Elvis was "the greatest cultural force in the Twentieth Century. He introduced the beat to everything, and he changed everything - music, language, clothes, it's a whole new social revolution." Leonard Bernstein in: Exh. Cat., Boston, The Institute of Contemporary Art and traveling, Elvis + Marilyn 2 x Immortal, 1994-97, p. 9.
Andy Warhol "quite simply changed how we all see the world around us." Kynaston McShine in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and traveling), Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 1996, p. 13.
In the summer of 1963 Elvis Presley was just twenty-eight years old but already a legend of his time. During the preceding seven years - since Heartbreak Hotel became the biggest-selling record of 1956 - he had recorded seventeen number one singles and seven number one albums; starred in eleven films, countless national TV appearances, tours and live performances; earned tens of millions of dollars; and was instantly recognized across the globe. The undisputed King of Rock and Roll, Elvis was the biggest star alive: a cultural phenomenon of mythic proportions apparently no longer confined to the man alone. As the eminent composer Leonard Bernstein put it, Elvis was "the greatest cultural force in the Twentieth Century. He introduced the beat to everything, and he changed everything - music, language, clothes, it's a whole new social revolution." (Exh. Cat., Boston, The Institute of Contemporary Art (and traveling), Elvis + Marilyn 2 x Immortal, 1994, p. 9).
In the summer of 1963 Andy Warhol was thirty-four 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 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 Elvis. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the biggest superstar by the original superstar artist, Double Elvis 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 confronts our experience with a sophisticated array of thematic content. Not only is there all of Elvis, man and legend, but we are also presented with the specter of death, staring at us down the barrel of a gun; and the lone cowboy, confronting the great frontier and the American dream. The spray painted silver screen denotes the glamour and glory of cinema, the artificiality of fantasy, and the idea of a mirror that reveals our own reality back to us. At the same time, Warhol's replication of Elvis' image as a double stands as metaphor for the means and effects of mass-media and its inherent potential to manipulate and condition. These thematic strata function in simultaneous concert to deliver a work of phenomenal conceptual brilliance. The portrait of a man, the portrait of a country, and the portrait of a time, Double Elvis is an indisputable icon for our age.
The source image was a publicity still for the movie Flaming Star, starring Presley as the character Pacer Burton and directed by Don Siegel in 1960. The film was originally intended as a vehicle for Marlon Brando and produced by David Weisbart, who had made James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. It was the first of two Twentieth Century Fox productions Presley was contracted to by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, determined to make the singer a movie star. For the compulsive movie-fan Warhol, the sheer power of Elvis wielding a revolver as the reluctant gunslinger presented the zenith of subject matter: ultimate celebrity invested with the ultimate power to issue death. Warhol's Elvis is physically larger than life and wears the expression that catapulted him into a million hearts: inexplicably and all at once fearful and resolute; vulnerable and predatory; innocent and explicit. It is the look of David Halberstam's observation that "Elvis Presley was an American original, the rebel as mother's boy, alternately sweet and sullen, ready on demand to be either respectable or rebellious." (Exh. Cat., Boston, Op. Cit.). Indeed, amidst Warhol's art there is only one other subject whose character so ethereally defies categorization and who so acutely conflated total fame with the inevitability of mortality. In Warhol's work only Elvis and Marilyn harness a pictorial magnetism of mythic proportions.
With Marilyn Monroe, whom Warhol depicted immediately after her premature death in August 1962, he discovered a memento mori to unite the obsessions driving his career: glamour, beauty, fame and death. As a star of the silver screen and definitive international sex symbol, Marilyn epitomized the unattainable essence of superstardom that Warhol craved. Just as there was no question in 1963, there remains still none today that the male equivalent to Marilyn is Elvis. However, despite his famous 1968 adage, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings" Warhol's fascination held purpose far beyond mere idolization. As Rainer Crone explained in 1970, Warhol was interested in movie stars above all else because they were "people who could justifiably be seen as the nearest thing to representatives of mass culture." (Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 22). Warhol was singularly drawn to the idols of Elvis and Marilyn, as he was to Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor, because he implicitly understood the concurrence between the projection of their image and the projection of their brand. Some years after the present work he wrote, "In the early days of film, fans used to idolize a whole star - they would take one star and love everything about that star...So you should always have a product that's not just 'you.' An actress should count up her plays and movies and a model should count up her photographs and a writer should count up his words and an artist should count up his pictures so you always know exactly what you're worth, and you don't get stuck thinking your product is you and your fame, and your aura." (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), San Diego, New York and London, 1977, p. 86).
