Fame Became Her — and Us

Marilyn Monroe, now starring at the Boca, is still raw material for artists and dreamers

In August of this year, it will have been 45 years since Marilyn Monroe was found dead of a barbiturate overdose — nearly a decade longer than she was alive. Yet she remains as elusive and enigmatic a cultural icon as ever. If you doubt this, consider "Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe" as exhibit A.

This sensory overload of an exhibition, now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, includes a whopping 300 pieces by more than 80 artists. Although there are works in a variety of media, the emphasis is on photography, as befits a woman whose most enduring love affair was with the camera. Even the nonphotographic works are inspired by or influenced by either still photographs or motion pictures. There's the occasional unflattering shot, but the overwhelming evidence is that Monroe was almost preternaturally photogenic.

The show, which originated at Artoma in Hamburg, Germany, and will visit at least eight American cities, is accompanied by a lavish catalog that sometimes comes perilously close to fan-magazine preciousness. There's a page of "Marilyn's Favorites" — from food and beverage (caviar and 1953 Dom Perignon) to male and female singers (Sinatra and Ella) to poets (Keats and Whitman). The essays are predictably adulatory.

Clothed or unclothed, pensive or simmering with fevered heat, she has become a permanent part of our firmament.
Washington. D.C
Clothed or unclothed, pensive or simmering with fevered heat, she has become a permanent part of our firmament.

We are also reminded, more usefully, that over a period of 14 years, Monroe worked on 30 films, including the sadly unfinished Something's Got to Give, from which she was fired. While her participation in some of those projects was as a bit player, in 1950, 1951, and 1952, she appeared in an average of five pictures per year. Even in minor roles, she was often memorable — who can forget her brief appearance in All About Eve as Miss Caswell, introduced with characteristic acidity by theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art"? (Her best lines: "I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink.")

Much has been made, and continues to be made here, of Monroe's iconic status as a product of her dramatic rise and fall, culminating in a tragic, mysterious death that froze her at age 36 in our collective memory. We are mesmerized by her, according to this view, because she is eternally young, ageless, her beauty preserved like an insect in amber. No doubt that is part of her apparently perennial appeal.

But I don't buy it when David Furchgott of International Arts & Artists, the exhibition's organizers, declares in the catalog: "Who can imagine Marilyn Monroe as anything other than young and beautiful?" I can imagine her aging as gracefully as, say, Catherine Deneuve or Charlotte Rampling, to name just two comparable beauties. And I think it's a bit sad that none of the art included here takes that imaginative leap to envision an elderly but still elegant Monroe (although a couple of artists use the famous photo of her taken just after her death as a starting point, to harrowing, even ghoulish effect).

The show doesn't include anything from photographer David Conover's 1944 shoot, when the pre-blond Monroe was just 18 and still known as Norma Jeane Mortenson Baker. There are, however, images from a few years later, most notably those of Bernard of Hollywood, who portrayed Monroe as ingénue and pinup model. And of course, there are shots from the legendary Tom Kelly "Red Velvet Photos" of 1949, with the nude Monroe stretched provocatively across the velvet backdrop. One photo from the shoot went on to become the first Playboy centerfold, ensuring Monroe's place in pop-culture history. (Asked if she had anything on for the session, she allegedly replied, "I had the radio on.")

Two other well-known shoots are admirably documented. For Douglas Kirkland's One Night With Marilyn series, from 1961, Monroe poses among rumpled white bed linens, not quite naked but not exactly clothed either. Kirkland perfectly captured her blend of playfulness and seductiveness. The other series, Bert Stern's The Last Sitting, features more brazen nudity, and the images are all the more poignant now because we know Monroe was just weeks away from her untimely death.

Photographers Milton H. Greene and Sam Shaw seem to have struck a particularly harmonious chord with Monroe. Greene shows her lounging in bed, sitting on a curb looking pensive, in a vintage Cadillac convertible in Los Angeles, and, most famously, posed like a little girl in an ill-fitting Anne Klein ballerina dress (Time magazine called it one of the top three most popular images of the 20th Century). Shaw caught her in another thoughtful moment, crouching by a window in the shadows, wearing a simple negligee; in her dressing room, putting on makeup; leaning out a window on the set of The Seven Year Itch; and frolicking in the surf in the Hamptons.

Nine of Warhol's instantly recognizable 1967 screenprints, each with its own color scheme, are here, as are countless variations of the scene from The Seven Year Itch with Monroe standing on a grate, white dress billowing. If these images aren't seared onto your visual cortex, you're hopelessly disconnected from the past several decades of American pop culture.

Some of the artists seem less interested in Monroe herself than in her potential as raw artistic material to be manipulated. Antonio de Felipe's 2004 acrylic painting Marilyn Lichtenstein renders her in the crisp style of Roy Lichtenstein. In a handful of C-prints, Volker Hildebrandt one-ups Warhol by repeating dozens and dozens of head shots of the actress. David Burke appropriates her image and fractures it, kaleidoscope-style, in inkjet prints that suggest flowers in full bloom.

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