Which American painting do you think is the most famous? Not the best. Simply the best known.
This was the question buzzing around Datalounge, a popular message board for culture vultures. The candidates put forth included Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, even Whistler’s Mother (properly known as Arrangement in Grey and Black), a sentimental favorite of the Fifties that seemed abandoned to the polite sanctimony of the Mamie Eisenhower set.
In such a straw poll, I must cast my lot with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. There are dozens of them, some in single squares that dwarf the viewer like a giantess gazing seductively down from a billboard. Others — more troubling and more profound — are smeared across the canvas in rows, rendered in out of register offsets and garish color combinations.
Much has been written, for instance, about the radical Marilyn Dyptych that goes from bright orange to muddled black and white. The repeat faces smudge and fade to nothing as the eyes scans them. This, some critics assert, signifies the actress’ passage through fame, becoming first a mass-produced commodity, than a suicide.
Warhol, however, would admit to none of it. “I just see Marilyn as another person. As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such colors; it’s beauty. And if something’s beautiful, it’s pretty colors, that’s all.”
The artist was famous for such deceptively “common-sense” observations that on examination prove to be slyly oblique. Certainly no one who sees the Halloweenish Marilyn Dyptych for the first time would ever blurt out “oh, how lovely.”
Yet the popularity of the Warhol Marilyns eclipses every other American work. By the crude measure of the Google image search, both Nighthawks and American Gothic rate approximately 20 unique pages*. Warhol’s Marilyn exceeds 100. (Whistler’s Mother doesn’t even signify, poor dear, on life support with a feeble 8 pages worth of acclaim.)
That the Marilyn silkscreens are great paintings is no longer a serious question. I will go several steps further, perhaps right over the cliff. I sometimes wonder if the Warhol Marilyns may someday rank as the most famous painting of all, edging out the longtime international heavyweight, Leondardo’s Mona Lisa.
In many ways, Warhol’s Marilyn is the hardboiled 20th Century answer to the Mona Lisa.