Elvis is one of a series of screenprinted paintings which Warhol made of the popular American singer Elvis Presley (1935-77). In August 1962 Warhol began to produce paintings using the screenprinting process. He recalled that:
the rubber-stamp method I'd been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect. With silkscreening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It all sounds so simple — quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donabue and Warren Beatty and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month (August 1962), I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face.1
That same year Warhol produced a number of works repeating copies of the head of Elvis Presley.
In 1963 Warhol established a studio in an abandoned fire station in East 87th Street and hired Gerald Malanga, a young poet, to assist him with his screenprinting. It was there that he began work on a head of film star Elizabeth Taylor and a full-length portrait of Elvis Presley. The image of Elvis was taken from a publicity still for the film Flaming Star 1960 (Twentieth Century Fox). The new studio, according to Warhol:
was pretty scary You literally had to hopscotch over holes in the floor And the roof leaked. But we didn't really notice all that much, we were busy getting the Elvises and the Liz Taylor silkscreens ready to ship out to California [for the exhibition at Ferus Gallery Los Angeles]. One night that summer there was a terrible thunderstorm and when I came in the next mowing, the Elvises were sopping wet — I had to do them all over again.2
The image was screenprinted twenty-eight times in black paint onto a roll of silver-painted canvas in various combinations — singly, superimposed doubly and triply, and in pairs.3
The whole roll of printed canvas was sent off to the Ferus Gallery with a set of stretchers, all of the same height, but of three different widths. In the absence of instructions from Warhol, Irving Blum of Ferus Gallery matched the stretchers to the images, producing five single images, six superimposed images and two diptychs of paired images — one panel of each diptych having additional colour to the screened images.
Warhol visited Los Angeles to attend the opening of his exhibition:
it was thrilling to see the Ferus Gallery with the Elvises in the front room and the Lizes in the back. Very few people on the (West) Coast knew or cared about contemporary art, and the press for my show wasn't too good. I always have to laugh, though, when I think of how Hollywood called Pop Art a put-on! Hollywood ?? I mean when you look at the kind of movies they were making then — those were supposed to be real???'4
In 1963 the Elvis in the Australian National Gallery's collection was damaged on the left-hand side. According to Jan van der Marck, a former owner of the painting, 'it was attacked with a penknife by a maniac at the Castelli Gallery and subsequently restored'.5
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the ANG, 1992 pp.326-28.