In the latter part of the 20th century, Andy Warhol solidified his place among the most important and influential portraitists in the history of art through his Pop portrayal of high society and the avant-garde, ultimately transforming the art of an age and cultivating a lasting legacy of celebrity. Warhol’s portrait paintings represent the artist’s largest body of work and span the longest period of his prolific and productive career. Fascinated by the countless people he encountered, Warhol ventured to immortalize everyone from presidents to industrialists, sports figures to fashion designers, movie stars to society ladies using his unmistakable silkscreened portraits as a time capsule. The present diptych, Meryl Streep, is from a rare 1984 series of small format portraits with striking silver backgrounds featuring Hollywood A-listers including Clint Eastwood, Bill Murray and Diane Keaton. Unlike earlier celebrity portraits produced by Warhol in his Silver Factory, there are only five existing portraits of the young Meryl Streep two of which are in The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. In many ways, this double portrait is a celebration of Streep’s two main roles; as one of the most esteemed actresses of our time and as an advocate both on and off the silver screen.
Warhol’s early portraits of society’s leading ladies Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor have been described as modern-age Madonna’s radiating and celebrating the essence of feminine beauty. Peter Brant said, “They are not photographs of public stars but… icons of our time. They are, in essence, holy.” (Peter Brant in Exh. Cat., New York, C&M Arts, Women of Warhol, Marilyn, Liz & Jackie, 2000, p. 3). Warhol’s earliest celebrity portraits from 1962 were based on publicity photographs that Warhol silkscreened using black ink on brightly colored or silver backgrounds as seen again in the present work from 1984. Warhol understood the influence that these celebrities had on American life and played into this universal obsession with appearance, glamour and fame; therefore drawing more inspiration from the pop culture around him than the art history he studied in school. In 1970, Warhol began to use photographs taken on his Polaroid Big Shot camera. During these photoshoots Warhol would direct his sitter through, at times, enough poses to fill five to ten rolls of film and then, together with the sitter, select a final image. This photo would be cropped, sent to be enlarged and transferred onto acetate for Warhol to later silkscreen onto his hand painted canvases. As the first artist to frame portraits like a close-up studio still, Hollywood’s massive impact on Warhol is again apparent. Streep’s day with Warhol is mysteriously and seductively captured by the artist’s ability to freeze a moment in time much like the magic of cinema. The surface of the present work is impeccable: a perfect marriage of the crisp registration one finds in the silkscreen with the metallic silver background pushing Streep’s portrait out of the pictorial space.
Meryl Streep is in more ways than one the matriarch of twenty-first century Hollywood known for her string of critically important lead roles throughout her decades-long acting career and for the voice she has given to so many. Throughout her career, Meryl Streep has been recognized for her exceptional talent and has been nominated for more Golden Globes and Academy Awards than any other actor. Beyond acting, Streep stands out for her unparalleled integrity as an outspoken activist. Streep’s sense of composure and comfort before Warhol’s camera has been immortalized and can be felt through her powerful gaze and subtle smile crisply silkscreened onto the canvas. The careful cropping around Streep’s face makes it impossible to ignore her as a force to be reckoned with both while playing various characters on camera and while using her voice to stand up for what she believes in. Warhol’s Meryl Streep is both a foreshadowing of the icon the actress would continue to evolve into and a nostalgic nod to Warhol’s own legacy during the Silver Factory days where he created masterpieces such as Silver Liz and Double Elvis. Meryl Streep is more than a heroine of the silver screen but a graceful embodiment of the power that comes with celebrity and fame, which so fascinated Andy Warhol.
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