Triple Elvis [Ferus Type]
Silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen
Signed, titled and dated 'elvis Andy Warhol 63' (on the reverse)
Standing with his trademark proud stance, Andy Warhol’s rare triple portrait of Elvis Presley dominates this shimmering canvas just as the singer dominated the cultural landscape of the 1950s and 1960s. First shown at the artist’s important 1963 exhibition at Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, Warhol’s Elvis paintings join the pantheon of the Pop master’s Hollywood superstars. It was only natural that, having portrayed Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, he should also turn to Elvis as his subject matter. While the others were famous movie stars, none of them achieved the immense and unprecedented star power that Elvis attracted during the crest of his early career in the mid-1950s.
For Warhol—who was fascinated by popular culture, fame and celebrity—Elvis was the ultimate subject. At nearly seven feet tall, the image of Elvis Presley looms large over the viewer. The three figures display a confident posture, with Elvis staring directly out of the canvas with his famous “baby blue” eyes. Using a single screen, Warhol repeats the image three times, each time producing an image of Elvis that is notable for its exceptional clarity and depth. The quality of these renditions can be seen in the remarkable details that each contains; from the penetrating precision of Elvis’s eyes to the individual folds of his shirt, right down to the texture of his trousers, the exceptional detail of this particular example marks it as one of the pre-eminent examples from this important series of paintings. As well as the clarity of these images, Triple Elvis is also distinguished by the arrangement of the figures within the scope of the canvas. In most of his Elvis paintings, Warhol screens a number of images—ranging from singles to over eleven in one particular canvas—in a linear progression, some separated by a small amount of space between each screen, or others overlapping each other with varying degrees of intersection. In this painting we have three images, perfectly positioned within the canvas, with a degree of overlap but without the distortion that appears in some works from the series when the screens appear too close to each other.
This use of repetition was an important strategy for Warhol. In Triple Elvis, the overlapping images are reminiscent of a film strip, individual frames containing a single image but when viewed together producing a sense of dynamism and movement. Elvis was also known as The King, a product of Hollywood and the mass media designed to be adulated and adored. By using an image of Elvis as a cowboy, Warhol also pays homage both to an existing American icon but also acknowledges Hollywood’s propensity for appropriation—taking existing cultural references and producing new works for a new audience. “It was thrilling to see the Ferus Gallery with the Elvises in the front room and the Lizes in the back” Warhol said, “Very few people on the [West] Coast knew or cared about contemporary art, and the press for my show wasn’t 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 back at the kind of movies they were making then—those were supposed to be real???” (A. Warhol, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, 1980, p. 42).
In addition to the impressive proportions of the canvas itself, the impact of this painting comes from Warhol’s’ decision to fill the entire surface of this vast canvas with this cultural icon. Warhol packs this canvas with Elvis’s physical image, and by default, suggests the pervasiveness of the singer’s fame around the world. From edge to edge, the canvas is filled with Elvis’s appearance, with the images—the top of Elvis’s head, the tips of his boots and the left and right leg at the extreme edges of the stretcher—all cropped in order to heighten the impact of this painting.
The density of these images appears to have been important to Warhol as it even extended to the installation of these paintings when they debuted at the Ferus Gallery. In a letter to Irving Blum regarding the hanging of these paintings, Warhol’s instructions were clear. “The only thing I really want,” he said, “is that they should be hung edge-to-edge, densely—around the gallery…” (G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York, 2002, p. 355).
Unlike the handful of earlier images of Elvis that the artist had produced the previous year (such as Red Elvis, 1962), in Triple Elvis Warhol selected a publicity image for a movie, Flaming Star, directed by Don Siegel. It is therefore all the more appropriate that Elvis is shown here against a silver background, a substitute for the silver screen. Warhol was a huge fan of cinema, so it was only natural that he took his idols from movie screen to silkscreen. In addition to recalling the silver of the cinema screen itself, the background of Triple Elvis gives the impression of opulence. The success of this aesthetic would be evidenced later in 1963 when the artist had to abandon his Firehouse studio, and set up the famous Factory, which he coated with silver paint and foil. The effect was a strange, almost-mirrored space that was glamorous and at the same time futuristic. It was like being inside a machine, a concept that particularly appealed to Warhol, who often stated that he wished to be a machine. Wealth, clinical practicality, glamor, science fiction—all these were referenced in the burnished walls of the Factory, and indeed in the background of Triple Elvis. In the silver of Triple Elvis there is also splendor as well as glamor. There is a religious feel to the silver, recalling some of the religious adornments that filled the Byzantine Catholic Churches of his youth. Here, Elvis is presented as the glistening new god for a more secular age, and Warhol has deliberately couched him in semi-religious trappings. Even the pistol leveled at the viewer could be a modern substitute for the lances, swords and spears of the Christian warrior saints.
