Marilyn Monroe: Life as a Legend, which collects more than 300 works by 80-some artists, commemorates an existence that was all too brief but is burned into eternity. The touring tribute to one of the most dazzling film luminaries, curated by Germany's Artoma, visits the fifth and seventh floors of The Andy Warhol Museum.
While it may seem logical to begin at the top and work your way down, that route actually does viewers a disservice. The lower floor boasts a varied batch of works inspired by the screen siren. A few are excellent; many are fine; a couple are just uninspired. Robert Indiana's pop salutes burst with pure color and powerful lines. Peter Beard's Marilyn collage and painting is fanciful and giddy, overrun with creatures and critters, with a goddess in the middle of it all. Meanwhile, photographs of Warhol himself in Marilyn cosmetics might have been fun profile pics, but in this context aren't terribly interesting. And while intellectually saluting and/or ripping off both Lichenstein's comic art and Warhol's silkscreen is perhaps technically über-pop, it doesn't merit more than a few seconds' glance.
It's the photographs of Monroe herself that brilliantly bring her into focus. The rise from obscurity and ascent to stardom and supernova are documented in candid snaps, publicity portraits and film stills. The luminescence that transformed Norma Jean into Marilyn and keeps her altars lit is on full view.
Early pin-up sessions show a red-headed, pig-nosed aspiring starlet, and showcase the potential once the chrysalis opens. Studio-styled pin-up shots show her learning to walk, talk and practice archery wearing a bikini. By the time the photo dates reach the early 1950s, the butterfly has spread its full wings. She's progressed beyond walking and talking lessons to riding an elephant, and has moved on from dime-store swimsuits to satin, velvet and lace.
She's gorgeous and glorious, incandescently burning the candle with animal sensuality at one end and vulnerable innocence at the other. It's the former that catches the eye but the latter that draws us closer. There's been no one before or since possessing that perfect blend of guilelessness and carnality, and it's with her almost to the end.
When the end is neared, however, things have definitely changed. The bright face that greeted the world is still there, but in later years grows a little bewildered. By the time she's filming 1961's The Misfits, the sparkling eyes are brimming with sadness, and all the loveliness in the world can't cloak the disappointment. But hope does live on within them.
"The Last Sitting," a handful of pinky-pale shots taken by longtime friend and photographer Bert Stein, are the only images that hint at the darkness. Taken three weeks before her death, in 1962, they expose a woman clearly on the edge of the abyss. She's still beautiful, but there's a hardness to her unseen anywhere else. She sips champagne and squints cock-eyed at the camera, clearly blitzed out of her flaxen head, and her smile slips closer to hysteria than to happiness. The hope is gone.
Daily News covers bellowing of her death demonstrate the frenzy of media attention that surrounded her, now taken for granted as a sidecar to celebrity, semi-celebrity and quasi-celebrity, but then the exception to the rule. One shows Joe DiMaggio at her funeral, where he whispered "I love you, I love you, I love you"; the extent of his decimation is heart-breaking.
In her final interview, she said, "Please don't make me a joke ... I don't mind making jokes but I don't want to look like one." Though she might have been perceived so at the time, it's impossible to even imagine today.
Marilyn Monroe: Life as a Legend continues through Jan. 2. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org
- The lonely crowd: "Marilyn Monroe on the Set of The Misfits" (1960), by Henri Cartier-Bresson