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Jun 19, 2024

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The Art Institute of Chicago has a bunch of Andy Warhol silk-screens showing Marilyn Monroe. To my eye, they’re not all equally riveting. But for Warhol, the idea that they might be was part of the point.

I’ll explain.

If you went to a high school with an art department, you probably know how silk-screens work. It’s a multistage process that usually involves photographic stencils, acrylic paint, squeegees, mesh screens, photographic emulsion and printing inks. It’s one of the first things they teach kids because the process is a lot of fun — and because the students can say they made their own Andy Warhol.

Warhol, who started out as a commercial illustrator, loved the mechanistic, assembly-line aspect of silk-screens. But he also loved the fact that, within a process that was repetitive and designed for commercial operations, there was a lot of room for play and for the workings of chance.

Which colors look good together? Do the colors line up with the image? Warhol both cared and didn’t care. This four-color print is part of a portfolio of 10 images Warhol made in 1967 using a 1953 publicity photograph of Marilyn Monroe in the film “Niagara.” He had earlier used the same image for similar works like “Shot Orange Marilyn,” which belongs to a private collection but has been on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, and “Shot Sage New Marilyn,” which recently sold for $195 million — an auction record.

The other works in the 1967 portfolio to which this image belongs use very different color combinations. But the Day-Glo hues all caress and smack and seduce the eye.

Still, the deeper thrust behind Warhol’s project, which had a massive influence on more tragically inclined artists like Gerhard Richter, is more unsettling. It has to do with recognizing the arbitrary aspects of modern life.

Warhol saw that these four colors and those four colors are basically interchangeable and that, seen through the culture’s dominant ideological lens, this person was really no different from that person or that commercial product or that car crash.

You can, if you like, get into the game of making this version of Marilyn more important than that one. On grounds of scarcity, size, medium or date, you might then sell it for 100 times the price of this one. But you will have missed the point.

The point is not that Warhol himself was unimportant. On the contrary. I can think of no other 20th-century artist more in tune with the zeitgeist, no other artist who not only summed up the prevailing forces of his time but also saw into the future.

But Warhol’s importance lies, paradoxically, in his uncanny grasp of the ways in which commercial forces and the mechanics of publicity were having a cratering effect on the very idea of certain things being more special, more important than others.

You don’t automatically register this if you put a single Marilyn in the spotlight in an auction salesroom and start the bidding. You get it when you see the same image as just one in a portfolio, and when you realize that series is on a level with Warhol’s screen prints of car crashes and electric chairs, and his Maos, Muhammad Alis and Liza Minellis.

All these images draw you to them. They’re all more or less beautiful. And very often they’re funny — in the way that someone suddenly skipping through an art gallery might be funny: not because it’s meaningful but because it’s unexpected, pointlessly joyous.

But Warhols are also all frictionless, all equally unimportant. To say that is not to scold. It’s only to register the philosophical point he was making, which is so easily overlooked.

In art, of course, a philosophical proposition (in this case an assertion of meaninglessness) often rubs up against a visual style that expresses the opposite (pure joy). That’s when things get interesting — and it’s why I (almost) never tire of Andy Warhol.

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.