By taking something from the universe of popular culture around him and presenting it in an almost religious context, smuggling what was considered “low” by dint of being popular into the venerable spaces of the art galleries of the United States, Warhol was enacting a process of democratization that was itself a microcosm of the American Way. The vulgar can become “high” art through the Warholian formula in the same way that Elvis, the son of a truck driver, occasional farmer, convicted petty thief—can become one of the most recognized cultural figures of the twentieth century, and indeed of all history.
There is also a strong element of irony in this process, both at the cost of popular culture and our choices of new popular saints, and at the cost of the art world itself. In the early 1960s, the art world in the United States was still dominated by the Abstract Expressionists. Nothing could contrast more with their outpourings on canvas than the stenciled crispness of Warhol’s silkscreens. In terms of content, the idea of taking pop stars, actors, or Campbell’s soup cans and enshrining them on canvas was clearly an affront not only to the death of figuration that had been trumpeted by critics such as Clement Greenberg, but also to the elitist concepts of the artists who had held reign over the avant-garde and the galleries for the past decade.
Warhol deliberately hid behind the mask of the idiot savant while other artists spilled themselves into their art. Even the silver of Triple Elvis reflects (literally) this imperturbable, inscrutable façade. The light of the viewer’s world is hazily perceptible bouncing off the surface: nothing of Warhol can be perceived within. As he himself said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and film and me, there I am. There’s nothing behind it” (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 45).
At the core of Warhol’s work is the supremacy of the artist’s idea, not the facility with which it is rendered. Much can be seen of Warhol in all of his artistic choices, in his use of Elvis and other idols, in his process, and in the use of violence in so many of his celebrated works. While Marilyn’s death prompted Warhol to portray her in his silkscreens, and Liz had been close to death, Elvis here appears very much alive. And yet, there is nonetheless a jarring violence apparent in this gun-wielding figure. This is a strange twist on Warhol’s later adage that, “Death can really make you look like a star” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Celant, Andy Warhol: A Factory, exh. cat., Guggenheim Bilbao, 2000, n.p.).
This edginess was a striking contrast to the Elvis who was emerging during this period following his time in the Army. After his discharge, Elvis released several records to great acclaim and chart success, and then embarked upon a film career. His manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, arranged a deal for seven motion pictures, of which Flaming Star was one. Elvis retired increasingly from live or even television performances of his songs, instead performing tracks for the soundtracks and releasing them as albums. (It was dwindling sales of those soundtracks that would see him take to the stage again for the “1968 Comeback Special.”) Less dancing, less live performing…and less notoriety or scandal. He was now heading towards a role as an entertainer for a wider public, no longer the hip-gyrating king of controversy. By the time Triple Elvis was painted, Elvis was fairly respectable, and the clean-cut image in the picture shows this. One need only to look at the photographs from a couple of years later of the Velvet Underground, Warhol’s protégés from 1965 and as far a cry as was possible from the smooth, homely, chiseled Elvis of the Flaming Star publicity stills, to see the difference.
Ever since the beginning of his career in 1954, Elvis Presley dominated the world of popular culture. According to Rolling Stone, it was Elvis who made rock ‘n’ roll the international language of pop, and in his role as the American music giant of the 20th century, he single-handedly changed the course of music and culture from the mid-1950s onwards. Elvis’s first record was of rockabilly music—an uptempo, beat driven offshoot of country music. But it was in 1956, when he released his first single, Heartbreak Hotel, under the guidance of his new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, that his career really took off with a number one spot on the U.S. Billboard charts. In total, he had eighteen number one singles during his lifetime and nine number one albums, selling an estimated 600 million records during his career.
