Warhol made this painting the year screen legend Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. He painted the canvas an iridescent gold and silkscreened the star’s face in the center of the composition. Like other paintings by Warhol that feature Monroe’s likeness, this work is based on a 1953 publicity still for the movie Niagara. By duplicating a photograph known to millions, Warhol undermined the uniqueness and authenticity characteristic of traditional portraiture. Instead he presented Monroe as an infinitely reproducible image.
Director, Glenn Lowry: Warhol created Gold Marilyn Monroe in 1962, the year of Monroes death.
Curator, Anne Umland: This image was based on a pose, a photograph used for publicity purposes for the film Niagara in 1953. When you look at it close up, there are all sorts of smudges, blurs, imperfections that I think keep speaking to us of Marilyn lost to the world. Her image is no longer immediate. Her eye shadow sorts of slides down a little bit into her eyes. The lipstick is a little bit off-register. Everything is slipping, slipping away.
In other works, Warhol would use this same image of Marilyn. But this one is unique, the only one silk-screened in the center of a glittery gold field, reminiscent of Byzantine Christian icon paintings. So here is Marilyn represented as an object of veneration, but of a very secular sort.
Warhol says there was no profound reason for doing a death series, just a surface reason. But then, of course, you want to know why did Warhol return again and again to the subject of death? When a person is commodified there is a certain death of self involved there. With Warhol, there is always this darker side, as a countercurrent to the bright colors and the popular cheerful consumer imagery.
Marilyn Monroe was a legend when she committed suicide in August of 1962, but in retrospect her life seems a gradual martyrdom to the media and to her public. After her death, Warhol based many works on the same photograph of her, a publicity still for the 1953 movie Niagara. He would paint the canvas with a single color—turquoise, green, blue, lemon yellow—then silkscreen Monroe's face on top, sometimes alone, sometimes doubled, sometimes multiplied in a grid. As the surround for a face, the golden field in Gold Marilyn Monroe (the only one of Warhol's Marilyns to use this color) recalls the religious icons of Christian art history—a resonance, however, that the work suffuses with a morbid allure.
In reduplicating this photograph of a heroine shared by millions, Warhol denied the sense of the uniqueness of the artist's personality that had been implicit in the gestural painting of the 1950s. He also used a commercial technique— silkscreening—that gives the picture a crisp, artificial look; even as Warhol canonizes Monroe, he reveals her public image as a carefully structured illusion. Redolent of 1950s glamour, the face in Gold Marilyn Monroe is much like the star herself—high gloss, yet transient; bold, yet vulnerable; compelling, yet elusive. Surrounded by a void, it is like the fadeout at the end of a movie.