After decades of modernist abstraction, epitomized by the Abstract Expressionist insistence on self-referential and non-objective art in the 1950s, Pop Art established itself as an artistic reflection of the zeitgeist of 1960s American life. Present day iconography re-entered art in a manner that mimicked the visual language of the newly dominant mass media. Yet the apparent simplicity of the subject matter of Pop Art, which was interpreted by many as too readily recognizable and easily accessible to qualify as great art, belied a deeper conceptual aesthetic sense of how mass media was affecting modern life. One of the most acute observers of this phenomenon, Andy Warhol’s playful attitude toward his art and public persona masked a serious engagement with the angst and contradictions of the Twentieth Century.
As a whole, Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings reveal the artist’s pre-occupation with the contradictions inherent to public exposure and private despair. Following the artist’s early works inspired by consumer products, including the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings which have become indisputable icons of contemporary culture, Warhol’s Death and Disaster series employed his distinctive technique and creative lexicon in the examination of profound and disturbing realities of American life at mid-century. Since its initial conception and creation, this body of work has been recognized as the most important and complex of Warhol’s inimitable oeuvre. The raw humanism of the images of suicides, catastrophes, tragic accidents, racial unrest and capital punishment, when read through the lens of Warhol’s desire to be detached and machine-like, reveals the contradictory impulse that led the artist to produce some of the most powerful and moving works of the Twentieth Century. 5 Deaths on Turquoise exhibits all the graphic stylization and ingenious manipulation that brought such multi-layered richness to the Death and Disaster paintings.
Warhol first used the subject of tragic death in 1962 when he created 129 Die based on a newspaper headline heralding a horrific plane crash. One of the last of Warhol’s hand-painted, hand-drawn images, this canvas was not the first instance in which he used front-page headlines for subject matter. In these early works the figurative image is relegated to the background as the text predominates in a faithful interpretation of true journalistic style. Warhol started his career as a graphic artist in advertising and print media and had a singular appreciation for an image’s potential to incite a visceral and impactful response. As of August 1962, he began to employ the very methods and mechanics of print media when he silkscreened photographic reproductions onto his canvases for the first time. The screen printing technique allowed Warhol to reproduce an image exactly, and as many times as he desired, with great efficiency and neutrality. The silkscreening process appealed to the artist’s visual sensibilities whilst presenting him with the opportunity to depersonalize the production of his art, making it the ideal medium for his distinguishing aesthetic.
Warhol was above all the ultimate observer, and consciously adopted the role of celebrity fan, voyeuristic movie-maker, and - in the Death and Disaster series - objective bystander. When Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in August 1962, two of Warhol’s interests were thrust together thus giving birth to a genre that is defined by the apparent contradiction of its interwoven themes: tragedy and celebrity. The glamorous portraits of Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy are sumptuous in color and high style, but their underlying tone is one of calamity and misfortune lurking beneath the façade of success and stardom. In 5 Deaths on Turquoise the depicted subjects are not starlets of the silver screen, or paradigms of American beauty, but anonymous men and women who have had fame thrust upon them by their chance appointment with indiscriminate disaster. However, as objective and removed as Warhol’s depiction of the five subjects in this gruesome scene appears, there is a distinct “slippage” in their impact that results both from the artist’s technique and the nature of news photography. Within his detached stance, the artist’s actual intent was not to render the scene as anonymous but to point out the particularities and unique tragedy of an individual death. In a famous 1963 interview, Warhol described his attraction to the source material. “I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Labor Day and every time you turned on the radio they said something like `Four million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect…and I thought people should think about them some time. 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.” (Gene Swenson, ``What is Pop Art?,” Artnews 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61) With visual aesthetics, rigorous use of composition and astute choice of subject matter, Warhol created a painting of power, beauty and tragedy.
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