In the mid-1950s, he embarked on a film career and over the next two decades he appeared in a total of 33 movies, including Jailhouse Rock, Blue Hawaii and Flaming Star (from where the source material for the current lot was taken). Presley’s emergence as a cultural phenomenon coincided with the birth of the American teenager—a new consumer market that, thanks to the popularity of people like Elvis, would come to be worth billions of dollars. As early as 1956 the Wall Street Journal identified the potential of this new sector of buying power and identified Elvis as a major contributor. Elvis’s popularity spawned demand for everything from new lines of clothing based on his black slacks and loose, open-necked shirts to pink portable record players for teenagers’ bedrooms. It was also responsible for a phenomenal growth in the sales of transistor radios, which rocketed from sales of an estimated 100,000 in 1955 to 5,000,000 in just three years later.
One reason for Elvis’s popularity amongst young people was his sense of rebellion. Compared to the clean-cut appearance of Frank Sinatra, the new generation was drawn to the King’s slicked-back hair, casual fashions and those famous gyrating hips. For many parents, Presley was “the first rock symbolism of teenage rebellion…they did not like him, and condemned him as depraved. Anti-Negro prejudice doubtless figured in the adult antagonism. Regardless of whether parents were aware of the Negro sexual origins of the phrase rock ‘n’ roll, Presley impressed them as the visual and aural embodiment of sex” (A. Shaw, quoted by R. Serge Denisoff, Solid Gold: The Popular Record Industry, New York, 1975, p. 22). Sinatra himself opined, “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people” and the New York Daily News shrieked that following the King’s performance of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle show in June 1956, popular music “reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley” (B. Gross, quoted L. McShane, “Elvis Presley’s ‘grunt and groin’ act on ‘Milton Berle Show’ was Lady Gaga-esque act of 1950s,” New York Daily News, June 2012, accessed via www.nydailynews.com, September 7, 2014).
Considered one of Warhol’s most celebrated series of works, other examples of his Silver Elvis paintings are contained in many of the world’s most prestigious museums and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Double Elvis [Elvis IV] [Ferus Type]), The National Gallery of Australia (Single Elvis [Ferus Type]), Museum Ludwig, Cologne (Double Elvis, [Two Evis][Ferus Type]), Fukuoka Art Museum (Elvis 2 times [Studio Type]) and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (Elvis 11 Times [Studio Type]). Ever ambiguous, Warhol manages in Triple Elvis to present us with something that contains death and violence yet celebrates the singer of the silver screen of the Land of Opportunity. As with so much of Warhol’s work, this picture is a modern gleaming icon, a shimmering promise of wealth and of streets paved with gold, a mirage and a dream. It is a thrillingly opaque picture that today continues to confront, defy and engage its viewer and it is perhaps for this reason that Warhol’s Elvis series has become so iconic in its own right. The star’s powerful physical presence in Triple Elvis acts as a poignant reminder of the enduring power of the personality. A cultural behemoth during his lifetime, even his early death in 1977 did nothing to diminish his star power, and with this painting—with remarkable foresight on the part of Warhol—we witness the continuing power of the man himself.
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Los Angeles, Ferus Gallery, Andy Warhol, September-October 1963.
Seattle Art Museum and Denver Art Museum, Andy Warhol: Portraits, November 1976-January 1977.
Spielbank Aachen, December 1977-March 2009 (on display).
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Le grand monde d'Andy Warhol, March-July 2009, pp. 178 and 180, no. 204 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
82 x 69 in. (208.3 x 175.3 cm.)
Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, Michaelangelo Pistoletto, Robert Rauschenberg, Mario Schifano, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Turin, Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone, 1975, n.p. (illustrated in color).
B. Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, New York, 1990, n.p. (illustrated).
Münster, Westdeutsche Spielbanken, Die Kunst im Internationalen Spielcasino, Aachen, 1995, pp. 5, 89 and 100 (illustrated in color).
Münster, Westdeutsche Spielbanken, Kunst Spiel, 1995, n.p. (illustrated in color).
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York, 2002, pp. 365 and 376, no. 402 (illustrated in color).
Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
Private collection, Italy
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1977
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