Review of Andy Warhol's Twenty-Five Marilyns
By: Michael A. Arnold

In 1962, Marilyn Monroe's time in the spotlight seemed over. She was trying to make a comeback, but it was to not be. She died on August 4th of that year, part of the way through shooting the film 'Something's Gotta Give'. This was shocking, and there have been a number of conspiracy theories about it, as happens after every tragedy. The same thing happened with Kurt Cobain.

However, the memory of Marilyn Monroe lived on – and has continued long after her death. Today she is a household name, known to many people who have not seen any of her films. This is with no small amount of thanks to artists who kept her image alive, turning her from a film star into an icon. Perhaps the first and most prominent artist to do this was Andy Warhol, and out of all of Warhol's works about the star, Twenty-Five Marilyns is interesting and worth a short discussion on. There is a lot of subtext to it, which might help illuminate the purposes behind the artistic movement Pop Art, which we associate with Warhol.

This work was finished in 1962, the year of her death, so it carries a certain kind of power that cannot be ignored. The piece is a square of twenty-five images of Monroe's face against a blue-colored background. All the images are from the same photograph of Marilyn for the 1953 movie Niagara, one of her more popular films. The essential point to understand is that the face in Twenty-Five Colored Marilyns is not necessarily Marilyn Monroe herself but a publicity photograph of her – it is an advertisement. This is important.

The piece could be commenting on celebrity culture. We see so many different versions of a celebrity, think of all the different roles we have seen Harrison Ford in for example, that it is almost like we see different parts of the same person. Each face in this piece is a different Monroe, they look the same but are in small ways all different, but which one is the real one? Are any of them the real one? Marilyn Monroe was a symbol of glamour, sex appeal and style, but how many people knew the real her?

This is very typical of Pop Art as a movement. It was a movement that liked to have the theoretical use of images, colors, objects and people in art as a kind of performance, just like that of any fashion icon or celebrity in an advert. Often this was done to create a kind of art that was directly related to everyday life, and the culture that had become shaped and enveloped by mass media. Pop Art was trying to find an objective view of culture, and to do this the focus of Pop Art was on the typical images from life as it was actually lived. Images of celebrities as celebrities, or of comics show up quite regularly. In this respect, Pop Art was not just related to pop music, such as The Beatles, but also popular art – or art enjoyed by the masses. It is important to remember that in the 1950s and 60s, art was mass produced on an industrial scale for the first time (for example, in collections of art in books to be bought in shops) and here is a reflection of that mass production of images, art and culture.

All art is a reaction to the art that preceded it - Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence should be very much in mind here. This is especially true of Pop Art. While much of the abstraction in the Modernist period, which came before, follows a dream logic influenced by psychologists like Freud and Jung, much of Pop Art is instead very material in the sense that its primary influence was material things in popular culture. Instead of taking influence from unconscious dreams being the subject, the subject was on cultural dreams, like the dream of success.

Culture, including art, was not just being commercialized during this period, which itself was new, it was being commodified. Elvis, for example, was not just for sale, so were pictures of Elvis. It was the same with Marylin Monroe, or James Dean, or whoever else you could name from that era. It has been true ever since. The 'teenager' had only become a cultural idea, tied into ideas of fashion, music and rebellion, during the decade before Twenty-Five Marilyns premiered. This was a world that was moving away from Modernism and was now in the era of Pop Art's Postmodernism.

When the idea of culture was being sold, and not just high culture, we begin to see two things: the banality of culture itself, and a blurring of high culture (opera, classical music, great poetry) and low culture (comics, sitcoms, dirty jokes). This is a critical aspect of Postmodernist thought that there is not a superior culture, but cultures – and in a capitalist system all of this can be sold to a consumer, so the idea of what 'culture' even is becomes a lot more nebulous. For a Postmodernist, high culture is only high because of the power structures that reinforce the idea it is sophisticated and better than a dumb sitcom. Opera was originally a working-class art form that found an audience among the elite, and so became a part of elite culture that wanted to exclude the working class who were the original audience – but there is nothing inherently 'elite' or overly sophisticated about opera itself.

In the same way, Twenty-Five Marilyns is not an elite, classically influenced and beautiful work of art, but that does not matter. What it is is a work of art and is as low and high as an opera by Richard Wagner and a Batman comic. Postmodernism rejects grand narratives and power distinctions in this way, just as it rejects knowledge as an objectively quantifiable thing. Very often things are weird in a Postmodern work not because it is influenced by Freudian idea of psychology, but because it is embracing the societal chaos that exists in our everyday life. If there is no structure to life, there should not be structure in art. Even though the same colors are used in this piece, each face is slightly different, and can still recognize Marilyn Monroe in each. Even if no two images are exactly the same, it is the same subject.

Postmodernism is often bizarrely misunderstood now, and it would be difficult to come up with an accurate description of it, but it started in the 1960s and 70s – around the time that we as a worldwide culture began to obsess over celebrity in the way we still do today. A lot of Pop Art is intentionally playing with, criticizing and embracing the cultural obsession with celebrity that we still have today. No matter how culture is represented, be it art, film, comic or advertisement, all of it is really a kind of art. This seems to be the ethos behind Twenty Five Marilyns.