Warhol’s Marilyn blows all this mysticism apart. His Marilyn is a Mona Lisa of the highway, the billboard sign, the construction site with its repeating posters bubbled and ripped and distressed by the weather. A peculiar 20th Century kind of weather, that of assembly-line wars, one right after another, and assembly-line diversions, each quickly replaced by identical but paler versions. Ours is a zeitgeist of the disposable. An age of the reproduction.
In the aftermath of World War II, with the hydrogen bomb fresh in everyone’s nightmares, grandeur contracts. The mystery of life and death, that seems held in such tantalizing suspension by the Mona Lisa, falls into irrelevance. Mystery it may be, but of the cheap pulp novel sort, full of quickie murders, false leads, glowing Kiss Me Deadly suitcases that answer no questions at all, and glutted aisles full of mass merchandise. And so the Muse of the Atomic Age becomes a publicity shot of a movie star, rendered in shallow depth, under primary color
For all that, Marilyn is still a daughter of the Mona Lisa, a vessel of mysticism — or rather of what mysticism has become. Whereas Mona Lisa seems to be looking outward on eternity, Marilyn’s flat eyes look only inward at mortality, at perhaps her own suicide. The languid gaze seems full of invitation but the grit teeth warn, stay away.
Warhol did the silkscreens in the weeks immediately following Monroe’s death and purposely chose an anachronistic photo of the actress from the film Niagara, cropping it narrowly.
At the time of her death in 1962, Marilyn was no longer the bouncy punchline of lighthearted sex comedies. Her look had thinned. Her hair was soft and feathery, a modish bouffant favored by Jacqueline Kennedy. She had adopted the Empire style of Camelot.
So the Niagara shot was already nostalgia when Warhol chose it, purposely pointing to the past, opening his work to the interpretations that soon came: His Marilyn seemed a memento mori, a death icon, like the artist’s similar silkscreens of electric chairs and car crashes,
The artist responded in the now classic Warhol fashion, with a dazed look and an oblique statement. “The more you look at the exact same thing,” he’d say when interpretations were pressed upon him, “the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.”
This child-like pose of idiot savant, with its fey emphasis on “pretty things” served to make an aesthetic point. artist as know-nothing, as aw-shucks rube. I’m an American, it seemed to declare, and this is the way an American makes art: Quickly, lucratively, tossed off in an hour. From poloroids and movie stills and the front page of the Daily News. “I just leave the camera running,” he explained when he dabbled briefly in film, “and walk away.”
His subject was always The Star, be it Liz Taylor, Chairman Mao, Campbell Soup, the cow on the Borden’s milk carton — all instantly recognizable brands. Mimicking movie stars who orchestrated press-release “real lives” for the public, he fabricated the starring role of “Andy Warhol, a not quite real character who sprayed his hair silver and was at heart an exercise in American mythology.
Here, in the Andy persona, was a sort of celebration of our national anti-intellectual bent and distrust of dogma, academia and the credentialed expert. Here was a blank proclamation of American exceptionalism, where art seemed to create itself out of instincts and impulses alone, rather than cold, pointed reflection.
In this way, and quite ironically, Andy was in a direct line from his immediate American precursors (and most virulent detractors), the paint-splattering, swaggeringly macho Abstract Expressionists. As sort of a fey offspring that came out of the closet, Andy, to those in the intensely competitive New York art scene, not only outstripped the Abstract Expressionists in fame but served as a never-relaxed spoof on their Hemingwayesque self-seriousness.