It is the proposition of both a definitive end and an unending beginning. On the left there is the final instant: the permanent flash where the possibilities of existence have been extinguished. Freedom and independence lie lifeless in wreckage as definitive lament to the hopes of the future. All this is repeated over and over and each version is unique: the tragic occurrence and recurrence is never identical. Yet, however the reel of life differs, here is the moment that it is conclusively severed. The screen turns blank. On the right there is an ever-shifting silver ocean of promise: a reflection to our ever-changing current experience. The specific, unalterable finality of the past meets the abstract, permanent continuity of the present. Stories told give way to stories as yet untold.
Andy Warhol created Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) in the summer of 1963, at the turn of his thirty-fifth birthday. Composed of two canvases, each over eight feet high and together spanning in excess of thirteen feet, it ranked among the most monumental and ambitious works he had ever undertaken. Indeed, there exist only three other Car Crash paintings of remotely comparable scale: Orange Car Crash 14 Times, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Black and White Disaster #4, Kunstmuseum Basel; and Orange Car Crash, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna. It represents the zenith of the Death and Disaster corpus, a body of work that was then Warhol’s total focus, and which surely remains his most significant and enduring contribution to the course of Art History. As Heiner Bastian succinctly declared: “Whatever the many different conclusions arrived at in art-historical observations on the significance of Warhol’s work in the context of his time and his contemporaries, it is the images of disaster and death that he started to make in 1963 that Warhol the chronicler gains his credibility and Warhol the artist explains the world.” (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Andy Warhol: Retrospective, 2002, pp. 28-9) In this groundbreaking year Warhol successively produced the series that comprise this seminal canon, which today read as a roll call of almost unfathomable artistic accomplishment: Suicides, Black and White Disaster, Early Serial Disasters, Silver Electric Chairs, Red Explosion, Tunafish Disasters, Race Riots, Burning Cars, 5 Deaths and Late Disasters.
Of all the paintings in this spectacular outpouring of compulsive innovation, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) is truly exceptional. It is one of only seven in the monumental, double-canvas format: in addition to the three Car Crashes mentioned above are Red Disaster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Blue Electric Chair and Mustard Race Riot. As denoted by the corresponding titles, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) stands out from this pantheon of immense Death and Disaster works for its exceptional silver color, providing the expansive surface with a constantly adjusting, reflective quality that is absent from the single color acrylic grounds of the other paintings.
The incomparable nature of Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) is further confirmed by the remarkable heritage of its provenance. Three venerated collectors have previously owned this painting: Gian Enzo Sperone, Charles Saatchi and Thomas Ammann, each of whose eminent collections famously included some of the most outstanding artworks of the Twentieth Century. Subsequently this painting has been held in the same private collection for the past quarter of a century and has been publicly exhibited only once in that time, at the Fondation Beyeler in 2000.
Having been rooted in heroic tales of immigration, American history evolved over two centuries through narratives of migration and ceaseless movement. Whether by horse, stagecoach, steam train or the automobile, this vast continental expanse was traversed by countless generations in the quest for opportunity and betterment. In the Twentieth Century there came to be no more potent symbol of the freedom and independence that are such monolithic cornerstones of the American Dream than the automobile. From John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night to Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause; Chuck Berry’s Get Your Kicks on Route 66 to the Beach Boys Little Deuce Coupe; America’s love affair with the automobile became profoundly endemic to its cultural identity.
When Andy Warhol created this work in 1963, forty-four percent of Americans owned a motor vehicle, nearly double the number of just twenty years before. Seven years prior in 1956, the US Congress had authorized the largest and most ambitious public works enterprise of the postwar era: a nationwide interstate highway system comprising over 40,000 miles of high-speed roadways. Fittingly Time magazine declared the highway the “true index of our culture.” (“The New Highway Network,” Time, no. 69, June 24, 1957, p. 92) And in the eighteen years between the end of the Second World War and 1963, 620,000 Americans died in automobile accidents, on average almost one hundred people per day and more than the totals of all American casualties in the First and Second World Wars combined. Looming like an ever-present, seemingly indiscriminate scythe over Middle America’s new golden age of economic prosperity and everything it stood for, the car crash had quietly become the primal, devastating threat to an entire way of life.
This work's execution 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. With deafening resonance Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) 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 across the front seats of its deformed vehicle. 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 and the spectacularly crushed chassis is mediated by the strewn body, caught at the 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, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1988, p. 16)
Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) offers the nightmare, but also concurrently normalizes this dystopian vision of sanitized suburban brutality. Here import is incited not only by subject, but also by method, process and context. Silkscreened on spray-painted silver, the cinematic silver-screen expanse is revealed on the left through the patterned gradations of anonymous dots. 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. Walter 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) Here 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 discussed 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 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 encounter with death.
The source was an unidentified newspaper photograph, and despite the horror of the scene before him, the photojournalist 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 image. In purely formal terms, the composition is bifurcated in two by the vertical tree or telephone pole that proved the automobile’s undoing, invoking both the double take and before and after narratives in our reception. Our eye is drawn 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, as well as being sourced in the reportage of controversial contemporary events, Warhol’s masterpiece advances a heritage proposed by the likes of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, Theodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. It continues this illustrious line of precedent as a defining History Painting of the Twentieth Century.
On 5 July 1816 the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the coast of Africa, near today’s Mauritania. With insufficient capacity of lifeboats, at least 147 passengers and crew were forced onto a makeshift raft. After thirteen days’ drifting, all but fifteen of those souls perished, either by starvation, drowning, dehydration or cannibalism. When the twenty-five year-old Théodore Géricault heard of the widely-reported events he launched into an unprecedented undertaking that would culminate in one of the most celebrated paintings of all time, The Raft of the Medusa, which he finally completed in 1819. Interviewing survivors, visiting morgues and hospitals, working from severed limbs and creating a scale model of the raft, Géricault worked in isolation for eighteen months. Utterly dedicated to an uncommissioned, spectacularly controversial work that retold a highly-charged recent event, Géricault created a seminal History Painting that still thunderously resonates through its sheer evocation of unknowable human suffering and endurance. There perhaps remains no greater metaphor for, in the words of Christine Riding, “the fallacy of hope and pointless suffering, and at worst, the basic human instinct to survive, which had superseded all moral considerations and plunged civilised man into barbarism.” (Christine Riding, "The Fatal Raft: Christine Riding Looks at British Reaction to the French Tragedy at Sea Immortalised in Géricault's Masterpiece 'The Raft of the Medusa,'" History Today, February 2003)
On 26 July 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, German and Italian warplanes acting for Spanish Nationalist forces annihilated the village of Guernica in northern Spain, indiscriminately massacring innocent civilians with bombs and gunfire. The atrocity incited widespread outrage and having read the eyewitness account by British journalist George Steer in the French newspaper L’Humanité, Pablo Picasso, living in Paris and then Honorary Director-in-exile of the Prado Museum, conceived perhaps the most recognized artistic expression of anti-war sentiment ever to come into being, Guernica. As memorialized by Michel Leiris, “In a rectangle black and white such as that in which ancient tragedy appeared to us, Picasso sends us our announcement of our mourning: all that we love is going to die, and that is why it was necessary to this degree that all that we love should embody itself, like the effusions of last farewell, in something unforgettably beautiful.” (Michel Leiris, Cahiers d’Art, 1937, Nos. 4-5, cited in Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, 3rd Ed., Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981 [first published 1958], p. 309)
Like Géricault and Picasso before him, here Warhol created a painting for the ages, that would always speak something essential about humankind’s struggle with existence. 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 absurdity of human transience inhabit every pore of this breathtaking painting, and this compelling work stands as a treatise on the emotional conditioning inherent to our 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 is here locked forever into the silver and ink lamina of this masterwork.
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