Wednesday, March 19, 2008

2 Marilyns

Guess which is which

Last month (2/28) New York magazine featured “Lindsay Lohan as Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Last Sitting,’” by the photographer of the original MM shoot, Bert Stern, and the March “Hollywood Issue” of Vanity Fair features a portfolio of photographs in which contemporary film stars reenact classic moments from various Hitchcock films. Do today’s stars have so little charisma on their own that they have to imitate? It’s hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe being interested in mimicking, say, Carole Lombard, or Grace Kelly wanting to pose as any star other than herself. The only effect these wooden facsimiles had on me was to make me long to see the originals—as well as ruminate on how much I hate art about art.

Or do I? It occurs to me that one of my favorite musical conceits is the cover. Often you more clearly see musicians’ true virtuosity when they take something that seems utterly perfect and untouchable in the original and make it completely their own, Probably my all-time favorite is Tori Amos’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I love how Ryan Adams transforms Oasis’s signature “Wonderwall” into a tender ballad, Madeleine Peyroux makes a torch song out of Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” and the way Elizabeth Cook countrifies the heck out of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”….this is a subject about which I could go on and on.

However while good musical covers can often seem like collaborations between greats, when it comes to visual art they tend to cancel each other out. Off hand, I can think of only a few examples of “art about art” that have ever blown me away. One was a series of Warhol paintings after de Chirico that I once saw at a Basel Art Fair and, of course, there’s Yves Klein’s “Venus de Milo” Most of the time, however, it sets up a comparison—with the viewer in the position of judge—where one side, usually the interpreter, inevitably loses. If you’re not as good as the artist you’re borrowing from or commenting on—David Salle appropriating Chardin, for instance, only makes us think about how much better a painter Chardin was—why bring attention to that? And if you’re better, why lower yourself with inferior material?

Well, yes, I did recently do a drawing/painting based a sculpture by Frank Stella, but then I get to contradict myself.


David said...

The real Marilyn "has it" by a mile doesn't she, even at low res. I think you're getting at the difference between inspiration and appropriation. Maybe it's the difference between design and art. Picasso did Rembrandt, The Cowboy Junkies did "Sweet Jane", Betty Woodman does Matisse in ceramics. Bad painters doing great painters is a mistake.
Re-photographing Walker Evans is a one yuk joke.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Absolutely spot on!

Mr. said...

i think David is right, to a degree: we are inspired by things all the time, from the Rolling Stones' getting into blues to Picasso intepreting Cezanne. However, I would argue some appropriation can also be inspired; it really depends on the sensibility - as David wrote aptly "Bad painters doing great painters is a mistake." Always.

Civic Center said...

I assume you saw Michael Musto's inspired parody in the "Village Voice" of the Lindsay Lohan appropriation of Marilyn. Not another word needs to be written affter that particular visual re-assessment.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks! I hadn't seen it and it's utterly fab. Here's the link:,351188,351188,2.html

I think Musto looks better than Lindsay. And now I'm thinking what if we got 100 people, a cross-section of America, representing all sexes, ages, colors, and sizes, to pose as Marilyn? How hilarious would that be?