On Andy Warhol's “Marilyn Monroes Lips”
“Marilyn Monroe’s Lips” is an example of Andy Warhol’s genius of forcing the observer to view his subjects on several levels. At first glance, “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips” is a pair silk-screened panels, each measuring approximately 7 feet by 7 feet, filled with a large number of nearly identical, but completely recognizable, representations of Marilyn Monroe’s lips. The presentation immediately engages the gaze of the viewer with its mesmerizing pastel pattern. But instead of nudging this gaze toward inner contemplation and emotional engagement, the repetitious pattern forces the viewer into a numbing contemplation of pattern. Within moments of realizing he/she is gazing at the disembodied lips of one of America’s most tragically cherished sexual icons, the viewer is transformed into an automaton transfixed by a pink and white plane of lip wallpaper. Active viewing becomes passive.
And yet, the lips are not meticulous duplications; they are individualized by the nuances of the silkscreen process as well as the artist’s control (or lack of control) of that process. Too, they are very recognizably the lips of one individual: Marilyn Monroe. Passive viewing is reactivated.
Cultural, historical, and personal memories invade the stagnant images, churning them into active memories. As I look at the lips, I am suddenly back in elementary school. I remember the day “the prettiest lady I have ever seen” killed herself. I remember laboriously reading the few words and viewing the many pictures in Life magazine. I remember these lips. It is my first memory of American beauty; it is my memory of suicide. And as I continue to look at the lips, my gaze gains an attitude. How dare Andy Warhol reduce Marilyn Monroe to a superficial slice of female-sexbomb-of-the-Sixties? How dare he depersonalize her – as well as me in the process because of my relationship with her and her memory? I realize that my memory – my gaze – is simultaneously being manipulated, depersonalized, even annihilated by “a fancy-pancy” (my childhood adjective) artist in New York.
I attempt to retain personal perspective. But my grade school memories have long ago been tainted by the television networks, newspapers, and magazines that turned the death of a “very pretty lady” into a national tragedy through their seemingly endless repetition of the same interviews, pictures, film clips, and newscasts. My gaze shifts again as I realize that maybe Warhol’s repetition of Marilyn Monroe’s lips – and the resulting depersonalization – is symbolic of what the media has done to her. My view of Warhol’s motives becomes more sympathetic. The wave of emotion that “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips” evoked fades just as quickly as my passion for Marilyn Monroe did in grade school. I am left with a vague sense of sadness, emptiness, and uneasiness.
Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips” has forced me to acknowledge – and confront – the intensity of long-buried memories. Warhol’s ability to reduce the vibrant Marilyn Monroe of my childhood memories to lip wallpaper has also forced me to confront the realities of the chilling depersonalization that I -- and all of us – face every day. “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips” is an image that forces me to confront the realities of the gaze: How we look, see, and gather meaning, and how we are manipulated by our – and others’ -- culture, history, and memories.
--September 24, 2002
© 2017 Carol Hummel