Donald Kuspit - American Irony

At first glance, Robert Mars’ imagery brings to mind Warhol: both have rendered Marilyn Monroe numerous times, using her photographic representation as a point of departure. But where Warhol seems to idolize her glamour, as though it was inherently appealing—who could resist her beauty, however much a Hollywood fiction, a manufactured presence rather than a “speaking likeness,” as a genuine portrait is supposed to be--Mars associates it with Dollar Elegance and Luxury, a work in which the shapely dollar sign is more to the seductive point than the fragment of Monroe’s face subsumed in it. Warhol also depicted curvaceous dollar signs, but he never brought them together with Monroe’s smile, nor did he ever use the famous image of the wind lifting her skirt so that her underpants are visible, as Mars does in Enjoy the Beautiful. Pictorial irony at its succinct best involves the paradoxical integration of seemingly unrelated representations in an emblematic image, suggesting they have something in common, however unexpectedly. Warhol’s images are straightforward; he is a kind of reporter, presenting the latest, hottest news in a cool way, however much he may touch it up, rather than editorialize about it, with a sort of critical irony, as Mars does. As is well known, Warhol called himself a “business artist,” arguing that making money was the hardest art, and his art certainly became Big Business. He endorsed the American Dream of Big Money, with all the illusions—such as Monroe—that inform it, but Mars’ The American Dream, a glitzy sign superimposed on a map of the United States, ironically suggests that he is disillusioned with it, and with what might be called the Show Business model of art—Warhol’s model. The American Dream is a sucker’s dream, which is what P. T. Barnum implied when he said “a sucker is born every minute.” What is beautiful, sexy, idolized, and popular—what is inseparable from the American Dream, in all its naïve materialism--is the glamorous dollar sign, as Mars makes transparently clear in A Love Supreme. It is a sardonic comment on the love of money—Americans’ One True Love, to mention another of Mars’ works. To Americans the dollar sign is more seductive than Marilyn Monroe’s body and smile; both are media memorable images, but the dollar sign is finally more sexy than she is, for she is only its symbol. Her sexiness is her “selling point,” valuable because it is instantly consumable, sort of like instant coffee, but much more profitable. Billy Wilder once joked that he didn’t know if Monroe was a real person or a simulation of one, but he knew she brought
in massive amounts of money, which is why she was mass produced. Her sexiness was not seriously meaningful in itself—it was a sort of comic act, even oddly farcical—but because it sold big time. It helped sell “Chanel No. 5, The Most Treasured Name in Perfume,” an advertising slogan written in big black letters under her image in Enjoy the Beautiful, written in small letters, suggesting that Chanel perfume is more important than she is. All the commercial products—be they big name Hollywood stars, like Monroe, Grace Kelly, and James Dean, or equally famous products like Coca Cola and Chevrolet--pictured in Mars’ ironic “advertisements” may glitter like gold, but he suggests they’re fool’s gold. For Warhol the advertising image was the real thing, for Mars it is designed to deceive us.

The tragic irony of America, and the delusion of grandeur that is the American Dream, becomes explicit in Mars’ Marilyn Monroe Sculpture, with its twin cases of blackened Coca Cola bottles, suggestive of Monroe’s premature death, and Drink Coca Cola, a map of the United States with a photograph of the Kennedys superimposed on Texas, where Kennedy prematurely died. Monroe committed suicide and Kennedy was assassinated; Death rules the United States, as Mars’ image of twin death’s heads in the red, white, and blue of the American flag suggests. The tragic death of the American Dream, whether in the form of Beautiful Decay or the skeletal bottle of Chanel No. 5 in Beautiful Just Beautiful, is the ironic theme of Mars’ pictures, their media beauty a sugarcoating on their implicit morbidity.

Donald Kuspit is an American art critic, poet, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and former professor of art history at the School of Visual Arts. Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics.