Topics in American Art since 1945

By Lawrence Alloway | Go to book overview

MARILYN AS
SUBJECT MATTER

The iconography of Marilyn Monroe divides into two phases. The first is numerically the smallest but, possibly, the most serious; these are the works made while Marilyn was alive. The earliest are by de Kooning and Cornell; neither is tied in tightly to the supposed subject and the Cornell box, from the mid-'fifties, is rather well described by its title Custodian (silent dedication to MM). The de Kooning, from 1954, is a typical Woman painting of the period, that is to say, from the artist's best time. The painting is really a kind of 'eternal feminine' image, with all the gutter power that beat-up paint can carry. The star's name is attached to it as a tribute to popular culture's current sex symbol; if de Kooning's taste had been different it could have been called Jackie Dougan, or if it had been painted earlier Theda Bara, or if painted in Latin America Isabell Sarli. There is also a light painting, dated 1957, by Marcel Cavella (a West Coast autodidact) derived from the publicity for The Seven Year Itch (MM holding her skirt down in an updraft).

The early works most attentive to Marilyn as an image are by English painters. Richard Smiths' MM, 1959, is abstract, but closely derived from a Paris Match cover in which she smiles radiantly. (Smith did a Kim soon after, which was silvery and cool compared to the sunny MM; in 1958 William Green did a Patricia Owens—remember Patricia Owens?) Smith's friend Peter Blake included Marilyn in his Love Wall, 1961, a construction derived from a sensitivity alert to the relations between the separated items on a bulletin board. He situates the mass‐ produced, colored pin-ups with high finesse. Derived equally from the pin-up, but organized as a dense painting, is Peter Phillips' For Men Only Starring MM and BB, 1961. These English painters, Smith, Blake, Phillips, base themselves on the pin-ups and they do so in terms that celebrate the body. The film critic Pauline Kael put down Brigitte

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SOURCE: From Arts Magazine, XLII/3 (September-October, 1967), 27-30.

-140-

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