Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ exhibit: An icon who icons admire
A new exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum probes the age-old question, what makes a legend most?
“Marilyn Monroe: Life as a Legend” explores the larger-than-life image of the 20th century’s most famous female Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe, through more than 300 works, mostly photographs, as well as paintings, works on paper and in print.
Like James Dean before her, Monroe sealed our memory of her at the height of her fame when she died tragically in 1962 at the age of 36. The ultimate sex siren of the mid-20th century, by then she had come to epitomize beauty and especially glamour in the eyes of the American male as well as many females who emulated her. In fact, many still do.
Andy Warhol also idolized her, so it is only fitting the Warhol host what is the last stop of this traveling exhibit organized by Artoma, Hamburg, Germany.
“Andy started collecting photographs of movie stars when he was about 8 years old,” says Warhol curator Eric Shiner. “He collected photographs of other movie stars as well, but Marilyn was by far the one who he collected the most of.”
And that is what makes this exhibit a bit different than all of its previous iterations — it contains 100 black-and-white photographs from Warhol’s personal collection, including the 1953 publicity headshot by Frank Powolny that Warhol used to create his most important and most readily identifiable image of her, after her suicide in August 1962.
That source photograph is relatively hidden among half of Warhol’s collection arranged in a grid-like pattern on one wall in a seventh-floor gallery. But there it is, complete with crop marks the artist made in preparation for the suite of large-scale screen prints he created posthumously, a full set of which “10 in all” hang on a wall nearby.
In fact, Warhol was so infatuated with Marilyn, that in 1982 he even posed as her for a photo shoot. The shot by Christopher Makos — “Andy Warhol Looks Like Marilyn Monroe” (1982) — hangs on a wall among several from a famous series of photographs Makos took of Warhol in the 1980s, called “Andy Warhol in Drag.”
“The photo session included a lot of different looks, and in a lot of them Andy looks really matronly,” Shiner says. “But when he put the blonde wig on he was told to channel Marilyn, and it became the most beautiful image out of the entire photo shoot. He actually does look feminine and pretty.”
Just as Marilyn became a pop icon for a pop artist like Warhol to explore as subject matter, many of the artworks filter her through the eyes of famous artists themselves. For example, “Marilyn Liechtenstein” (2004) by En el Jardin de Hollywood places Monroe squarely in a canvas seemingly by Roy Lichtenstein. So, too, in “Marilyn Flowers” (2003) the artist depicts the icon among Warhol’s famous “Flowers” painting from 1970.
Several of the artists chose to depict Marilyn at her most famous moments, such as Volker Hildebrandt’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” (2004).
“This is the entire length of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday Mr. President, frame by frame,” Shiner says. The rather small work, at a little over 2.5 feet by 2.5 feet square, contains 400 images in all.
These are just some of more than 50 works by as many artists in the show, some famous, but most not so.
“A lot of these artists are not internationally known,” Shiner says. “You can tell that the collectors went around and looked a lot, and any time anything Marilyn came up they would support those artists and buy the work.”
Of course, there are many well-known artists and photographers who are represented here, such as abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and pop artists Peter Blake and Mel Ramos.
Ramos has three pieces in the show — “Peek-A-Boo I, II, and III” — that each visualize Monroe nude, but in more of a contemporary context, as opposed to the original 1949 photo shoot by Tom Kelly of Monroe nude, which eventually made its way into Playboy magazine’s first issue in 1953.
Here visitors can compare Monroe in the truest sense of female physical beauty, in the buff, as they say — the original versus the imagined.
“When you think about morphing body types over decades, what was in the 1950s is certainly different than what was attractive in the 1970s,” Shiner says. “These artists are thinking about what’s hot today, because as they are trying to put forth the ideal of beauty, which (in this case) is Marilyn, they might morph her as time goes on.”
Still, Shiner says there will never be another Marilyn Monroe, as shown by this all-star list of renowned and diverse artists paying tribute to America’s favorite sex symbol.
“She was a world-famous icon that everyone loved, especially Andy Warhol.”
‘Marilyn Monroe: Life as a Legend’
When: Through January 2. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; until 8 p.m. Fridays
Admission: $15; $9 for senior citizens; $8 for children and students
Where: Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side
Details: 412-237-8300 or website