In the fall of 1963 Andy Warhol was thirty-five years old and transforming the parameters of visual culture in America. The focus of his signature silkscreen was leveled at subjects he brilliantly perceived as the most important concerns of day to day contemporary life. By appropriating the visual vernacular of consumer culture and multiplying readymade images gleaned from newspapers, magazines and advertising, he turned a mirror onto the contradictions behind quotidian existence. Above all else he was obsessed with themes of fame, celebrity and death, executing intensely multifaceted and complex works in series that continue to resound with universal relevance. His unprecedented practice re-presented how society viewed itself, simultaneously reinforcing and radically undermining the collective psychology of popular culture. He epitomized the tide of change that swept through the 1960s and, as Kynaston McShine has concisely stated, "He quite simply changed how we all see the world around us." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and traveling), Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 1996, p. 13)
Thus in the summer of 1963 there could not have been a more perfect alignment of artist and subject than Warhol and Liz. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the biggest superstar by the original superstar artist, Liz#3 is a historic paradigm of Pop Art from a breath-taking moment in Art History. With devastating immediacy and efficiency, Warhol's canvas seduces our view with a stunning aesthetic and is an indisputable icon for our age.
Warhol’s magnificent Liz #3, executed between October and November 1963, is one of a rare series of Elizabeth Taylor produced by the master of Pop Art on colored backgrounds. This series of jewel-toned portrait paintings represents the apotheosis of Warhol’s ground-breaking creative vision, both as the technician of the (still then) revolutionary silkscreen process and the architect of iconic visual treatises on the modern vagaries of celebrity. This luminous portrait not only captures the ironically dark essence of Twentieth Century glamour and fame, it also speaks of a time of growing fame for Warhol himself. The numerical title of Liz #3 originates from the first exhibition of this series at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, where six of the colored Liz paintings appeared in a December 1963 show fittingly titled An American Viewpoint.
As with his images of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, Warhol’s depictions of Elizabeth Taylor display not so much his ambition to record the prose of physical likeness, but more his love affair with the drama and glamour of celebrity. For Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor was much more than just a celebrated actress. She was the survivor of a near fatal illness, a goddess of the silver screen and the grand embodiment of the trinity of mortality, celebrity and fame which so fascinated the artist. Warhol’s deep involvement with the image of Elizabeth Taylor appeared very early in his career, beginning with his Death and Disaster paintings. When Warhol was still largely painting his canvases by hand, he borrowed subject matter from the front pages of tabloids and newspapers, beginning in 1961. Warhol’s second and largest "headline’’ painting, Daily News (1962), was based on the front and back pages of a March 29, 1962 newspaper with the front page headline "Eddie Fisher Breaks Down: In Hospital Here, Liz in Rome." For Warhol, tabloid papers were either vehicles for mass disaster, rendering tragic circumstances almost mundane by their commonplace repetition, or the purveyors of celebrity and fame to an avid audience. In figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy, Warhol found the ideal subjects that combined both aspects of the mass media culture where accessibility turned private tragedy into public myth. By isolating and then serializing such images, Warhol began the practice of essentially commodifying celebrity, just as he had earlier catalogued the darker side of life with his various images of car crashes, race riots and electric chairs. This, in turn, would affect a later generation of artists, most notably Jeff Koons, whose work seems to celebrate the Warholian process of ‘commodification’.
In the early 1960s, Liz Taylor had emerged from a string of successful films that signaled her complete transformation from the child star of National Velvet (1944) to the heated sex symbol of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Butterfield 8 (1960). Often, Taylor’s personal life superceded her professional accomplishments as the public passionately followed her early marriages, the tragic death of her third husband Mike Todd and her role as the other woman in the break-up of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ marriage – all before the actress had turned 30. When Warhol painted this portrait, Taylor was 31 years, wed to her fourth husband, and about to engage her fifth. From 1950 to 1951 she had been married to the hotel heir and one of America’s most eligible bachelors, Conrad Hilton; between 1952 and 1957 to Michael Wilding, one of the most popular English screen actors of the late 1940s and early 1950s; to the entrepreneurial producer, Mike Todd from 1957 until his plane Lucky Liz crashed and he died in 1958; and Todd’s best friend and most successful pop singer of the early 1950s, Eddie Fisher from 1959 to 1964. Of course, by the time Warhol was screening his canvas in New York in the Fall of 1963, Taylor’s deeply impassioned and apparently unstoppable affair with her Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton had been internationally sensationalized through the relentless engines of mass-media, and was so globally notorious as to have been condemned by the Vatican. The union of Taylor and Burton, “the most famous movie star in the world and the man many believed to be the finest classical actor of his generation” (Mel Gussow, “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour: Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011,” The New York Times, March 23, 2011) immediately proved irresistible to legions of ardent devotees. A legendary chapter of Hollywood history, the passionate, tempestuous, Burton-Taylor romance defined a new register of celebrity adoration.
