As an icon of Pop Art and one of Andy Warhol's original 'Ferus-type' Silver Liz works of 1963 this shimmering example is one of only two paintings in which the artist highlights her legendary violet eyes. Executed at a time when she had just become the world's first million-dollar actress, and Warhol's star itself was arriving, this was a true meeting of the cultural giants of their time. Taylor's unusual eye colour has captured the imagination of her legions of fans and helped to establish her reputation as one of the most beautiful screen goddesses of all time. Interestingly, the unique colour of her eyes, which originated in an unusual genetic condition, would have been hidden from the audiences of her early black and white films. But with the introduction of colour cinematography the true nature of her appearance was revealed and it added to her almost mythical status in the glamorous world of Hollywood. As a window onto the soul, the eyes have long been an important way of trying to decipher someone's true personality. Warhol's decision to pay special attention to her eyes in this way makes this canvas stand out as one of his most personal works in which he was trying to establish a direct relationship with the actress and a true connection to her soul. With this particular Silver Liz, Warhol produces a glamorous and very individual portrait that has become one of most iconic images he ever produced.
Painted for Warhol's now famous show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in October 1963, his Silver Liz series was exhibited in the same exhibition as his silver canvases of Elvis Presley. The combination of a legendary rock and roll star and a goddess of the silver-screen proved to be intoxicating. Both stars were at the height of their fame; Elvis had returned after his stint in the US Army and Liz Taylor had just become the first $1million actress for her role alongside Richard Burton in Cleopatra. Painted before he embarked on his Liz paintings, Warhol's Elvis pictures were screened onto a canvas that hand been painted silver. However, by the time he produced Silver Liz Warhol had refined the process and started to spray paint the canvases silver as he preferred the smoother finish the spray paint gave him.
At the time Silver Liz was painted Taylor was at the height of her fame and her appearance in countless newspapers and magazines led to Warhol developing an almost childlike infatuation with the actress. The resulting canvas is the ultimate example of Warhol's artistic genius at a time when he was at the pinnacle of his career. It combines his obsession with celebrity with an early example of his silkscreen process to produce an image which shimmers with Taylor's renowned beauty and also encapsulates some of his early ideas about the artificiality of fame.
Searching for a way of exploring his ideas about art, celebrity and popular culture Warhol had developed his silkscreen process in 1962. He appreciated the instant electricity and underlying artificiality it generated; the inky superimpositions of the photoderived screens and the vivid colours epitomised Pop with their brand-like distinctness. Onto the silver surface of the canvas Warhol made an impression in black ink to establish the areas where the secondary colours would go. These colours: acra violet for the face and neck, phthalo green for the eye shadow, purple for the eyes and cadmium red for the lips were then painted on by hand. Once the purple eyes had been added, a second impression would have been made to match the first as closely as possible.
As with much of Warhol's work, colour was one of his most important considerations and his choice of silver as the dominant colour for his portraits of Liz Taylor was partly inspired by the aesthetic possibilities it offered him and in part by its references to contemporary culture. He first began using silver in 1963, the year Silver Liz was painted and most of his silver canvases were produced during a brief burst of activity between April and July of that year. Silver was the colour of Hollywood glamour and the silver screen, an association that would have meant a lot to Warhol who spent the happiest moments of his childhood in Depression-era Pittsburgh at his local cinema watching his favourite film stars on the big screen. Warhol was also captivated by the associations the colour had with pop culture. In contrast to gold and its links with the ancient world and old fashioned luxury he thought silver had far more potential for his work. The fleeting nature of fame and the ethereal quality of cinema made a portrait of Liz Taylor an ideal subject for Warhol to use for his silkscreening process. The physical qualities inherent in the process also represent some of Warhol's ideas about celebrity. Some intended effects, especially the thin, striated areas of paint insinuate a physical dissolution that evokes a fleeting presence, indicating the transience of fame: 'The silkscreened image, reproduced whole, has the character of an involuntary imprint. It is a memorial in the sense that it resembles memory - sometimes vividly present, sometimes elusive, always open to embellishment as well as loss' (T. Crow, 'Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol', After the Party: Andy Warhol Works 1956- 1986, exh. cat., Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1997, p. 22). Warhol's link between fame and nostalgia is the very basis of these works, which are often generated from old photographs: the one used to create present work, for example, is a publicity photograph from 1950, which predates the painting by some thirteen years. When Warhol painted Silver Liz the actress was at the pinnacle of her career. Her career started at the age of nine when she starred in her first film There's One Born Every Minute but her breakthrough moment came in 1944 with release of MGM's National Velvet, which grossed over $4million dollars at the box office. This was not first of Warhol's work to include Liz Taylor. She first appeared in one of his tabloid paintings, Daily News, a painting documenting her catastrophic illness of 1961. She resurfaced in allusion only, in The Men in Her Life, a work based on a 1957 photograph, which included both her current husband, Mike Todd, and her future one, Eddie Fisher. Most often, however, Warhol was obsessed with Liz as Hollywood starlet: he multiplied images of her characters in National Velvet and Cleopatra. Decades after his obsessive repetition of her image, he eventually befriended Taylor. While in Rome in 1973, Warhol even made a cameo appearance in The Driver's Seat, a film in which Taylor was starring.
Created at approximately the same time as his depictions of electric chairs and car crashes, Warhol's full-face images of Marilyn, Jackie, and Liz followed on the heels of deaths and disasters in all three of his subjects' lives: Taylor's catastrophic illness in 1961, Monroe's suicide in August 1962, and John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. Warhol's early images of Taylor were directly tied to the collapse that interrupted the filming of Cleopatra, referenced in both Daily News and Blue Liz as Cleopatra.
Silver Liz stands out as a shining example of one of Warhol's most important series. It encapsulates his most important ideas about fame and celebrity into one single canvas and in taking the unusual step of highlighting her legendary violet eyes he turns this canvas from a mere image into an intensely personal portrait of a star that he adored. Nearly fifty years after its creation it remains an enduring icon of American culture and a symbol of feminine beauty and most of all, a lasting symbol of the importance and power of Andy Warhol's art.
Synthetic polymer paint, silkscreen inks and spray enamel on linen
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
39 7/8 x 39 3/8in. (101.5 x 99.7cm.)
G. Frei and N. Printz (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, vol. 1, New York 2002, no. 445 (illustrated in colour, p. 398).
Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1988.