Timeless Beauty: Andy Warhol’s ‘Shot Blue Marilyn’

In my last post, I considered the financial credentials of Andy Warhol’s ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,’ which goes under the hammer on May 9, with a $200 million estimate (see here.) Next, an essay on the Christie’s New York website explores its origins and artistry.

“Since the dawn of humankind, few artworks have truly ascended to level of Masterpiece, an untouchable image that transcends time and place, a visual icon that looms larger than both artist and its moment of creation. Through Andy Warhol, Marilyn is both the epitome of the American Dream and a universally recognized image burned into the collective conscience — the modern Mona Lisa.

 When Sam Hunter included Shot Sage Blue Marilyn on the cover of his seminal textbook, Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, ArchitectureWarhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe became one of modern art’s most familiar icons … As the golden legend of the silver screen, Marilyn Monroe emerged as the perfect subject for Warhol. Both exceedingly glamorous and abundantly tragic, her complex dual nature fascinated the Pop artist. Like Warhol himself, Monroe’s legacy unfolded as a rags-to-riches American saga, lending to her starstruck myth.”

“From the Foundation of Thomas and Doris Ammann, the work brings with it exceptional provenance from two of the most beloved art dealers in the past century. All proceeds from the sale will benefit the foundation, which is dedicated to establishing support systems centred on providing healthcare and educational programs for children across the globe.

The Ammann siblings founded Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG in Zurich in 1977 — one of the most influential art spaces in Europe. Their impact on Warhol’s legacy has likewise been immeasurable. In 1977, Thomas initiated the process of compiling the Pop artist’s works into Warhol’s first catalogue raisonné. The gallery would help publish the first two volumes: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963 and Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969.

Of the project, Warhol’s studio manager, Fred Hughes once recalled, ‘Thomas is a distinguished, educated art dealer, a gentleman, and a very old friend. He has had first-hand experience with Andy’s work since he was 18. He also has a great sense of humour, he would have to, to take on the catalogue raisonné.’”

“‘Warhol’s picture of Marilyn — surely now more famous than the photograph on which it is based — bears witness to her undiminished visual power in the new millennium,’ explains Georg Frei, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG partner and editor of the Warhol catalogue raisonné. Indeed, as Monroe, the actress, fades from public consciousness, Warhol’s image of her remains instantly recognizable within the canon of art.

‘The spectacular portrait isolates the person and the star: Marilyn the woman is gone; the terrible circumstances of her life and death are forgotten,’ Frei adds. ‘All that remains is the enigmatic smile that links her to another mysterious smile of a distinguished lady, the Mona Lisa.’

From 1962 onward, Warhol would continue to revisit Monroe’s visage as his primary subject, revising and revamping his approach to the same time-honoured publicity still.

‘In August ’62 I started doing silkscreens,’ he explained, adding, ‘It was all so simple-quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face — the first Marilyns.’ These early renderings often depicted the actress’ face in bright colours, with her features somewhat askew.”

Andy Warhol used a publicity shot for Niagara by Frank Powolny, 1952

“Two years later, Warhol would once again return to Monroe’s famous face. Arriving at a new method to apply colour, the five 1964 Marilyns, including Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, are virtually flawless in execution. Working from a positive acetate print, the artist was expertly able to align the hand-painted elements with a singular silkscreened layer, resulting in seamless registration between line and colour and a crisply printed chiaroscuro.

However, the apparent care and finesse that Warhol applied to these works was evidently short-lived, as he quickly returned to a more haphazard approach to his colour alignment. And yet, in his quest to arrive at the most perfect depiction of Monroe, Warhol reclaimed the face of the actress for the history of art.

Central to the artist’s pantheon of pop icons, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn immortalizes Monroe as the embodiment of celebrity, while cementing her image into the art historical canon. The last great Masterpiece to withstand the test of time, Warhol’s Marilyn is now a powerful symbol of the ‘every woman’ — from the neglected orphan to the commanding female lead.

As Warhol himself stated: ‘I don’t feel I’m representing the main sex symbols of our time in some of my pictures, such as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor. I just see Monroe as just another person. As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colours: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful, and if something’s beautiful, it’s pretty colours, that’s all.”