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Andy Warhol, the Shot Marilyns, and his Early Silkscreens

By: Emma Ghighi

In 1964, four of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe screen prints were shot by an acquaintance in his studio. Since then, the so-called “Shot Marilyns” have become perhaps the most coveted Warhols of all time. One of these canvases, theSage Blue Shot Marilyn, has recently re-entered the public stage, making waves in the media as it is expected to sell at auction this month for an estimated $200,000,000. These Marilyn canvases are among his most iconic silkscreens, and occupy an intriguing moment in the Warhol story.


Silkscreening and Early Inspiration

During the spring of 1962, Andy Warhol turned toward his revolutionary method of silkscreen. His first screen print works included repetitive images of dollar bills, Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and an obscure record cover for RCA featuring a saturated headshot of the jazz musician Paul Desmond. This period was the launchpad for the future silkscreen portraits that would characterize his entire career. Beginning in the early 1960s, the “assembly line” approach became a new passion for the artist, embodying his fascination with the mechanisms of commercial production. The process began by working with assistants and professionals to have an image enlarged and transferred to the mesh of a silkscreen. Then, Warhol pressed it down against a pre-painted canvas background and spread it out on the floor. The ink-laden squeegee was applied over the mesh as ink passed through and magnified the image onto the canvas. In order to maintain the background, a layer of glue would be applied beforehand to keep paint from passing through.

Just one day before Warhol’s birthday in 1962, nationwide broadcasts informed citizens of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death. The esteemed actress and fetishized public figure overdosed the previous evening, and was found in the early hours of the next morning, leaving the country in a state of grief. Warhol became inspired to paint her immediately, and produced his first Marilyn creation in the weeks following her death. The artist generated an original approach to illustrating Monroe, similar to his bold and object-driven vision of the Campbell Soup Cans. Warhol felt that a most basic—yet manipulated—image of her face was all that needed to be seen.


Trailblazing Pop Art

Embodying the Hollywood mood Warhol was aching to execute, figures like Liz Taylor and Monroe became his first silkscreen stars. Notably, Warhol’s compulsion to create art relating to death shines through both of these early creations. Warhol first painted Liz Taylor during the widely-publicized news of her illness, and Marilyn soon after her death. Monroe’s suicide, coupled with her widely consumed image compelled the artist to depict her using the experimental repetitive techniques that he became obsessed with early on in his career.

Warhol’s first depiction of Monroe, created in 1962, is known as the Marilyn Diptych. Fifty identical images of the actress fill the canvas, originating from a headshot taken for her 1953 movie Niagara. One the left side of the canvas, Monroe’s image is vibrantly colored, filled with life and the spectacular sense of glamor she exuded. Warhol constructs her image in the same manner with which the American public lauded her identity. On the right side, Monroe’s image immediately becomes blurred, blackened, and faded, as she slowly burns out of existence, and out of the public’s obsessive imagination. Warhol would create many other prints and paintings of Monroe as the years passed.

Eager to promote his works, Warhol was tenacious for new negotiations. After showing his soup cans at the Ferus Gallery in LA, Warhol began to stir emotions in the art world and wanted to strengthen his name. Director and producer, Emile de Antonio, came to the rescue. For the past year, de Antonio had been trying to connect Warhol with Eleanor Ward, a former girlfriend of his and new owner of the reputable Stable Gallery. Warhol soon hosted both Ward and de Antonio for a night of drinks, conveniently breaking down the gallery owner’s hard exterior. When Warhol asked if she would give him a show, she opened her wallet, fumbling through the coins and bills scattering on the floor. She held up a two-dollar bill: “Andy, if you paint me this,” she said, “I’ll give you a show.” After creating an 11 x 15” silkscreen of the dollar bill, Warhol held his largest show yet at Ward’s gallery in November 1962.

The night was a success. Pop artists such as James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg attended, along with personal supporters like Henry Gelzahler and Ivan Karp. A Time magazine photographer deemed the event memorable, as eight Marilyn silkscreened “flavors” lined the gallery walls. The show ended with Ward announcing news of an artichect, Philip Johnson, purchasing the show’s golden Marilyn for $800. Ward sold almost all of the pieces, netting Warhol around $7,000. It was a sale comparable to Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, ultimately proving Warhol’s success and future pathway to Pop Art fame.


Four Bullet Holes

In 1964, Warhol was living in his Factory location on the fifth floor of 231 East 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan. Among other works, he continued to create silkscreens of Marilyn as her evolving fame—and his fascination for her—never wavered. A new set of five completed canvases with different colored backgrounds leaned against the wall in his studio when two visitors arrived. Warhol’s friend, Billy Name, brough a photographer named Dorothy Podber, and the two gawked at Warhol’s pieces. Podber asked Warhol if she could “shoot” the Marilyns. Assuming she meant photographing his works, Warhol obliged. Podber then removed her gloves, revealed the revolver from her purse, and pulled the trigger, striking Marilyn “right between the eyes,” Billy Name said. Four out of five canvases were wounded, known today as the Shot Marilyns. Warhol reportedly asked Billy Name to tell Podber to “please not do that again” and she was blacklisted from the Factory forever. The four Shot Marilyns have since been scattered across the globe and lie in the hands of various collectors, with a handful of confirmed (and some rumored) private and public sales.

Despite unruly actions, the contrasting metaphor of bullet holes brings a subtle disturbance to the piece. The four canvases in Shot Marilyns incorporate as much of her triumphs as her dysfunctions. Derived from her original black and white film, Warhol portrayed the headshot conversely with highly contrasted colors and an illuminating background, mirroring the bright promises of Hollywood. Although Podber was thereafter banned from The Factory, the Shot Marilyns became some of Warhol’s most unique and sought after pieces.

In 1989, one of the shot canvases with a reconstructed left eyebrow, Shot Red Marilyn, was sold at an auction for $4 million. It was the most any piece of Warhol’s had sold at the time. Centuries later, the Shot Sage Blue Marilyn will hit the auction floor at Christies this month, and has received an estimate of $200 million. Rumors about the composition becoming the most expensive piece of 20th century artwork have surfaced after Christie’s announced the sale earlier this month.

Gunshots seemed to ironically follow Andy Warhol for years to come. In 1968, the infamous Valerie Solonas stormed into The Factory and shot Warhol twice. The repercussions forced him to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life in order to keep each organ in place. Years later, one night in 1972, Dennis Hopper fired at Warhol’s Mao silkscreen after the actor became “spooked” by the portrait on his wall. The two bullet holes were amusingly praised by Warhol as he annotated the piece, Mao 99, with “warning shot” and “bullet hole.”

At Revolver Gallery, we’re proud to continue displaying our own authentic Warhol prints. The Marilyn Monroe Complete Portfolio is composed of ten screen prints on paper originally completed in 1967. The set of 36 x 36” images embodies the actress’ inauspicious adversity as well as Warhol’s imprint on American history. Other Marilynworks are included in the gallery’s collection as well, such as a Marilyn Invitation from 1981.

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