Warhol built his own religion out of a cult of the dead celebrity. Indeed, he is to the cult of the celebrity what Saint Paul was to early Christianity: its first organizer and official proselytizer.
Take a look at his early Marilyn Monroes: just as the lives of the saints were inspired by their bizarre and fantastic deaths, so too, Warhol’s first great subject of iconic veneration was inspired by her death in August of 1962. With his “Gold Marilyn,” he actually sets about telling us what he is up to, for in this painting a single publicity still of Marilyn from the movie Niagra floats over a background of gold paint. This is a deliberate allusion to the Byzantine icon paintings of his childhood which had hovered on the periphery of his consciousness in the St. John Chrysostom Church in Pittsburgh, for it was traditional of such paintings to represent the legends of the saints against a gold background. (Later, the displacement of this gold background by landscapes began to pave the way for depth perspective in painting, but “Gold Marilyn” seems to suggest that under electric conditions, we have reversed back out of Newtonian space into the pre-Gutenbergian world of orality, tactility and the disconnected spaces generated by larger than life icons who shape their own worlds.) Thus, with this painting, Warhol is tellingÂ Â us that he is undertaking the task of becoming the first icon painter of the lives of the electronic saints.
The great masterpiece of his Marilyn paintings is the “Marilyn Diptych” of 1962 in which he sets two different grids of Marilyn serializations off against each other. The series on the left hand side of the canvas (five Marilyns across and five down on both grids) is rendered in vivid, garish Technicolor, while that on the right is in black and white and composed of badly smudged and faded prints.
At first glance, the painting seems to allude to the fact that Marilyn’s early films were in black and white while her later films were in color, but since the color images are on the left and the black and white images on the right, this seems to undercut the normal left to right reading sequence of the West in which we would expect the chronologically earlier images to be on the left and the later ones on the right. Indeed, in terms of Warhol’s syntax, a degradation or a gradual erosion of Marilyn’s celluloid image would seem to be implied, as though he were forecasting a time in the future when our civilization would have gradually forgotten her. As Daniel Boorstin pointed out in The Image, nothing is forgotten so quickly as the celebrities of previous generations.
Marilyn, however,Â is a negentropic exception to this rule. She has gotten more rather than less popular as time has passed. Indeed, she is in process of translation into the collective pattern formations of myth and legend, on the way toward becoming a demigod, like the saints of the Catholic Church.
The dichotomy of the two panels seems to imply something else, something about the dual nature of Marilyn Monroe herself. Just as the doubling of the initials of her name suggest, Marilyn was a twofold figure: a real flesh and blood creature whose psyche was riven by the fractures of deep emotional wounds, and also a celluloid goddess of the silver screen, the object of Everyman’s desire.
Thus, Warhol’s Marilyn is the double Marilyn of two worlds: the real life world of time and space, with all its imperfections and flaws (hence, the badly eroded and smudged black and white Marilyns) and the celluloid Marilyn of Technicolor dreams and fantasies where desires are granted and never frustrated but only momentarily. In the “Marilyn Diptych,” we are given the two-faced Marilyn as she has been bequeathed to us: the Technicolor Marilyn of myth and legend and the banal Marilyn of real life, who was gradually washed from existence in a flood of drugs and emotional deprivation.
When Warhol returned to his Marilyn Monroe paintings for the last time in the late 1980s, he created a new series entitled “Reversals.” In them, Marilyn is painted, once again in serial form, only now the patina of shadows and light is reversed, so that she appears as a photographic negative.
Warhol raises a question here, the same question which Walter Benjamin in his famous essay had addressed, namely: in the age of mechanical reproduction, what is the status of an original work of art? As Benjamin pointed out, we can no longer speak, in such an age, of originals vis a vis photography and film in the same sense in which we can point to a painting or a sculpture or a work of architecture and say, “there, that is the original work of which all others are but copies.” Can we consider photographic negatives “originals” in this same sense? How could we, when it is only the copies made from those negatives which interest anyone? Thus, we are back to Baudrillard’s precession of the simulacra, in which the simulacrum displaces its original altogether. In the age of electronic reproduction, it is only the copies that are of interest to anyone.
But what about the original Marilyn Monroe, the real flesh and blood Marilyn who occupied space at one point in time? Perhaps she, too, was only the negative from which her electric doppelganger was made, the original electric doppelganger that appeared in all of her movies and not the later clichÃ©-laden image that was circulated by the media to the point of degradation in subsequent years.
–Excerpted from the forthcoming Death and Fame in the Age of Lightspeed (Gingko Press) by John David Ebert