The film stars of the late 1950s and early 1960s that most obsessed Warhol embodied tectonic shifts in wider cultural and societal values. In 1971 John Coplans argued that Warhol was transfixed by the subject of Elvis, and to a lesser degree by Marlon Brando and James Dean, because they were "authentically creative, and not merely products of Hollywood's fantasy or commercialism. All three had originative lives, and therefore are strong personalities; all three raised - at one level or another - important questions as to the quality of life in America and the nature of its freedoms. Implicit in their attitude is a condemnation of society and its ways; they project an image of the necessity for the individual to search for his own future, not passively, but aggressively, with commitment and passion." (John Coplans, "Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley," Studio International, vol. 181, no. 930, February 1971, pp. 51-52). However, while Warhol unquestionably adored these idols as transformative heralds, the suggestion that his paintings of Elvis are uncritical of a generated public image issued for mass consumption fails to appreciate the acuity of his specific re-presentation of the King.
As with Marilyn, Liz and Marlon, Warhol instinctively understood the Elvis brand as an industrialized construct, designed for mass consumption like a Coca-Cola bottle or Campbell's Soup Can, and radically revealed it as a precisely composed non-reality. Of course Elvis offered Warhol the biggest brand of all, and he accentuates this by choosing a manifestly contrived version of Elvis-the-film-star, rather than the raw genius of Elvis as performing Rock n' Roll pioneer. A few months prior to the present work he had silkscreened Elvis' brooding visage in a small cycle of works based on a simple headshot, including Red Elvis, but the absence of context in these works minimizes the critical potency that is so present in Double Elvis. With Double Elvis we are confronted by a figure so familiar to us, yet playing a role relating to violence and death that is entirely at odds with the associations entrenched with the singer's renowned love songs. Although we may think this version of Elvis makes sense, it is the overwhelming power of the totemic cipher of the Elvis legend that means we might not even question why he is pointing a gun rather than a guitar. Thus Warhol interrogates the limits of the popular visual vernacular, posing vital questions of collective perception and cognition in contemporary society.
The notion that this self-determinedly iconic painting shows an artificial paradigm is compounded by Warhol's enlistment of a reflective metallic surface, a treatment he reserved for his most important portraits of Elvis, Marilyn, Marlon and Liz. Here the synthetic chemical silver paint becomes allegory for the manufacture of the Elvis product, and directly anticipates the artist's 1968 statement: "Everything is sort of artificial. I don't know where the artificial stops and the real starts. The artificial fascinates me, the bright and shiny..." (Artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Stockholm, Moderna Museet and traveling, Andy Warhol, 1968, n.p.). At the same time, the shiny silver paint of Double Elvis unquestionably denotes the glamour of the silver screen and the attractive fantasies of cinema. At exactly this time in the summer of 1963 Warhol bought his first movie camera and produced his first films such as Sleep, Kiss and Tarzan and Jane Regained. Although the absence of plot or narrative convention in these movies was a purposely anti-Hollywood gesture, the unattainability of classic movie stardom still held profound allure and resonance for Warhol. He remained a celebrity and film fanatic, and it was exactly this addiction that so qualifies his sensational critique of the industry machinations behind the stars he adored.
Double Elvis was executed less than eighteen months after he had created 32 Campbell's Soup Cans for his immortal show at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles in July and August 1962, and which is famously housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In the intervening period he had produced the series Dollar Bills, Coca-Cola Bottles, Suicides, Disasters, and Silver Electric Chairs, all in addition to the portrait cycles of Marilyn and Liz. This explosive outpouring of astonishing artistic invention stands as definitive testament to Warhol's aptitude to seize the most potent images of his time. He recognized that not only the product itself, but also the means of consumption - in this case society's abandoned deification of Elvis - was symptomatic of a new mode of existence. As Heiner Bastian has precisely summated: "the aura of utterly affirmative idolization already stands as a stereotype of a 'consumer-goods style' expression of an American way of life and of the mass-media culture of a nation." (Exh. Cat., Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie (and traveling), Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 2001, p. 28).
