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afterimage: Screenprints of Andy Warhol

Director's essay  |  Curator's essay  |  The Factory  | works

 

Andy Warhol Elvis 1963 Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaAndy Warhol Elvis 1963 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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Flaming star: Andy Warhol’s Elvis

Ev’ry man, has a flaming star
A flaming star, over his shoulder
And when a man, sees his flaming star
He knows his time, his time has come

Flaming star Elvis Presley (words & music by Sid Wayne - Sherman Edwards)

Andy Warhol, in his 1975 publication, The philosophy of Andy Warhol, claimed: ‘in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes’. From the beginning, Warhol set out to be seriously famous and promoted himself to celebrity status. He made the famous even more famous by producing silk screens of their image. From Mao Zedong to Marilyn Monroe, from Elizabeth Taylor to Mickey Mouse, from Mick Jagger to cow wallpaper, his images were as brilliant as they were outrageous. Warhol was also preoccupied by self portraiture, presenting to immortality his striking gaunt visage and wigs.

Andy Warhol cultivated a most particular persona. Throughout his life he was secretive and non-communicative. Some have said he was a voyeur, but others have argued that his preference for non-participation was part of his art. Warhol really had three careers: first he was a commercial artist from 1949 to 1960, which brought him considerable success; second, he became a pop artist from 1960 to 1968, and developed his ‘Factory’ studio and his fame; third, he was a successful business artist from 1968 until his death in 1987.

Warhol was an obsessive collector, documenting and gathering together a wide range of material, which he stored in  cardboard boxes that he called ‘Time Capsules’. He produced 610 of these capsules containing medical accounts, photo booth strips, reels of film, newspaper clippings, exhibition catalogues, stolen items from hotel rooms and pop records (especially by the group he produced, the Velvet underground). They constitute a major part of the Warhol archive in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Warhol’s film production generally involved images of people sleeping or making love, and he succeeded in his effort to make pornography acceptable in US society. His view of sex was not a prudish one. Warhol’s view was that anybody should do whatever they wanted to do, and they could do it in his place if they chose.

Andy Warhol Electric chair 1967Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaAndy Warhol Electric chair 1967 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Throughout his life he established himself in studios, which he at first called ‘the Factory’. One of his later studios, at 860 Broadway, was known as ‘the Office’. People were, it is said, often stoned out of their minds at Andy’s place and many made their way on to the Studio 54 discothèque where Warhol would be ushered into the private rooms at the back, unseen by the general public, to visit friends like Liza Minnelli.

On 3 June 1968, Andy Warhol became a victim of his own star status and was shot in the stomach and lungs by an actress, Valerie Solanas, an occasional visitor to The Factory, and the sole member of SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. She blamed Warhol for losing the script of her magnum opus, Up your arse, and she claimed that he had dominated her life. Warhol was rushed to the operating room and, following emergency surgery, he learned that Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated. He was hospitalised for two months, and in August celebrated his 40th birthday. In 1980, he recalled of this experience: ‘it still seemed unreal, like watching a movie. Only the pain seemed real’. His near death propelled him to the third stage of his career, the business artist. It made him more reclusive and cynical, as demonstrated in his so-called Oxidisation series, the piss paintings — created through urinating on copper paint — which were a deliberate satire on Abstract Expressionism.

The National Gallery of Australia is fortunate to have in its collection many prints by Andy Warhol and two paintings, Elvis 1963 and the Electric chair 1967. The most popular work is undoubtedly the screenprinted painting of Elvis Presley. The singer entered the army in 1958, and it was suggested that the enforced two-year absence from the entertainment industry would diminish his rock ‘n’ roll career. Jailhouse rock had come out in 1956 and assured his fame, particularly when, also in 1956, he performed on the television series Stage show, produced in Hollywood.

