Contemporary Art

Andy Warhol, the Death and Disaster Series and Prestige

By Roger Kamholz

Andy Warhol in a limousine in New York City in 1986. Credit: Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

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.

NEW YORK - In June of 1962, Andy Warhol met his friend Henry Geldzahler for lunch at Serendipity, one of Warhol's regular haunts. The young curator had a piece of advice for the budding Pop artist, whose work at the time dealt with Coke bottles and soup cans. "It's enough life, it's time for a little death," Geldzahler reportedly instructed Warhol. Geldzahler's push for him to move beyond consumer objects and engage with more serious subject matter led the artist to create some of the most powerful artwork of his career. 129 Die in Jet!, Warhol's 1962 remake of a New York Mirror front page, and his earliest portraits of the late Marilyn Monroe were the artist's first clashes with the theme of death. Moving into 1963, Warhol quickly advanced beyond these oblique references and was confronting fatality squarely in its grim face. He had embarked on what would later be known as the Death and Disaster series.

This loosely connected group of seventy-odd artworks take as their subjects car accidents, suicides, electric chairs, even tainted cans of tuna fish. Warhol appropriated source material from newspapers and police photo archives and used the silk screen as a means to mechanically repeat these lurid images across broad swaths of canvas. Whether Warhol intended to intensify or blunt the menacing content of these pictures via repetition is an open question.

Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) will be offered at Sotheby's New York on November 13th.

The four largest, most significant works of the series show Warhol in full command of his talents for color and composition. With Orange Car Crash 14 Times, Black and White Disaster #4, Orange Car Crash, and Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) – a highlight of Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening sale on November 13 – Warhol took the senseless tragedies of his time, ones that expressed the fractures and failures of the American dream and presented them as history painting, in the tradition of grand, wrenching statements like Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (1819) and Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937).

Apart from Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which has been in the same private collection since 1988, all of the aforementioned large-scale Disaster paintings are in prestigious museum collections – owing no doubt to their importance in 20th century art. For each museum, these works serve as important cornerstones of their Pop Art holdings. Orange Car Crash 14 Times entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, in 1991 as a gift from architect Philip Johnson. Black and White Disaster #4 has been housed at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, since 1972. Orange Car Crash, part of the esteemed Ludwig Collection, has been on permanent loan to Vienna, Austria's Museum Moderner Kunst since 1978.

A woman looks at Andy Warhol's silkscreen painting Orange Car Crash during a preview of the exhibition Museum of Wishes at Vienna's  Museum Moderner Kunst after its 2011 redesign. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner.

Compositionally, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) is closest to Warhol's painting in Vienna; both show silk-screened images cascading down their left-hand canvases, evoking filmstrips. But the former arguably stands alone as the most daring and forceful of the four monumental Disaster paintings. Warhol's use of reflective silver paint as background color charges the painting with a shimmering, cinematic quality. And with its bright, shimmering field beside a sputtering image of a fatal car crash, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) may be Warhol's most profound evocation of the series' grave, human theme.

Tomorrow: Andy Warhol and the Flower Series

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