The National Portrait Gallery begins a year of salute to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, with the opening of “Echoes of Elvis” on January 8, 2010, what would have been Elvis’s seventy-fifth birthday.
“Echoes of Elvis” will feature portraits of the entertainer created since his death in 1977. Among the works in the exhibition are pieces by Robert Arneson, Red Grooms (shown at right), and Ralph Wolfe Cowan from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the United States Postal Service collection, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Several public programs will accompany the exhibition, beginning on January 23, when longtime Elvis friend and Memphis disc jockey George Klein will be signing his Elvis memoir, My Best Man. On the same day, NPG will host an Elvis costume contest. On March 26, the latest installment in the Edgar P. Richardson Symposium series will feature several scholars discussing Elvis Presley’s impact on music and culture.
On Saturday, October 30, 2010, the National Portrait Gallery will open the doors to “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.” This exhibition will feature more than forty monumental images of Elvis from 1956. NPG historian Amy Henderson writes that during 1956, “Elvis’s electrifying intrusion was as shocking as Sputnik would be a year later.” Wertheimer’s photographs are the visual testimonial to Elvis’s launch; many of the images show Elvis in the last moments he would ever have as an individual unburdened by the trappings of fame. After 1956, Elvis belonged to the world.
The young fans who worshipped him in legions would serve as the nucleus of his fan base throughout his career. For the next twenty-one years, Elvis would continually serve notice in the entertainment world: his standard was the one to follow. Although the statement is often quoted, John Lennon’s comment that “before Elvis there was nothing” is perhaps the greatest statement of tribute by the most famous of all Elvis supplicants.
“When Elvis arrived, the youth of America took over,” states “Echoes of Elvis” curator Warren Perry. “Prior to the advent of rock and roll, young people were powerless in American society; rock and roll gave American youth a voice and an attitude. Elvis was the advance guard for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who. Later, after his time in the military, and as his fan base aged, Elvis became more accepted throughout America and the world. Still later, after more than a decade in the movies, Elvis reinvented himself. Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took Elvis’s showmanship to the next level, and they rewrote the script for the Las Vegas experience.”
“Echoes of Elvis” will run until from January 8 to August 29, 2010; “Elvis at 21” will run from October 30 to January 23, 2011.
--Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery
Elvis Aron Presley / Red Grooms / Lithograph on paper, 1987 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution