The Fame Monster: Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Art’s Obsession With Celebrity

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Sam Moore

Andy Warhol’s itself-famous statement that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” could apply just as well to art itself.

Art is, in essence, a way of immortalizing (and thus potentially making famous) what happens in a fifteen-minute (or even shorter) period: the time spent posing for the flash of an image, having a mug shot blown up to the size of a mural, or filming one of Warhol’s famous screen tests. As a result, that immortality and the resulting fame become more than just a fleeting moment of favor. Instead, fame — along with its parallel, celebrity — are a resource, something that can be manipulated, interrogated, and mined for material. 

This exists beyond Warhol, too: Plenty of artists work with a broad range of celebrities in their exploration of the idea of fame. While Justin Bieber, Joan Didion, and Charles Manson may not appear to have much in common at first glance, they’ve all been used by John Waters as material for his visual art. Waters’ work with all three follows in an artistic relationship to celebrity that has direct throughlines to Andy Warhol and continues to echo through contemporary art in the work of people like Russell Young. But where Waters has Bieber, Didion, and Manson, Warhol and Young had Marilyn Monroe.

But they weren’t really working with Marilyn Monroe, the person; while both artists (re)created images of Marilyn Monroe, they remained fundamentally working with her image, not her self.  And the variance in their approach to Monroe (Warhol creating endless echoes of her face and lips, treating her as both flat and reproducible, while Young’s focus was more on her emotional state) suggests, too, that Monroe’s celebrity is a resource that can be drawn from at will and essentialized into components that reflect the values of the culture at large. 

This idea of celebrity as an infinite resource is also reflected in one Warhol’s most famous artistic techniques: his mass reproduction of images.

By mass reproducing Marilyn Monroe just as he does soup cans or Coke bottles, Warhol’s art essentially closes the gap between normality and celebrity; in Warhol’s world, everyday objects are just as worthy of artistic attention as movie stars. Fame and infamy, to Warhol, could also be seen as equally interchangeable; his Thirteen Most Wanted Men (originally a mural, presented at the Tate as a collection of individual images), in which he (re)creates mug shots of infamous criminals copying the images from a 1962 booklet published by the New York Police Department, is structurally almost identical to his prints of celebrities like Monroe, Marlon Brando, and Elvis, raising the question of whether there is any difference between the two at all.  

For Young, however, famous subjects are explicitly turned into archetypal objects, from the images of Marilyn as a tragic beauty in Marilyn Crying California – Blind Red (2015), to his text-image Brigitte Bardot Born to be Wild, Morning Blue (2020). Young’s work feels like a  postmodern continuation of Warhol’s mass reproductions. Young’s art is referential while Warhol’s is more rooted in a kind of objectivity: showing his subjects simply as they are, with no alterations or additional commentary. Young’s work, too, in bringing together text and image, allows for a reconsideration of the traits that make his subjects famous. The melancholy and blue of his Bardot stand at odds with the “Born to be Wild” text, creating a sense of fluidity around Bardot’s identity and celebrity, while his crying Marilyn shines a light on the loneliness that defined Monroe as much as her beauty did, refusing to simply present glamour-as-glamour in the way that Warhol did. 

But those aren’t the only ways that the art world has explored fame.

Cindy Sherman, in her Untitled Film Stills, explores the idea of fame as a kind of abstract image. The series shows Sherman in a number of performed self-portraits. Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #54 (1979) presents her as a kind of Hitchcock blonde — while she isn’t recreating the exact likeness of an actress like Kim Novak, she captures the idea of one, filtered through the performances that made her famous. Images like that and Untitled Film Still #16 (1978), in which Sherman evokes Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s La Notte, highlight both the idea that celebrity is a kind of performance and also the idea that fame is something that can be lifted from someone else and moved onto the self. This act of movement from a celebrity to the artist illustrates one of the ways in which art can challenge the idea of where celebrity comes from. While Sherman isn’t an actual ringer for Novak or Vitti, by capturing their essence in her film stills, she also captures something about the women that made them famous.

John Waters, meanwhile, takes these concepts of fame-as-resource and celebrity-as-character to a frequently grotesque extent.

Waters’ visual art is an attack on the idea of celebrity, the cost of fame, and the ways in which it intersects with infamy. Celebrities and media culture are often at often in the crosshairs of Waters’ visual art, from Control (2009), a sculpture of Ike pulling the strings of a puppet-like Tina Turner, to his fake celebrity tabloid Brainiac (2014), which splashes its front page with information on Joan Didion’s shocking weight gain and Phillip Roth finally dating a woman his own age, to his 2006 sculpture Playdate, in which he reimagines Michael Jackson and Charles Manson as children’s dolls. Waters’ art around celebrity drives home the point that, to him, fame and infamy really aren’t far away from each other at all. They have the same end result: people will talk about you, immortalize you in art, make movies about you. Like Warhol and Young, Warhol and Waters, beyond their shared interest in the intersections of fame and infamy, share a muse as well. Where Warhol and Young share Monroe, both Warhol and Waters have a common obsession with Jackie Kennedy. For Waters, Kennedy is a device to explore the line between performance and public persona: in Eat Your Makeup (1968), Waters and Divine recreate the Kennedy assassination with Divine playing Kennedy, while in Jackie Copies Divine’s Look (2001), a sculpture of Kennedy wearing the red dress that defined Divine’s aesthetic in Pink Flamingos

For Warhol, meanwhile, Kennedy was representative of America in a moment of flux.

The Kennedy pictures in Warhol’s Death and Disaster, a series of images from before and after her husband’s assassination – presented in any order, refusing the easy narrative of happiness to grief – show the changing face of a nation writ across that of an individual. Here, Kennedy is a representative not just of herself, her husband, or a presidency, but of an entire nation. The specter of death that followed the Kennedys to Texas is literalized by John Waters in the 2014 work Grim Reaper, which sees the figure of Death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal, following the Kennedys off of a plane. Kennedy, here, like Monroe’s lips to Warhol, standing in as a symbol of something greater she represents: power, glamour, and tragedy.

In the end, this idea of a symbol is what brings together all of these artists, from Warhol to Russell Young and back again via John Waters.

For all of them, the famous are symbols – the idea of the self being reflected as and through these symbols is what animates Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. The question becomes, when filtered through specific artistic sensibilities, what (if anything) do these symbols mean? For Warhol, they seem to mean nothing at all; defined by their relationship to mass (re)production and the public eye; by creating art of the already famous, Warhol is able to make his subjects immortal, feeding off of and reinforcing their fame all at once. Young, by contrast, is a little more critical; his images of icons like Marilyn and Bardot illustrate the burden of endless, public performance, and what it means to be frozen in time and represent more than just yourself, forever. Here, the power of the celebrity as a simple isn’t something that’s set in stone; instead it exists in flux, always informed by the sensibility of the artist looking at them — whether it’s Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, or Charles Manson — and what it reveals to us (and about us) when we look back.

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