She seems to have risen from the earth and shaken off the snow that has covered her bare shoulders, arms, and ankles over the past few months.
“She” is the 28-foot-tall “Forever Marilyn,” as in Monroe, and a towering sculpture that has spent a cold winter at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton. But now with her flowing white dress and smiling face, she seems to resemble an image from mythology, perhaps the German goddess Eastre (whose name inspired the word Easter) or Aphrodite (a root of the name April). No matter, this Marilyn standing bright in the sun against a grove of budding trees can be easily taken as a visual announcement that spring has arrived.
Marilyn is also an announcement that the Seward Johnson Retrospective, originally slated to close last year, continues through July 1 in a modified format that includes hundreds of GFS founder Johnson’s popular and familiar works. That obviously includes Marilyn, whose visage has become a viable theme in American art.
Marilyn first started becoming art when a hopeful young brunette named Norma Jeane Baker allowed herself to become the artifice known as Marilyn Monroe — a voluptuous blond concoction created by film producer Ben Lyon, who suggested the alliterative Marilyn, and Baker’s mother, whose maiden name was Monroe. The result was a manufactured sex image branded with a flowing, elegant, and alluring name.
“Forever Marilyn” is part of Johnson’s Icons Revisited series, giant works based on familiar images in mainly American art and culture. Others works in the series include the V-J Day couple kissing in Times Square and the farmer couple in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”
With “Forever Marilyn” Johnson captures a famous film moment in “The Seven Year Itch” — the one when Monroe’s vivacious character stands on a subway vent and allows the rising air from a passing car to lift her skirt and give the 1955 audience a racy thrill.
Johnson says of sculpture, “I have always felt that Marilyn’s white dress with the expanse of pleating was perfect to show her joie de vivre. It practically floats around her. Of course attempting to get this same freedom in heavy metals is something quite challenging. I had engineers working with me for many weeks sorting out the weight balance so that her cantilevered skirt did not weigh her down so much that she fell backwards. We ended up weighting the grate with 20,000 extra pounds of steel to keep her stable. But Marilyn’s perfect peek-toe sandals and her halter-top — they all come together to bring a freshness to her natural sexiness that just works.”
“Forever Marilyn” proves a popular attraction at GFS and at other places that have shown her. That includes Palm Springs, California, where there was a local outcry when the statue was moved to the Grounds For Sculpture retrospective, where visitors flock to have photos taken at her ankles, with some men gesturing upward like naughty little boys at the statue’s underwear, and some women standing tall and strong, as if to absorb some of Marilyn’s allure.
While Johnson has made Marilyn into a popular art work, he is not the first — or last — artist to put Monroe into the art scene. The first was Andy Warhol, who began creating works using Monroe’s image immediately after her death from a sleeping pill overdose in 1962.
The Princeton University Art Museum’s note on its “Blue Marilyn” by Warhol is revealing: “Pop artist Andy Warhol was fascinated by celebrities and preoccupied with loss, mortality, and disaster. Warhol began producing his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe shortly after the troubled actress committed suicide in August, 1962. Around the same time, he began experimenting with silk-screening, a technique he used to reproduce existing photographs repeatedly, as if on an assembly line. Silk-screening tends to flatten the resulting image both literally and symbolically. Even the addition of acrylic paint, applied by the artist, does little to animate the Marilyn depicted here.
“‘Blue Marilyn’ belongs to the Marilyn Flavors series, eight of which, including this one, debuted at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1962. Like many of Warhol’s Monroe portraits, they are based on a black-and-white publicity still from the actor’s 1953 film ‘Niagara.’” The gallery label adds that “Andy Warhol was fascinated by celebrities — people who were more image than flesh.”
The idea of “being something more-than-mortal” is keener in Warhol’s “Gold Marilyn Monroe,” a work deceptive in its simplicity and presumed irony. According to the Museum of Modern Art, which owns the work, Warhol “painted the background gold before silk screening the boldly colored face in the center, adding black to show her features. Even as Warhol canonizes Monroe, he reveals her public persona as a carefully structured illusion.”
The word “canonizes” is not to be taken lightly. As the late Jane Daggett Dillenberger, a writer and professor of visual arts and theology at Graduate Theological Union (Berkley, California), noted in her “The Religious Art of Andy Warhol,” “Warhol can be seen as ritual artist, one who uses serial repetition like a secular liturgy. He paints the ‘religious’ icons of contemporary culture, the ‘saints’ of 20th-century American pop culture, using a communal art-making process reminiscent of early Eastern icon painters. In his factory, like a medieval monastery, he turns cultural junk into ‘high’ art, the banal into objects of devotion.”
