible.
Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen inks on canvas
PROPERTY FROM AN AMERICAN POP ART COLLECTION
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, Americas, Post War
New York, C & M Arts, About Faces, January-March 2001.
43½ x 9 3/8in. (110.5 x 23.8cm.)
G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York 2000, no. 273 (illustrated in colour, p. 241).
Paul Warhola Family, Pittsburgh.
C & M Arts, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.