So it was all about “pretty colors,” these Marilyns.

We must, as with all art, trust our eyes rather than the reputed “intentions” of the artist. Painting that had so recently been made visceral and personal by the Abstract Expressionists was turned into an impersonal silkscreening process. This, I think, is all we need to know of intention. The impact of the Marilyns, as the repeated image deteriorates or bursts into day-glo colors, is direct and powerful on its own terms.

Pretty ornamental painting in no way explains the many times the artist uses inkily smudged Marilyns or dank, conflicting color combinations. Warhol’s Marilyn, like the Mona Lisa before her, seems to signal over the artist’s head, engaging the viewer in an intense dialogue, one that is profound in subject and troubling in scope.

This 20th Century Mona Lisa is a death figure but no longer a mystic guide to the Underworld. The mysticism has been drained out of her as she grits her teeth and smiles with heavy-lidded “bedroom” eyes, a blunt theatrical effect. The muse haunting the Western imagination is no longer a living woman behind sfumatto, contoured by shadow and moonlight, but a flattened graphic, a roadside sign of mass-produced sexuality : Curves Up Ahead. Speeds Checked by Radar.

What was once a passage to occult vision is now small and inconsequential, stamped out in rows, colors glopped over outlines, features smudged. What you see is what you get, this Marilyn seems to tell us. And there is nothing behind Curtain Number 3 — formerly the Occult Veil — not even a booby prize.

Great paintings, it is said, change as we do, mean different things at different stages of our life. This gives them the illusion of being living entities. Warhol’s Marilyn may one day be as famous as the Mona Lisa because, like the Leonardo, it poses more questions than it answers, and more questions than the artist could possible intend.

The questions we ask of our culture at any given time are a matter of fashion, but the answers great art throws back at us — sometimes perplexing, half-heard or simply misunderstood — are eternal.


*Google page counts for the various art works was accurate as of 2006, when this article first appeared in Nightcharm. Since then, the numbers have multiplied and are roughly equal. Warhol’s Marilyn still edges out the competition, however, if narrowly.