Andy Warhol amid paparazzi. Photograph by Ron Galella/WireImage

21 Days of Andy Warhol is Sotheby’s three-week celebration of the essential 20th century artist with one-a-day stories and videos about Warhol’s origins, influences, inspirations, all leading up to the sale of important Warhol pieces in our Contemporary Art Evening auction 13 November.

As Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) and 5 Deaths on Turquoise from Andy Warhol’s powerful Car Crash series come to auction, along with the luscious Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz), all from 1963, Meghan Dailey considers how celebrity and death became Andy Warhol’s twin obsessions in his art – and in his life.

NEW YORK – In the early 1960s, Andy Warhol became immersed in his Death in America series, reproducing mass-media images of grisly car accidents, race riots
and suicides in brightly coloured silkscreened grids. Simultaneously, he was applying a similarly cool objectivity to his portraits of such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Through repetition, Warhol deliberately flattened the emotional impact of the images – erasing the horror or glamour. It is as if for Warhol, life was as fleeting as fame.

These are the works that helped propel Warhol to fame, a condition he had long fixated on. As a child he read movie magazines and as an adult he sent fan letters to movie stars, as well as his literary hero Truman Capote. By the mid-1960s Warhol had become a celebrity in his own right, carefully cultivating his image and surrounding himself with the denizens of the Factory, superstars of his own creation like Edie, Viva and Nico. As a fixture in the downtown Manhattan scene, he found himself the subject of the paparazzi, befriending the models, actors and rock stars he had once idolised from afar.

Warhol, wrapped in fur and surrounded by friends Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Photograph by Ron Galella/WireImage

Warhol was an outsider who became the consummate insider, but his notoriety never quashed his deep insecurities or assuaged his preoccupation with death as a philosophical and existential question. A hypochondriac, he was plagued by fears that his own death would be a sudden and violent one. This prediction came shockingly close to reality in June 1968, when Valerie Solanas, a marginal Factory figure who had become obsessed with Warhol, entered the studio, shot and seriously wounded him. Although Warhol survived the attempt on his life, he never fully recovered from his injuries. He took numerous photographs of his scarred body, and famously posed for Richard Avedon, who depicts the artist as Christlike, bearing his torso with its shocking network of scars and gaping bullet hole visible on his side. After the shooting, he used himself as a kind of living symbol of death, making self-portraits with skulls and silkscreens depicting knives and guns. Death had become an inescapable reality that even the famous Warholian detachment could not keep at bay.

Meghan Dailey is a Brooklyn-based critic and editor whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Interview and Artforum, amongst other publications.

Tomorrow: Andy and His Process

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