New York

“Homage to Marilyn”

Janis Gallery

The wastefulness of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide drained into the Grand Guignol of President Kennedy’s assassination. They remain the central traumas of the antebellum sixties. One hardly expected that Janis’s homage to half of these unassimilable episodes could bite any longer. We are already inured to the displays of grief which attended these events. And considering how Hilton Kramer came down hard in our morning coffee—“It seems to be a rule of this kind of exhibition that where the subject is most explicitly visible, the esthetic quality of the work is lowest”—our expectations were not high. But aside from Kramer’s neat punditry the present benefit show to raise funds for the mentally ill children of Manhattan falls outside his injunction. Many of the fifty pieces—which range from naive Niagara recreations (Marcel Cavalla), Myself Exercising (a self-portrait), a de Kooning classic of 1954, to up to the minute gelatoid color and movie projections (Carol Brown and Carroll Janis)—were more than sordid exposures of sentiment and nostalgia; they were esthetically distinguished and brought up serious questions about the Edenic days of Paleo-Pop, whether or not this was their intention.

Behind the image of many of the well known names rose, at this distance, the ever growing spectre of the eminence beige, Andy Warhol. His Photomaton Marilyn (1962) with its 2-D yellow hair, pink skin, aqua lids and carmine-lipped underscreen—remains the immutable Athena Parthenos to which so many other hetaera aspire, as, in varying degrees, those of Tom Wesselmann, Richard Hamilton, Allan Jones, James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana. But Warhol’s Venus Pudica comes off as Coy Mistress in their soiled hands. But they were boyish innocents then. My deepest scorn is reserved for Bert Stern a Lady Macbeth. who. as an able fashion photographer, recorded the plenitude of Marilyn in warm, affecting, psychologically resilient pictures which form the pictorial core of the Marilyn Myth. But, not content with this gift, Stern has now spawned the grossest lifts of all in republishing the rejected as well as the familiar shots of Marilyn as misregistered serigraphs, flocked silk-screens, and as baked enamels. Stern has kept up in terms of the current psychodelia. In so doing he has affirmed again that a fashion photographer is after all still a commercial artist.

Considerations of Warholiana aside there are several works by equally famous artists which demand comment. Foremost is the ideational and stirring String Wardrobe—Long Dress, Shorter Dress, Bathing Suit, etc., for M.M. (1967) by Claes Oldenburg. From a metal rack three wire hangers dangle the closet ghosts of knotted twine which mime the seams and hems of Marilyn’s celebrated décolletés. The string garments fall to the floor to meet a pair of spiked, grey sprayed, klutzy mules. The tendency observed in the recent Guggenheim International for George Segal to become a more severe designer is again seen in his entry The Movie Poster (1967). In it, a plaster man looks to see what’s playing at an applique silhouette of Marilyn in Some Like It Hot. The recent Fahlstrom is equally arresting. In Life Span #3, Marilyn Monroe, he plays a vicious array of painted, variable scythe blades against a complex hermaphroditic imagery—echoes of which are also sensible in Oldenburg’s ceiling sculpture, Giant Lipstick (1967) as well as Dali’s Mao-Marilyn Monument. This work, stigmatized as “utterly debased” by the humanistic Hilton Kramer comes off as one of the best pieces of the show. I know as well as another how wretched Dali can be. And worse, artistically just how self-regarding he is. Certainly Dali’s fourteen point explanation for his column is an embarrassment one has to put up with in this old pompier, but the interchangeable eyes and mouth of Marilyn and Mao is rich ore as is the wire suspended plaster Ionic column occupied by a modern Mannerist untermenschen lower-middle-class Italian porcelain figurine group. Nasty itself, it is even more demonic in its Dalian alterations—a bloody crotch for the violinist and hungry ants eating at the lap of the pensive beggar maid.

Robert Pincus-Witten