Andy Warhol in Gristedes Supermarket. Photo: © Bob Adelman.
Contemporary Art

Warhol and the Silkscreen: Media, Seriality, and the American Consciousness

Sotheby's

A mong the most celebrated artworks of the twentieth-century postwar canon, Warhol’s Death and Disaster series testifies to his revolutionary mastery over the medium of silkscreen, then a primarily commercial and industrial technique. Warhol turned to photographic silkscreen printing in 1962, following a period of work as a commercial designer. Warhol initially faced rejections from dealers as he began to focus on developing his individual artistic practice, but Irving Blum of the cutting-edge Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles spotted his Campbell Soup Can paintings during a studio visit and offered Warhol a solo exhibition on the spot. For the 1962 show, Warhol created 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, each a different variety, hand-painted to mimic the uniformity of mass production in a shrewd cultural commentary.

Installation view: Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1962, with Andy Warhol's Campbell’s Soup Cans. Photograph: Seymour Rosen. Image © SPACES—Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments

In his hunt to capture the look and feel of commercialized postwar America, Warhol pushed the idea of mass production further, experimenting with the tools of mechanical reproduction. Though his early silkscreen prints used his own drawings as the basis for the paintings, Warhol soon learned that it was possible to use photographs as the basis for a silk-screen print. The resulting image proved much sharper – though still somewhat blurred – and thus to Warhol's liking. He quickly invented what would become his signature style–a grainy black image printed repeatedly–in series, grids, rows, or pairs–on painted canvas often strikingly colored. In his studio, Warhol worked with professionals to have the photos he chose transferred onto the mesh of a silk screen. The newfound process undermined any translation or evidence of the artist's hand in favor of a mass-produced, machine-like look which appealed greatly to Warhol, who famously told Art News interviewer Gene Swenson, "the reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do."(Andy Warhol quoted in Gene Swenson, “What is Pop Art?”, Art News, November 1963) In the detached operation of silkscreen, Warhol discovered theoretically infinite permutations of his chosen source images. Beginning in 1962, he created a series based on the shipping and handling labels found on boxes, repeating phrases such as "Fragile – Handle with Care," "Open This End," and "This Side" Up on a single canvas, and would push his fascination with the box further, creating his famous Brillo, Cornflakes, Heinz and Campbell’s boxes in the following years, elevating the mass-produced object to high art.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The silk-screen process mixed with high-key acrylic paint imbued his images with a kind of tragic radiance, the opacity of the spray paint allowing Warhol to easily mask and silkscreen multiple images on top of each other, exploring seriality and multiplicity. Once he discovered the process and implications of working with silk screens, the content of Warhol's output as a painter became inextricably linked to the process by which he created his art. 1962 is the year that Warhol also began a large series of celebrity portraits, notably his images of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. His earliest portraits of the late Marilyn Monroe were the artist's first clashes with the theme of death, the resulting images much more than beautiful icons, imbued with a darker, sinister depth. Two iconic women, Monroe and Taylor were quintessential celebrities and renowned beauties who were also connected with death in Warhol’s mind; in 1962, Monroe had committed suicide and Elizabeth Taylor experienced a life-threatening illness.

Andy Warhol making a painting at The Factory, 1964. Photography by Ugo Mulas
Andy Warhol, Untitled from Marilyn Monroe, 1967. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In his Marilyn portraits Warhol explores the icon as a promise of the beauty, pleasure, fame and tragedy that 1960s America was capable of realizing. Warhol turned to the ad man's brash, saturated palette, one that he as a former fashion illustrator knew well, to color the hair, eyelids and lips of the fallen star, as well as the field around her floating, disembodied visage. Warhol welcomes the mask-like guise that obscure, protect, and yet also define Monroe: actress, sex symbol, innocent ingenue, Hollywood product, victim. In 1964, Andy Warhol would delve deeper into this kind of character image, appropriating newspaper photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy for a series of dramatic paintings in which he depicted the moments before and after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Combining his signature themes of celebrities and fatal disasters, these closely cropped, voyeuristic newspaper pictures project the images of a bereft widow in the hours and days after her husband’s death, revealing emotions that were then rarely seen in public. Through his silkscreened photographs, Warhol made paintings with a darkness that was unseen yet tragically present.

Andy Warhol, Sixteen Jackies, 1964. Sold at Sotheby's New York, 2021 for $33.9 million.

At every stage of his printmaking career, Warhol imbued his work with incredibly nuanced and insightful social commentary. Warhol was deeply interested and deeply aware of American culture and technological progress-its promises, its faults, its brazenness, its vulgarity. No series of Warhol’s probes the menacing depths of the American consciousness more beautifully and more viscerally, however, than his Death and Disaster series, which thoroughly abstracts found images of not only automobile accidents, but also suicides and electric chairs, numbing them of their original human macabre via their seemingly mechanical repetition. Warhol mirrors the unprecedented assimilation of reproductive media at every level in his Death and Disaster series, abstracting the decadent desensitization of an increasingly consumerist American society and the primal intrigue behind visions of human demise. White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) stands as a visionary allegory of the mass media economy, the very one in which we are thoroughly immersed today. Silkscreened in black-and-white ink lamina to echo the mass-produced newspaper, the dystopian atrocity that Warhol redocuments in White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) is highly quotidian, yet the paining’s grand magnitude enthralls the viewer to behold the specter of death that Warhol faithfully replicates. The psychological effect of the repeated, ephemeral silkscreen image is best echoed by Warhol’s famous words, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away.” (The artist quoted in Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol '60s, 1990, p.50).

Andy Warhol at the opening of the 1968 exhibition at the Moderna Museet in front of 500 Brillo Boxes that arrived to the museum.

In the Death and Disaster series, Warhol fearlessly probed a dark side of American suburban life, one that most preferred not to acknowledge, and in doing so captured an eternal essential truth about humanity’s perpetual struggle with existence. Warhol radically revolutionized the terms of popular visual culture, undertaking one of the most brilliant radical shifts during the transformative American decade of the 1960s. White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) epitomizes the monumental themes of Warhol’s career: namely an unprecedented artistic interrogation into the agencies of mass-media, celebrity and death.

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