Andy Warhol's Silver Elvises: Meaning through Context at the Ferus Gallery in 1963
McCarthy, David, The Art Bulletin
In the spring of 1963 Andy Warhol looked to the west. He had recently emerged as one of the most prominent of the Pop artists, with important solo shows on either coast, and now anticipated his second exhibition at the prestigious Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Contemplating the environment in which his latest work would be unveiled, and building on the encouraging reception of his images of Hollywood stars at the Stable Gallery in New York the previous fall, he again conceived an exhibition that featured film stars, most prominently the singer turned actor Elvis Presley (Fig. I).1 Appropriating an advertisement for the film Flaming Star (1960) for his series of silver Elvises, Warhol knowingly drew attention to cinematic convention, while also continuing to position his work in relation to contemporary vanguard art.
Although often overshadowed by the famous paintings of Campbell's Soup cans and the silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, the silver Elvises have garnered their share of critical attention. In 1971, the critic John Coplans linked them with the rebelliousness of rock and roll and provocatively described their installation at the Ferus as a kind of "musical mural" with a "rhythmic beat."2 More recently, the art historian Richard Meyer has identified a strong current of homoeroticism animating the series, with the gun, knife, and holster providing obvious phallic surrogates, while the placement of the paintings side by side, as well as the overlapping of the image within some of the paintings, intimated maleon-male contact.3 Importantly, these accounts situated the series within broader cultural contexts, either popular music or gay culture, but perhaps in doing so gave insufficient consideration to the mitigating factor of the local, namely, the historical and geographic context.
It is my contention that both time and place-the late spring and summer of 1963 and Los Angeles, respectively-played pivotal roles in the conception, installation, and intended meaning of the series. Furthermore, period materials located in the time capsules at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as others available to him suggest that Warhol's approach to the silver Elvises was shaped by the printed ephemera he had at hand. All of this indicates the rich opportunity, and ongoing need, to consider the silver Elvises-and, indeed, Warhol's other projects from the early 1960s-with the aid of such materials and the historical focus they provide. It is equally essential to acknowledge the defining influence of the initial spaces in which his work appeared. The results reveal the care with which he conceived and presented the series, its continuity with his earlier and later art, most notably his work in film, as well as the calculated gambit to make his art simultaneously responsive to mass media and modern art, albeit from his nonhierarchical, open and encompassing, if also parodie sensibility.
The impending exhibition prompted Warhol to produce the series of full-length portraits and to show them with bust-length images of Elizabeth Taylor made at the same time. Silk-screened onto silver backgrounds, the series blatantly targets Hollywood, whose larger-than-life personalities inhabited a mythic, and often formulaic, world of romance and action on-screen. The specificity of Presley's costume thoroughly ties the series to the genre of the Western, which Warhol both honored and lampooned throughout his career. The coupling of two famous individuals intimates that a clichéd gender binary was also part of Warhol's intention in showing the Elvis series with the Taylors, a binary that certainly owed a large debt to Hollywood convention. Given Warhol's equal interest in modern art, however, the coupling probably echoed and paid homage to venerable precedent. A likely referent is found in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23, hereafter referred to as The Large Glass), a facsimile of which was on display at the Pasadena Art Museum as part of the Marcel Duchamp retrospective running concurrently that fall. …