A 1963 ANDY WARHOL PAINTING OF ELVIS sold for more than $82,000,000, astounding the art world by fetching millions more than its estimate. The sale escaped the attention of most people outside of that art world. Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale of November 12, 2014, provided a record-shattering night in the sale of several works of the second half of the 20th century. Media attention centered on the Presley painting, which was the biggest work physically and brought the biggest price.
I wanted to present this here for several reasons: I am an art school drop-out and I admire much of Warhol’s intentions and accomplishments. It is easy to forget the impact that Warhol had on how we viewed our humdrum reality: by talking common objects, isolating them, blowing them out of all sensible proportion, viewers were forced to see things they looked at all the time with new eyes.
This is of peripheral interest to Elvis fans, but here it is. I am not an art expert, so I am quoting at length from the pre-sale catalog prepared by Christies:
Andy Warhol: Triple Elvis (1963)
“Standing with his trademark proud stance, Andy Warhol’s rare triple portrait of Elvis Presley dominates this shimmering canvas just as the singer dominated the cultural landscape of the 1950s and ‘60s. At nearly seven feet tall, the image of Presley looms large over the viewer.
The three figures display a confident posture, with Elvis staring directly out of the canvas with his famous ‘baby blue’ eyes. Using a single screen, Warhol repeats the image three times, each time producing an image that is notable for its exceptional clarity and depth.
The quality of these renditions can be seen in the remarkable details that each contains; from the penetrating precision of Elvis’s eyes to the individual folds of his shirt, right down to the texture of his trousers, the exceptional detail of this particular example marks it as one of the pre-eminent examples from this important series of paintings.
Andy Warhol: Elvis I & II (1963)
As well as the clarity of these images, Triple Elvis is also distinguished by the arrangement of the figures within the scope of the canvas. In most of his Elvis paintings, Warhol screens a number of images in a linear progression, some separated by a small amount of space between each screen, or others overlapping each other with varying degrees of intersection.
In this painting we have three images, perfectly positioned within the canvas, with a degree of overlap but without the distortion that appears in some works from the series when the screens appear too close to each other.
In Triple Elvis, the overlapping images are reminiscent of a filmstrip, individual frames containing a single image but when viewed together producing a sense of dynamism and movement. Warhol packs this canvas with Elvis’s physical image, and by default, suggests the pervasiveness of the singer’s fame around the world.
From edge to edge, the canvas is filled with Elvis’s appearance, with the images—the top of Elvis’s head, the tips of his boots and the left and right leg at the extreme edges of the stretcher—all cropped in order to heighten the impact of this painting.
Andy Warhol: Triple Elvis (1962)
Unlike the handful of earlier images of Elvis that the artist had produced the previous year (such as Red Elvis), in Triple Elvis Warhol selected a publicity image for a movie, Flaming Star. It is therefore all the more appropriate that Elvis is shown here against a silver background, a substitute for the silver screen. In addition to recalling the silver of the cinema screen itself, the background of Triple Elvis gives the impression of opulence.
In the silver of Triple Elvis there is also splendor as well as glamor. There is a religious feel to the silver, recalling some of the religious adornments that filled the Byzantine Catholic Churches of his youth. Here, Elvis is presented as the glistening new god for a more secular age, and Warhol has deliberately couched him in semi-religious trappings.
Thankfully, as the Sixties progressed, Warhol chose not to use the neutered image of Elvis that emerged one insipid movie and soundtrack album after the next.
At the core of Warhol’s work is the supremacy of the artist’s idea, not the facility with which it is rendered. Much can be seen of Warhol in all of his artistic choices, in his use of Elvis and other idols, in his process, and in the use of violence in so many of his celebrated works.
While Marilyn’s death prompted Warhol to portray her in his silkscreens, and Liz had been close to death, Elvis here appears very much alive. And yet, there is nonetheless a jarring violence apparent in this gun-wielding figure.
Ever ambiguous, Warhol manages in Triple Elvis to present us with something that contains death and violence yet celebrates the singer of the silver screen of the Land of Opportunity. As with so much of Warhol’s work, this picture is a modern gleaming icon, a shimmering promise of wealth and of streets paved with gold, a mirage and a dream.
It is a thrillingly opaque picture that today continues to confront, defy and engage its viewer and it is perhaps for this reason that Warhol’s Elvis series has become so iconic in its own right.”
The reigning ‘spokesman for his generation’ admires one of Warhol’s other tributes to the former spokesman of his generation (1965).
The anonymous writer of this piece (written in an anonymous lack of ‘style’) used more than 2,400 words to describe this painting in ways that might have made Warhol blush in 1963. I have edited the piece down to less than 700 words, so there is still much more to be read. Please take the time to click on over to the Christie’s page and read this in its entirety.
This photo of the Christie’s auction illustrates the overwhelming physicality of the Warhol painting.
The pre-sale catalog had placed an estimate of only $60,000,000 on Triple Elvis; the price realized at auction was $81,925,000..
Postscriptually, the answer to the question in this article’s title (is an Andy Warhol Elvis worth eighty million?) is, ‘Yes.’ Of course, silly. What staggeringly wealthy collectors do with their money is of no concern to the rest of us. Nor does it have any meaning in our lives—except for it being interpreted as a statement about conspicuous consumption and the chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us.
No, it’s way too big for a mere chasm; it’s more like a void . . .