Between 1960 and 1969, Elvis Presley made 27 movies and each one was a commercial success. At least three times a year, Elvis became the hero of packed cinema houses and outdoor movie theatres. A pin-up hero of the silver screen in 1960, Elvis starred in GI Blues, which was crafted to give him a new image as a clean-cut, Hollywood leading actor. This was different to any of his pre-army movies, and the audience loved it. The sound track for GI Blues ran at number one in the charts for ten weeks. Elvis now sought to extend himself as an actor, and he starred in a western called Flaming star, then in the melodrama Wild in the country. These films made money at the box office, but both were deemed disappointments after the  success of GI Blues. Their reception made it impossible for Elvis to be accepted as a serious actor.

Robert Mapplethorpe Andy Warhol 1986 Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaRobert Mapplethorpe Andy Warhol 1986 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

In choosing a film still from Flaming star, Andy Warhol was picking Elvis at the height of his silver screen fame. Making a screenprint in silver exaggerated the point. Elvis stands before the viewer ready to shoot. Elvis can shoot his beloved fans any time, the phallic gun a particular attraction to women and gay men.

Warhol made 28 screenprints of his Elvis, all executed in black paint on a silver-painted canvas. He made single, double-superimposed and triple versions as well as pairs. They were sent off to the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles where Warhol attended the opening. He remarked:

it was thrilling to see the Ferus Gallery with the Elvises in the front room and the Lizes in the back. Very few people on the (West) Coast knew or cared about contemporary art, and the press for the show wasn’t too good. I always have to laugh, though, when I think of how Hollywood called Pop Art a put-on! Hollywood?? I mean, when you look at the kind of movies they were making then — those were supposed to be real???1

Elvis Presley probably wanted to be a film star more than he ever wanted to be a rock and pop star. He would have loved to have won an Oscar, but it was not to be, because he never got to take on a truly serious role. He fancied himself as a rebel-type like James Dean or Marlon Brando, and hoped that he would not have to rely on his singing but could become a film star. In May 1960, Elvis starred in a television special hosted by Frank Sinatra. With this show Colonel Parker, his manager, crafted a revitalised image for Elvis with a gentler musical style. He sang a few songs on the show including Love me tender. After this Colonel Parker, with the singer’s understanding, stopped Elvis from going on television, until December 1968. Between 1961 and 1969 he performed no concerts either. Colonel Parker realised that nothing could compare with the rewards from making Hollywood movies. Ultimately, Elvis never got the star role that he craved. If he could have agreed on the contractual terms and shared the leading lights with Barbra Streisand in A star is born or with Dustin Hoffman in Midnight cowboy, it might have been different. His personal ambitions were thwarted and Andy Warhol caught this with his screenprinted film still from the movie, prophetically titled Flaming star.

Andy Warhol No. 1 from Mick Jagger 1975 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The National Gallery of Australia’s Elvis has a fascinating history. It was attacked in 1963, when on display at Leo Castelli’s Gallery in New York. A former owner of the work, Jan van der Marck, said it was damaged with a penknife by a maniac and then restored. It was acquired by the Gallery in 1973.

Flaming star, the 20th Century Fox motion picture, was based on a novel called Flaming lance by Claire Hussaker (a copy of this novel is in the Gallery's Research Library). In the movie, Elvis is ‘a half breed, feared by the whites, despised by the redskins, and hated by both’. The film was described as a ‘stirring saga of the old west’, starring Elvis Presley and featuring Dolores Del Rio, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden and John McIntire.

In 1964 a Warhol screenprint of the Little electric chair was sold for US$1800. The Little electric chair (pink version) sold for US$2.3 million at Sotheby’s in London in June 2001. Warhol was right about his fame. He died on 22 February 1987 at the age of 58. His morbid fear of hospitals had led him to postpone what was to be a routine operation on his gall bladder. The operation went well but, post-operation, he became over-hydrated and started to turn blue. His private nurse, who was reading her Bible, was so engrossed that she failed to notice and by then it was too late. Andy Warhol had died.

 

Brian Kennedy
Director

 

 

 

 

 

1 Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett (eds)POPism: the Warhol ‘60s New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980 p.42