There is something mortally ironic about Liz Taylor dying right after Judge Deborah Batts’ decision on transformative art in the Richard Prince case, for few stars did more to push the envelope of art transformation than La Liz.
Her status as a long-lived, fiery cultural icon was definitely an equal opportunity one: young hetero boys masturbated to her perfect tits, gay men identified with her strong, kitsch-driven will power, hetero women of many eras were empowered by her love for a horse in National Velvet and her domination of men in the movie magazines, lesbian women admired her goddess like enthronement of all things female in films as weird as Cleopatra and The Sandpiper, and drag queens, transgendered folk and just about every other outsider had someone of independence and glory to emulate.
And the art exists to prove the universal appeal of the last of the movie stars, in Andy Warhol’s straight-on Lizgasm portraits, Deborah Kass’ fusing of her own mug with that of Liz in her deep Warhol send-ups, Kathe Burkhart’s seminal gospel of Taylor as fanzoid in her "Liz Taylor series" and so much else. Richard Prince, in creating seductive, self-signed appropriated photos of Taylor’s many celebrity "daughters" (there would be no Pamela Anderson or Lynda Carter without Taylor’s example) is a sideways homage to Taylor.
Liz championed same sex liberation before any other star and her standing by Rock Hudson, when he was dying from AIDS, was one of the singular acts of political courage in the 20th century.
Then there was the other, reckless, yet sympathetic side of Taylor: the excess drinking and jewelry purchases with Richard Burton, the perhaps apocryphal tale that when she introduced "White Diamonds" perfume at Bloomingdale’s that customers poured the stuff down the department store latrines because the scent smelled so foul, the fact that Joan Rivers created an entire standup career on Liz Taylor jokes.
Finally, however, Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest contribution, living her whole life in public (and did I mention she was Jewish?), was to show us the stages of life, in the Shakespearian sense, of a woman. She was a young ingénue, desirable teenager, young wife to Nicky Hilton, young widow to Mike Todd (a recent Warhol auction record subject, by the way), international cynosure of luxury, glamorous MILF, aging champion of Michael Jackson and, in her most touching role, bold, wheelchair-bound aging lady, still featured on TMZ last December attending a film premiere.
Such transcendence is too much for a roomful of stars, but Liz commanded it for eight decades. Now, James Dean is dancing in an oil gusher in a heavenly Giant where none of that muck will touch Liz. It never did.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).