"The car crash turns the American dream into a nightmare"
Neil Printz, in Exh. Cat., Houston, Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1988, p. 16
"When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect...It's not that I feel sorry for them, it's just that people go by and it doesn't really matter to them that someone unknown was killed so I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered'
Andy Warhol interviewed by Gene Swenson, ``What is Pop Art?'', Artnews 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61
Designated in Georg Frei and Neil Printz’s 2002 catalogue raisonné as one of the very first of Andy Warhol’s “car crash” paintings, Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) of 1963 is an historic paradigm of Pop Art from the heart of a breathtaking moment in twentieth-century Art History. This work's execution in January - February 1963 belongs to an extraordinary shift in this most iconic of artistic careers, during which Warhol revolutionized the terms of popular visual culture. The ideal of the seminal Death and Disaster series, which was one of the most provocative, confrontational and brilliant projects undertaken by any artist in the transformative decade of the 1960s, this canvas epitomizes the monumental themes of Warhol’s career: namely an unprecedented artistic interrogation into the agencies of mass-media, celebrity and death. Warhol made just four paintings based on the specific car crash photograph that is repeated twice in the present work. One of these, Green Disaster #2, is now housed in the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt while another, Orange Car Crash, is in the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna. As the very incipit of this legendary series, perhaps the most notorious and challenging of his entire illustrious oeuvre, Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) is truly a foundational masterpiece of one of the most influential artists of the last century.
With deafening resonance Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) exclaims an immediately harrowing and intensely violent scenario: the instant aftermath of a brutal car crash. Within the composition the unmistakable corporeal outline of a single body is slung out of the vehicle’s passenger side door and thrown towards the viewer. The elbow of its crooked arm points directly towards us, almost as if in a final, last-gasp accusatory gesture against our morbid voyeurism. The metallic expanse of the vehicle's massive form accentuates the flesh-and-blood mortality of its ill-fated passenger. Intertwined with the deformed metal superstructure and jointly sprawled across the asphalt concrete is this twisted victim: man and machine having become fused together through mundane catastrophe. In more metaphorical terms, the harsh division between the gleaming automobile with glistening chrome and polished hubcap on the left, and the spectacularly crushed grille, wing and bonnet on the right is mediated by the strewn body, unfortunately caught at the precise point between organized construction and chaotic destruction. Thus one of the great symbols of 1950s and 1960s America, a facilitator of individualism and a key signifier of social mobility, the automobile, becomes the devastating delivery system of indiscriminate fatality. As Neil Printz relates, "the car crash turns the American dream into a nightmare" (Neil Printz in: Exh. Cat., Houston, Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1988, p. 16).
Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) offers the nightmare, but also concurrently normalizes this dystopian vision of sanitized suburban brutality. As ever with Warhol's oeuvre, import is incited not only by subject, but also by method, process and context. Silkscreened on phthalo green, the notionally horrific and terrifying subject matter is revealed through the patterned gradations of anonymous dots against a determinedly anti-naturalistic hue that has been extracted straight out of the gaudy, attention-grabbing chromatic vernacular of mass-media advertising. In addition, Warhol faithfully reproduces the composition of the photojournalist, replicating the foreign aesthetic of a found image. The nature of this rendering is strategically impersonal. Hopps succinctly describes that "Warhol took for granted the notion that the obvious deployment of traditional rendering need not be revealed or employed, thereby expunging manual bravura from his work." (Walter Hopps, in Exh. Cat., Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1988, p. 7) In Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) the mechanical silk-screen dot and absence of manual bravura silence the subject, at once evoking the production of newsprint photojournalism and the unceasing everyday phenomenon that the car crash had itself become.
In an interview with Gene Swenson in 1963 Warhol stated that "when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect." (the artist interviewed by Gene Swenson, ``What is Pop Art?'', Artnews 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61) In his 1970 monograph, Rainer Crone discusses how, although the car crash photos "evoke the immediacy of the actual event...this decreases as such occurrences become more frequent." (Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, New York, 1970, p. 29) Nevertheless, the raw power of this confrontational image remains urgently accosting, despite our immersion in supposedly desensitizing mass-media representations of violence and brutality. The tonal polarization of the silkscreen impression bleakly particularizes the mangled figure and dramatizes the finality of deathly stillness. The atrocity here is highly quotidian: it is a thoroughly everyday catastrophe; typical of what Walter Hopps calls the "unpredictable choreography of death" amidst the "banality of everyday disasters." (Op. Cit., p. 9) Warhol, himself obsessively fixated with the fragility of existence, here scrutinizes the public face of a private disaster and questions why anonymous victims are elevated to celebrity through their unexpected ultimate encounter with death.
The source for Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) was an unidentified newspaper photograph, extant in the Warhol archive. Despite the horror of the scene before him, the photographer nevertheless intuitively cropped the image through the view finder to engender narrative and provide an aesthetically satisfying picture according to compositional convention. Warhol selectively accentuated lights and darks on this photograph to intensify the contrast of the reproduction on the screen when he ordered his mechanical, in order to improve its legibility as well as enhance the compositional polarization of the composition. In purely formal terms, the unlikely contrast between the utterly crumpled front of the car against its largely unscathed rear chassis is marked by the derelict corpse and the vertical axis of the still-in-tact armature of the side windows. This divides the composition in two, which, coupled with the double repetition of the silkscreen mechanical, provides a broad quartering of the entire canvas, encouraging our eye to travel side to side, up and down, and diagonally between the four principal arenas of pictorial data.
Warhol's exceptional aptitude to seize the most potent images of his time defines him as the consummate twentieth-century history painter. Inasmuch as his canvas implicates our fascination with mortality and a certain voyeurism of death, it advances a heritage proposed by David’s Death of Marat and Géricault’s The Shipwreck, while also uniting the celebrity and anonymity of victimhood so harshly contrasted in those two paradigms. The seminal Death and Disaster Suicides, Car Crashes, and Electric Chairs; as well as the celebrity portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor; and the immortal Campbell Soup Cans and Coca Cola Bottles, were all executed within a matter of months in an explosive outpouring of astonishing artistic invention. Warhol was disturbed by the media's potential to manipulate, yet simultaneously he celebrated the power of the icon. Thus at the same time this painting encapsulates portraiture as biography and it acts as a memorial to the anonymous victim by eulogizing the subject’s story to the realm of high art. Like a tomb to the Unknown Soldier, Warhol enlists the simulacra of this stranger to commemorate all casualties of mass culture in a newly homogenized society.
Confronted by the tragedy of death and its incongruous by-product of celebrity, Andy Warhol nullified the news story zeitgeist through the effects of replication and multiplication, so undermining the manipulative potentiality of mass media. In keeping with his very best work, celebrity, tragedy and the threat of death inhabit every pore of this silkscreened painting. This compelling work stands as a treatise on the emotional conditioning inherent to mass culture. Scrutinizing the public face of a private disaster, it questions how anonymous victims are elevated to notoriety via the exceptional conditions of their demise, or as Thomas Crow describes, "the repetition of the crude images does draw attention to the awful banality of the accident and to the tawdry exploitation by which we come to know the misfortunes of strangers." (Thomas Crow, "Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” Art in America, May 1987, p. 135) The uncertain interplay between anonymous suffering and the broadcast exposure of bereavement and loss is here locked forever into the acrylic and ink lamina of this remarkable painting.