In the first few months of 1963, the Mona Lisa was seen by nearly two million people in New York and Washington DC. Shipped to the United States on a diplomatic mission â escorted by the French culture minister and received by President John F. Kennedy â the painting did little to assuage Franco-American tension about NATO and nuclear proliferation, but the visit certified Lisa del Giocondoâs status as the smiling face of high art, as iconic as any modern movie star.
Several months earlier, an up-and-coming Pop artist named Andy Warhol, notorious for painting consumer goods, turned his attention to celebrities including Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Instead of painting their portraits by hand, he adapted a technique from commercial printing, in which a photographic image could be transferred to canvas by pushing paint through a mechanically-produced silkscreen template. Any photo could be replicated, including those in newspapers, favorite sources for Warhol since they reinforced the relationship of his paintings to mass media. The newspapers might even give him ideas, suggesting popular subjects. And in the winter of 1963, few subjects were more popular than the touring Mona Lisa.
Nobody would mistake Warholâs Mona Lisas for the Renaissance original. Leonardo da Vinci finessed La Giocondaâs visage with multiple layers of translucent pigment, applied over months with fine sable-hair brushes. Warhol could produce her likeness in mere minutes, a silhouette instantly recognizable as a smear of black paint. He made multiple versions in various sizes. Several were diptychs. His most ambitious was a five-by-six grid called Thirty Are Better Than One.
The title was as sly as his painting was cunning. Thirty are better than one, at least in Warholâs handling of Leonardoâs portrait. Recognizing that the Mona Lisa had become a celebrity akin to Marilyn Monroe, he proposed that fame was a commodity, and that the endless replication of a celebrityâs face made it so. His industrial process mimicked the mechanism by which people become products, and the end-result revealed the degree to which consumers are active participants, mentally filling in enough details to identify Warholâs raw silkscreen with Leonardoâs sfumato portrait. In Thirty Are Better Than One, the Mona Lisa is reduced to a pattern, like paisley or toile de jouy: perfectly flat, potentially infinite.
Warhol gave Marilyn Monroe the same treatment, screening her face repeatedly from edge to edge of his canvas, yet his repetitions of the Mona Lisa were the most provocative expression of his disquieting vision. Unlike Monroe, whose messy life was extensively chronicled, Lisa del Giocondo was known only by her appearance. A single image was the entire basis of her fame. All surface, no substance, the Mona Lisa was the model celebrity â and an ideal model for deconstructing celebrity in the 1960s.
In art historical terms, Warholâs copies fall under the category of appropriation, a subgenre dating back at least as far as 1919 â when Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a Mona Lisa postcard â in which legitimate artists technically come closest to forgery. Though not produced under false pretenses, works of appropriation art are fundamentally derivative. Like forgeries, they trade on borrowed status. Their significance emanates from an absent original.
In other words, appropriation artists appropriate the forgerâs modus operandi for artistic purposes. And almost always, as in the case of Warhol, those purposes are subversive. For instance, in the late 1970s Sherrie Levine began rephotographing iconic photographs by Walker Evans and Edward Weston, calling into question âthe notion of originality,â as she told Arts Magazine in 1985. Appropriation is a form of critique, a mode of questioning. Yet Warhol was nearly unique in his ability to question more than merely the work he appropriated.
Thirty Are Better Than One is not really about the Mona Lisa or even about art, but rather concerns the tortuous relationship between culture and media, a relationship beginning to play out in his own life as he became the first meta-celebrity. In a sense, the Mona Lisas and Marilyns and all the paintings that followed were mere props in that lifelong performance, just as counterfeited canvases are only the physical manifestation of a forgerâs swindle. Fame was Warholâs true medium, which he subverted by insisting that he was just like everybody else. âI think it would be so great if more people took up silkscreens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or someone elseâs,â he said in a November 1963 ARTnews interview. (The following year, the appropriation artist Elaine Sturtevant did just that, recapitulating his imagery by borrowing his own silkscreen templates.) By 1968 Warhol was predicting a future in which everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, a nightmare hybrid of democracy and individualism he personally set out to realize by casting anyone he met, regardless of talent, in his unscripted movies. Like the greatest of conmen, Warhol manipulated peopleâs desires and beliefs â making us question ourselves as all good art must â but unlike real forgers such as Elmyr de Hory and Han van Meegeren, he did it all out in the open, for everyone to see.
Warhol proved that legitimate art could be as powerful as the counterfeit. He showed the extent to which the forgerâs art can be appropriated, the mantle of anxiety reclaimed. Yet his achievement also exposes the opportunities squandered by other serious artists, who could potentially have gamed the system but never even tried, preferring instead to produce angst-ridden baubles to be risklessly ogled in museums.
Art has a lot to learn from forgery. If artistic activity online and in the street are any indication, radical contemporary artists perceive the failings of previous generations. Some are attempting to make up for past indolence. One of the most notorious, known only by the pseudonym Banksy, has puckishly taken up where Warhol left off. âIn the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes,â he wrote in 2006 â spraypainting the words on an obsolete TV set â while tauntingly keeping his identity masked.
To this day, Banksy remains known only by his exploits, including his own Mona Lisa appropriation, La Gioconda wearing a yellow smileyface: centuries of Western art distilled to a perfect clichÃ©. In 2004, Banksy smuggled his painting into the Louvre, illicitly attaching it to the wall with double-sided tape. Within minutes it was found and hustled from view by museum staff. However the anxieties it elicited cannot so easily be effaced. Where does culture belong? What can art express? Whoâs an artist?