The present work is uniquely colourful and captivating. As though caught within an iridescent hall of mirrors, Marilyn’s hair, brows, eyes and lips reflect a dazzling chromatic spectrum ranging from baby blues to fecund greens via a sequence of erotic and arresting reds. As David Bourdon puts it, “[it is] as if the spectator were looking at photographic negatives, highlighted faces have gone dark while former shadows now rush forward in electric hues” (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 378). The visual and auditory reality of New York’s flourishing disco scene – soundtracked by the sumptuous analogue synthesisers of Italo-disco songs – is evoked in a face that marries the glamorous and the ghostly. Metonymised in the icon’s eyes is the equivalence of substance and surface in 1980s New York, as well as the rarefied artefacts this equivalence leaves behind.
In one crucial respect, Marilyn’s luminous mask resembles the artist’s own evasive public persona: both are disguises that, paradoxically, became instantly recognisable through exchange and serialism. In this sense, Marilyn’s mask resembles the iconic Camouflage pictures of 1986. As one comes to expect from Warhol, the form of Marilyn (Reversal) directly reflects these subtle elisions. With distinctive cool, Warhol uses industrial techniques to transform the already transformed – to appropriate and transmute what has already been appropriated. With its slippages and imperfections, the medium of silkscreen lends itself perfectly to this chasm of layered ironic distance. It was in 1962’s Gold Marilyn Monroe that Warhol first made use of the unmistakable cropped film still from Niagara (1953). In an act of groundbreaking fetishisation, Monroe is placed in Gold Marilyn Monroe at the centre of a flattened golden monoplane. By contrast, the present work enacts a chromatic and methodological inversion of this originary moment. Emerging through the background rather than superimposed on top of it, Marilyn’s face is spectral, ethereal; defined more by its absence than its presence.
The Reversal series evinces, ultimately, a deep concern with precedent and posterity. The earliest Marilyns of the series feature remarkably painterly grounds reminiscent of the drips and daubs of the Abstract Expressionists. Likewise, much of Warhol’s 1980s work involves transformations of the works of artists ranging from Paulo Uccello and Lucas Cranach, to Edvard Munch and Giorgio de Chirico. In dedicating his final works to self-interrogation, Warhol knowingly joins a prestigious range of contemporary artists who carried out similar projects in the latter stages of their careers. Jasper Johns created fresh motifs from his earlier works – inventing a meta-cartographical language from his very own topologies – and in La Boîte-en-valise Marcel Duchamp made miniature versions of his past efforts. Marilyn (Reversal) is certainly charged with temporal significance: both prophetic and cathartic, it narrates and foretells Warhol’s own destiny. But it is also charged with the emotion of an artist who, in the twilight of his life, sought to cement his position within the art historical canon.
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