Most tellingly for Warhol, the young voluptuous Liz had also had a dramatic brush with early death. After begrudgingly playing the prostitute role in Butterfield 8, Taylor traveled to London in 1960 with her then husband Fisher to begin filming Cleopatra. While there, the actress suffered from a near-fatal respiratory illness during which she was actually briefly pronounced dead, finally recovering after an emergency tracheotomy. While Taylor had been acknowledged by critics and Hollywood with Oscar nominations for two previous roles in the late 1950s, it was her role in Butterfield 8 that garnered the actress her first Academy Award. The sympathy engendered by her operation and illness was perceived as a factor in her award, as her scar was visibly apparent on the night of the ceremonies.
This combination of glamour and tragedy appealed to Warhol’s fascination with fame and his own deep sense of morbidity, and in 1962 the personae of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor would become Warhol’s ultimate muses in establishing iconic symbols of popular culture. While his series of colored Marilyn paintings were inspired by the shocking news of Monroe’s suicide in August 1962, Warhol’s focus on Elizabeth Taylor was generated from a ten page feature on her marital history and career in the April 13, 1962 issue of Life, portraying Taylor on the cover with her new passion, Richard Burton, under the banner headline "Blazing New Page in the Legend of Liz." Warhol chose images from this article to create several works of the actress in a retrospective vein from an early photograph of her role in National Velvet to a still from the upcoming movie Cleopatra, for which the actress was receiving the unprecedented salary of one million dollars. The most arresting image Warhol used was a group photograph of Liz, her third husband Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds at the Epsom Downs horse race prior to the scandalous intrigue of her romance with Eddie. In October-November 1962, Warhol used this image in four paintings all titled The Men in Her Life, memorializing this period as a preamble to the red-hot intensity of the publicity machine that was thriving on her tempestuous - and extremely public - affair with Burton. While Cleopatra would become notorious for its lavish budget and protracted production over years, its reception on its release in 1963 was cool and unforgiving as opposed to the career-enhancing publicity of the Burton-Taylor scandal.
In the summer of 1963, Taylor’s role as an icon of luxury, decadence, sexuality and celebrity was at its height, when Warhol chose a publicity shot of the actress in the late 1950s to match the iconic pose he was using in his silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe’s studio publicity shot. As in the case of Monroe, Warhol sought to capture her physical attributes – her public mask of hair and makeup – rather than a biographical or career moment. At first, Warhol screened this image over silver backgrounds in the summer of 1963, at the same time he was screening his Silver Elvis paintings, and both series were shown at the Ferus Gallery in October 1963. However in October-November 1963, Warhol soon moved to the multi-colored backgrounds that he was using for his 20 by 16 inch Marilyn paintings of late 1962. With his Liz portraits, Warhol inaugurated the most classic format for his modern muses – the 40 by 40 inch canvases in which his goddess is centrally placed and evenly balanced. Set against bold colors, the thirteen Colored Liz paintings command our attention and seduce our senses. The Marilyn and Jackie paintings in this format followed in the summer of 1964. Like modern-day Madonnas, the images of these three women were refined down to their basic attributes contrasted dramatically against brilliant colored backgrounds; in the case of Liz Taylor, her abundant dark hair, her brilliantly hued eyes, her perfectly arched brow and her voluptuous red lips were the signs of her immortality as a public image.
From the very first moment one encounters this painting, one is seduced by the stunning mint green hue that bursts from the surface. It seeps into the sitter’s hair, displaying pyrotechnics of color and screen. Punctuating these bold passages are the shocking turquoise of her eye-shadow as well as the famous blue tones of her eyes. This strong chromatic field sets the stage upon which the star herself is realized. Warhol’s silkscreen technique, still a relatively new phenomenon to him in 1963, is beautifully executed here. There is a wonderful balance between the crisp record of the overall form, together with softer, more subtle areas of screen that shape the shadows around her nose, cheek and neck. One finds in this series of Colored Liz paintings a more confident Warhol with the silkscreen. The early experiments had been made, and now he wished to explore the various nuances this new technique presented to him.
Liz #3 powerfully sums up the extraordinary contribution Warhol made to the lexis and praxis of art. An image of a film star, purloined from a publicity photograph, becomes iconic not just of the vagaries of life and death, but also of the questions of beauty, and how society embraces and nurtures such a dynamic. The aesthetic and the conceptual are thus inextricably linked, revealing Warhol’s focus on searching questions of how and why celebrity matters. Moreover, underpinning the visual and intellectual rewards we garner from Liz #3, the extraordinary technical achievement Warhol made, here perfected in the silkscreen technique, creates an astonishing work that truly broadcasts the essence of an icon.
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