Princeton-based novelist Joyce Carol Oates — a friend of Seward Johnson — also uses the transformation of an individual into an idea as a subject for her book based on Marilyn Monroe, “Blonde.”
Says Oates in a published interview about the book: “Some years ago I happened to see a photograph of the 17-year-old Norma Jeane Baker. With her longish dark curly hair, artificial flowers on her head, locket around her neck, she looked nothing like the iconic ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ I felt an immediate sense of something like recognition; this young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes.
“For days I felt an almost rapturous sense of excitement that I might give life to this lost, lone girl, whom the iconic consumer-product ‘Marilyn Monroe’ would soon overwhelm and obliterate. I saw her story as mythical, archetypal; it would end when she loses her baptismal name Norma Jeane and takes on the studio name ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ She would also have to bleach her brown hair to platinum blond, endure some facial surgery, and dress provocatively. I’d planned a 175-page novella, and the last line would have been: Marilyn Monroe. The mode of storytelling would have been fairytale-like, as poetic as I could make appropriate.”
Oates reflectively adds, “I believe I was trying to give life to Norma Jeane Baker, and to keep her living, in a very obsessive way, because she came to represent certain ‘life elements’ in my own experience and, I hope, in the life of America. A young girl, born into poverty, cast off by her father and eventually by her mother, who, as in a fairy tale, becomes an iconic ‘Fair Princess’ and is posthumously celebrated as ‘The Sex Symbol of the 20th Century,’ making millions of dollars for other people — it’s just too sad, too ironic.”
It is a sadness and irony felt by Monroe’s third husband, American playwright — and author of the American Dream-spoiled “Death of a Salesman” — Arthur Miller who succumbed to her allure and nearly lost his sanity and life. As Miller confesses in his autobiography, “Timebends,” he eventually woke to the reality that “no space existed between her and the star” and that “since her teens she had been creating a relationship with the public, first imaginary and then real, and it could not be torn from her without tearing flesh.”
No matter, Norma Jeane Baker had been overtaken or transformed by an image that now has a continuous presence through posters, postcards, advertisements, and art and entertainment. The latter includes American artist Audrey Flack’s well known 1977 painting “Marilyn” (part of Flack’s Vanitas series), Elton John’s 1973 song “Candle in the Wind: Goodbye Norma Jeane” (which Flack says she listened to continuously while working on her painting), by Madonna and Lady Gaga, film and print biographies, and in Seward Johnson’s work.
She even appeared just last fall on the streets of Trenton. On a wall of the TerraCycle company building on New York Avenue, street artist Dean Innocenzi spray painted the recreation of a black and white photo of a smiling Marilyn Monroe holding a puppy to her face.
Innocenzi, born two decades after Monroe’s death, says he has never seen a Monroe film but feels her presence. “She’s iconic. I see her in art all the time. Her image is on T-shirts. It’s an exploitation thing.”
The artist and TerraCycle graphic designer says he got more interested in Monroe after reading an online article that argued that the actress was a victim to sinister marketing and political forces. When he found a photo of Monroe with the dog, he decided to use her as a subject. “People like her. But I wanted to show something different,” he says of displaying her as a more vulnerable and caring individual, rather than a sex-goddess (though Innocenzi’s portfolio shows him adept at painting sexually charged nudes). He adds that the Monroe work also includes symbols of the destructive forces that overtook her.
While a recent addition to the Marilyn-as-art canon, Innocenzi’s work has generated another image by nationally known Trenton-based painter Mel Leipzig, one of Innocenzi’s former art instructors.
Leipzig was working on a series of paintings that captured several of the region’s street artists and their work. He was taken with both Innocenzi’s controlled rendering in spray and the use of a thematic subject that had worked itself into both the artistic, popular, and even personal imagination. As a response, the 79-year-old Leipzig created a work that shows the street artist in front of his evocation of Monroe.
Although painting Innocenzi was new for Leipzig, painting Monroe was not. He had done her image years ago when he painted something personal: his then-teenage daughter, Francesca, sitting in her bedroom in front of the posters of two women that represented power: Monroe and the Monroe-inspired Madonna.
And it was not the first time that the veteran artist had a personal connection to Monroe. Leipzig says he still remembers how years ago in Brooklyn he overheard his mother tell someone about a family member’s son marrying “that movie star.”
The son was Arthur Miller, the star was Monroe, and for a short time the now Trenton-based artist was a relation to one of the most famous women in history — a young aching girl who lost her physical life for approval and like a spring goddess returns in images, dreams, and “Forever Marilyn.”
Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $10 to $15. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.
Princeton University Art Museum, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.