warhol elvis worth eighty million?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 5 min­utes.

THE ANDY WARHOL 1963 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:

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.

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.

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 . . .




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