Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
More than half a century after the series was first conceived, the raw power and confrontational nature of 5 Deaths is unmistakable. Painted in a captivating red-hue, the work captures an intensely violent scenario: the instant aftermath of a brutal car crash. With an ever-increasing immersion in representations of violence and brutality through mass-media, Warhol’s critical observations of the impact of the widespread circulation of such images is more relevant than ever. In an interview with Gene Swenson, published in Art News in November 1963, Warhol stated that “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect” (Andy Warhol in conversation with Gene Swenson, in: Gene Swenson, “What is Pop Art?”, Artnews. No. 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61). Salient to the Death and Disaster works is the notion of replication. In his 1970 monograph, Rainer Crone discusses 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).
The atrocity here is highly quotidian; it is a thoroughly everyday catastrophe, typical of what Walter Hopps calls the “unpredictable choreography of death” amongst the “banality of everyday disasters” (Walter Hopps quoted in: Exh. Cat., Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, 1988, p. 9). Warhol, himself obsessively fixated with the fragility of existence, here scrutinises the public face of a private disaster and questions why anonymous victims are elevated to celebrity through their flirtation with death.
Within the painting, the corporeal indications of five bodies are discernible: the man and woman emerging from the car's windows at the right of the image; the woman staring starkly out through the car's rear windscreen; the rear view of a body's trunk behind her; and the ominous hand drooping behind the car's rear wing at the left of the image. The undercarriage and main chassis of the stylised two-tonne automobile are cleanly silhouetted against the night sky. That this metallic expanse seemingly remains largely unscathed emphasises the vehicle's massive form and accentuates the crushing effect of its weight on its mangled window frames and occupants. Intertwined with the deformed metal superstructure, jointly sprawled across the asphalt concrete, are the twisted human bodies: man and machine fused through mundane catastrophe. 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 spectre of indiscriminate fatality. As Neil Printz relates, “the car crash turns the American dream into a nightmare” (Neil Printz, 'Painting Death in America', in: ibid, p.16).
Although 5 Deaths offers the nightmare, it concurrently normalises a dystopian vision of sanitised suburban brutality. As ever with Warhol's oeuvre, import is incited not only by subject, but also by method, process, and context. Silkscreened on Alizarin Crimson, the notionally horrific and terrifying subject matter is revealed through the patterned gradations of anonymous printing dots. The nature of this rendering is strategically impersonal: the mechanical silkscreen dot and absence of a painterly hand desensitise the subject, at once evoking the mass production of newsprint photojournalism and the unceasing everyday phenomenon that the car crash had itself become. In addition, Warhol faithfully reproduces the composition of the photojournalist, replicating the foreign aesthetic of a found image. The source for 5 Deaths was an 8 by 10 inch glossy black-and-white photograph distributed by United Press International, and discovered by Warhol's assistant Gerard Malanga amongst piles of news agency photos in a bookstore on 7th Avenue and 23rd Street. Despite the horror of the scene before him, the photojournalist has cropped the image through the view finder to engender narrative and provide an aesthetically satisfying picture according to compositional convention.
It is also important to remember that contemporaneous with the Death and Disaster works are Warhol's iconic portraits of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Kennedy: four superstars touched by death and disaster. Fame through death captivated Warhol, who himself wrote: “I never understood why when you died, you didn't just vanish and everything could just keep going the way it was, only you just wouldn't be there” (Andy Warhol quoted in: ibid., p.17). The potential for a private tragedy to catapult anonymity into the glare of the public arena and the uncertain interplay between anonymous suffering and broadcast exposure of personal bereavement are pervading themes permanently locked into 5 Deaths.
Brilliantly capturing the central concerns of the most influential artist from the post-war era in a stunning palette of Alizarin Crimson, 5 Deaths is in every way an iconic example of Andy Warhol’s practice. Characterised by its powerful visual language and crucially important engagement with the influences of contemporary technology, the work stands as a powerful reminder of the significance of the artist’s practice even five decades later.
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