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Marilyn Matters

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 11, 2008 6:20PM

marilynmonroe%20willy%20rizzo.jpgRecently Chicagoist stopped by the Chicago Cultural Center to check out Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe, the collection of 300 photos and works documenting the tragic bombshell's icon status and ineffable glamor. Organized by Artoma in Hamburg, Germany, and circulated by International Arts & Artists, the exhibit has passed through six countries before stopping at the CCC, where it remains until September 21.

The non-photographic works presented in LaL include few highlights -- for example, Antonio de Felipe's satirical reworkings of other artists' Marilyn portraits, which make some clever points about the concept of "artistic style as celebrity" -- but are on the whole somewhat forgettable. Besides de Felipe's paintings, the only work that remains embedded in the memory is Saskia de Boer's tiny sculpture of Marilyn, which greets you upon entry to the exhibit. Dressed in a green cabaret costume, her arms outstretched at her sides, mini-Marilyn looks as though she’s ecstatic yet exasperated. Her gesture and stance raise questions -- “So, what else do you want from me, Hollywood/star machine/movie creeple? What else can I give you?” -- that the real Marilyn might have asked her public from behind closed bedroom doors, or from her psychiatrist's office.

After opening with de Boer’s dazzling work, the pieces are fairly unsurprising and clichéd. We see a painting of Marilyn on her deathbed, bloated and ghostly. Someone redid Andy Warhol's Marilyns pretty much word-for-word, but attached claw hands to her eyes. (A comment on mascara, perhaps?) A few authentic Warhol Marilyns hang nearby, necessary for this show, but lacking the luster they must have had in the 1960s (blame it on that stupid Warholizer tool). A video piece makes some sort of dissonant commentary about Marilyn's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend”; Madonna did a much better job of that in “Material Girl.” Sure, the silhouette of Marilyn in her blown-skirt, Seven-Year Itch pose looks snazzy, but is more like something that you'd find on the wall of a Tex-Mex restaurant with a Fifties theme, or in the lobby of an edgy downtown entertainment law firm.

The real draw of this exhibit is the photography – the medium by which Marilyn became a star. In the 1940s, before the major motion picture contracts came, Marilyn was a model, and even in her teen years her charisma was already palpable. In addition to the photos by Richard Avedon are Henri Cartier-Bresson are some of the best-known images of Marilyn, including Tom Kelley’s Playboy pinups featuring Marilyn 1.0 (the pre-platinum version) lying naked on red velvet. Even if you’re not big on nudie pics (and this writer is not), Kelley’s photo is iconic – and deservedly so, for one has to ask: Just how did he get those full-body shots from on high?

Compare the aforementioned metal Itch homage to the original photograph of Marilyn standing over the grate, and it’s clear which one is the superior work: Nobody could out-Marilyn Marilyn. No deathbed painting could hold a candle (in the wind … sorry) to the much more stirring and disturbing black-and-white series by Willy Rizzo, taken shortly before Marilyn’s death. Only 36, Marilyn she looks glamorous and trim, but spent and strung out on downers. Clutching a glass, sitting as her hairdresser primps, she gives the camera a dazed smile -- her fierce, “I’m Every Woman” radiance gone.

The gaze reappears in Bert Stern’s famous Last Sitting photos, in which Marilyn poses with a sheer scarf and nothing else. (Stern recently remade the series with Lindsay Lohan for New York magazine.) Not long after the shots were taken, she was dead. And thus she was immortalized, like so many beautiful people who die young.

People in other cities had to pay to see Life as a Legend, but you can visit it for free thanks to the generosity of the DCA. Through Sept. 21.Yates Gallery (fourth floor). 77 E. Randolph St.