Contemporary Art

Andy Warhol and 'Double Elvis'

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And Warhol’s Double Elvis (Ferus Type) portrait of Elvis Presley is auctioned at Sotheby's on 9 May 2012 in New York City. The week before, Edvard Munch's The Scream posted an auction record of $119 million at Sotheby's. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty


21 Days of Andy Warhol is Sotheby’s three-week celebration of the essential 20th century artist with one-a-day stories and videos about Warhol’s origins, influences, inspirations, all leading up to the sale of important Warhol pieces in our Contemporary Art Evening auction 13 November.

NEW YORK

- On the evening of May 9, 2012, Sotheby's held its spring auction of contemporary art. Among the notable works under consideration by the crowd of bidders: a 1963 Andy Warhol painting of Elvis Presley, known as Double Elvis (Ferus Type). Standing 81.7 inches tall and 48 inches wide, the full-figure double portrait of the singer turned Hollywood star was the first artwork of its format to come on the market since 1995. By the time the paddles had settled, the price had soared to an impressive $37,042,500.

Double Elvis (Ferus Type) is one of a 22-piece series of artworks that Warhol produced for his 1963 solo show at the Ferus Gallery – his second at the legendary Los Angeles art space and the follow-up to Warhol's pivotal 1962 exhibition in which his Campbell's Soup Can paintings made their debut. The artist took as his sole subjects a pair of reigning Hollywood icons: Elizabeth Taylor and Presley. Befitting two of the most marketable commodities of the early-'60s silver screen, Warhol used shimmering silver paint as the ground for both the Liz and Elvis series that appeared at Ferus.

"It's the perfect alignment of artist and subject," Leslie Prouty, a senior specialist in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Department, says of Warhol's Ferus Elvis series. "Back then, Elvis was 'The King,' and was this huge cultural phenomenon. And on the other hand Andy had certainly arrived in 1962 and was starting to change the world of fine art." One could read a work like Double Elvis (Ferus Type) not only as an interrogation of celebrity and American mythology, but also as Warhol enacting a kind of confrontation with his own ascendant stardom, by his deliberately choosing to depict Presley in life size and in the role of pulp-Western gunslinger, pistol drawn. The repeated, silk-screened image – one well-inked, one ghostly faint – was appropriated from a publicity still taken on the set of Presley's 1960 film Flaming Star.

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Andy Warhol in front of a movie theater billboard featuring a poster for Tickle Me with Elvis Presley, in Times Square. © Bob Adelman/Corbis

The Double Elvis (Ferus Type) that Sotheby's auctioned off in May 2012 hung next to a Triple Elvis at the entrance to the Ferus show. From there the artwork passed through several hands, including Leo Castelli and Illeana Sonnabend, before a Fort Worth, Texas, dealer sold it to a private collector in 1977. It remained in that collection for the next 35 years.

Compositionally, the Ferus Elvises are unique among Warhol's body of work in that they show Presley in full-figure. What's more, Warhol famously left the cutting, stretching, and hanging of the canvases to Irving Blum, one of the directors at the Ferus Gallery; Warhol shipped him a thick, continuous roll of painted canvas and stretchers sized to Warhol's specifications and instructed Blum to "cut them any way you think...they should be cut," according to a 2006 Art Bulletin essay by David McCarthy that details Blum's recollections. "The only thing I really want," Warhol said to Blum, "is that they should be hung edge to edge, densely – around the gallery." The sheer concentration of works coupled with their insistent repetition of subject led one critic to conclude that, "Toe to toe, repeated atop one another, poor Elvis becomes as thin and hazy as the idyllic illusion he publicly symbolizes; the assembly line produces the emptiness and sterility of soulless, over-managed puppetry."

Tomorrow: Andy and Orange Marilyn

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