For Warhol, the act of image replication and multiplication anaesthetized the effect of the subject, and while he had undermined the potency of wealth in 200 One Dollar Bills, and cheated the terror of death by electric chair in Silver Disaster # 6, the proliferation of Elvis here emasculates a prefabricated version of character authenticity. Here the cinematic quality of variety within unity is apparent in the degrees to which Presley's arm and gun become less visible to the left of the canvas. The sense of movement is further enhanced by a sense of receding depth as the viewer is presented with the ghost like repetition of the figure in the left of the canvas, a 'jump effect' in the screening process that would be replicated in the multiple Elvis paintings. The seriality of the image heightens the sense of a moving image, displayed for us like the unwinding of a reel of film.
Double Elvis was central to Warhol's legendary solo exhibition organized by Irving Blum at the Ferus Gallery in the Fall of 1963 - the show having been conceived around the Elvis paintings since at least May of that year. A well-known installation photograph shows the present work prominently presented among the constant reel of canvases, designed to fill the space as a filmic diorama. While the Elvis canvases immersed the front half of the gallery, the back was used to show the cycle of Silver Liz paintings. Of the twenty two extant 'Ferus Type' Elvis works, nine are in museum collections, while others have been designated as being in highly distinguished collections. The present painting has been in the same important collection for more than thirty years and in 1992 was included in the exhibition Masterworks from Fort Worth Collections.
Although Blum had originally written to Warhol suggesting that this exhibition might be a survey of past work, Warhol insisted on presenting a complete cycle of brand new work, just as he had with the 32 Campbell's Soup Cans the previous year. Blum has recounted how the works arrived at the gallery rolled and untrimmed, and Warhol told him "the only thing I really want is that they should be hung edge to edge, densely - around the gallery." (Georg Frei and Neil Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, Volume 01, New York, 2002, p. 355). Accordingly the paintings encircled the gallery like the flickering images of an early moviola, creating the effect of still photographs in motion, not unlike the groundbreaking Victorian stop-motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge.
Double Elvis is the culmination of Warhol's unprecedented creative journey to this point of his career; both summation of what had come before and anticipatory touchstone for the artistic landmarks that would follow. Its sublime aesthetic character attests the technical mastery of the silk-screening technique that he had achieved by this time. The screening process was ideally suited to Warhol's aim to distance himself from the painterly process: the regimented dots of the screen here are crisply registered on the flat silver picture plane, divesting the work of an artistic hand or authorial voice. The movie star countenance is reduced to a prefabricated schema of dots, and by faithfully reproducing the alien aesthetic of a found image Warhol recruits the technical process to query issues of authorship and authenticity. Moreover, and unlike the preceding Silver Electric Chairs that carry clear shadows of brushstrokes, the silver paint here has also been applied by spray can so that it is solid and opaque, eradicating the remnants of authorship and moving closer to Warhol's impersonal mechanical ideal.
Andy Warhol celebrated and critiqued the power of the icon like no other artist of the Twentieth Century. Double Elvis celebrates a subject that permeated mass-consumer consciousness like no other and, as such, is a principal icon of Warhol's art. Elvis was the subject of almost religious fervor for his worshipping fans, and Double Elvis appears like the deification of a contemporary warrior-saint, the towering, preeminent idol bearing a deadly weapon as if protecting the mythical world of celebrity itself. Furthermore, whether knowingly intended or not, Warhol's silver ground here inevitably invites comparison with the Byzantine Catholic art that was quietly such a strong presence in the artist's life, just as surely as does Gold Marilyn Monroe, housed in the Museum of Modern Art since 1962. Warhol certainly understood that the proliferation of mass communication meant that contemporary America was finding new targets for fervent deification and worship.
Even fifty years after its creation; thirty-five years after the death of its subject; and twenty-five years after the death of its creator, Double Elvis harnesses an urgent power that still defines the foundations of western popular culture: the birth of cool, Rock n' Roll and unashamed sex appeal. Writing less than a decade after the creation of this painting, John Coplans deftly identified the cause behind the enduring appeal of this image: "the most insistent question posed by the Elvis series concerns the nature of their specifically charged content, and the viewing of Warhol's imagery not as signs, but as icons dealing with a larger content of culture in America. To a large group of Americans Presley has long been a folk hero, yet his musical impact has overshadowed his sociological significance. Presley's importance is not simply as a popular entertainer but as a bearer of new verities." (John Coplans, "Andy Warhol and Elvis Presley," Studio International, vol. 181, no. 930, February 1971, p. 50). Both Elvis and Warhol defied convention and were true innovators of their time, and Double Elvis is a major milestone in the journey to superstardom that Warhol would finally achieve.