Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
Carlo van den Bosch, Antwerp
Sotheby's, New York, May 2, 1989, lot 56
Heiner Bastian, Berlin
Perry Rubenstein, New York
Private Collection, New York
Perry Rubinstein, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
After decades of modernist abstraction, Pop Art restored representation and objective imagery to painting, reflecting the world in which it thrived via electronic and print media. Present day iconography re-entered art and replaced what seemed to be the somewhat pretentious insistence of self-referential art and non-objective art of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s. 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 modern media was affecting modern life. Andy Warhol stands as one of the most acute observers of this phenomenon, and his playful attitude toward his art and public persona masked a serious engagement with the angst and contradictions of the Twentieth Century.
5 Deaths Twice I is an outstanding and vibrant example of Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series that encompasses the more obvious subjects such as accidents and suicides, as well as the more tangential Electric Chair paintings and Celebrity Portraits. As a whole, they reveal Warhol’s pre-occupation with the contradictions inherent in public exposure and private despair. In the early 1960s, Warhol’s Death and Disaster series may have at first appeared to be a startling choice of subject for the new star of Pop Art and the painter of mundane consumer products such as the Campbell’s Soup Can. Yet, over the intervening decades, this body of work has been recognized as his most important and complex. The raw humanism of the images of suicides, catastrophes, tragic accidents, racial unrest and capital punishment is juxtaposed against Warhol’s desire to be detached and machine-like, revealing the contradictory impulse that led him to produce some of the most powerful and moving works of the last half century. 5 Deaths Twice I 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 his 129 Die (1962), when Henry Geldzahler suggested Warhol paint the darker side of American life. One of the last of Warhol’s hand-painted, hand-drawn images, this canvas was not his first use of front-page headlines for subject matter, as seen in works such as Boy for Meg (1961). Yet, in these early works, text is as much a part of the picture – if not more – than imagery, perhaps revealing Warhol’s roots as a graphic artist in advertising and print media. As the British Pop artist Richard Hamilton noted, ``it took until the mid-fifties for artists to realize that the visual world had been altered by the mass media and changed dramatically enough to make it worth looking at again in terms of painting.’’ (R. Hamilton, ``Roy Lichtenstein’’, Studio International, 175, no. 896, January 1968, p. 24)
In the 1960s, for the first time in art history, items such as advertisements, comic strips, movie stills, postcards, magazines and newspaper photographs played a dominant role in artists' creative thinking. The proliferation of news media was fueled by the increase in advertising revenue that resulted from the flood of new products to be promoted to the general buying public. A dramatic growth of leisure time among affluent societies increased the readership of print media and the viewing audience of moving images. To capture the saturation of modern culture in this new flood of visual information, Warhol adopted some of the mechanics of the industry.
As of August 1962, Warhol began to screen photographic reproductions onto his canvases. The advantages of screen-printing are its quality as a form of pure reproduction, capable of multiple repetitions, with great efficiency and neutrality. Warhol had now found the ideal medium to depersonalize production of his art, and at the same time, the method appealed to his visual sense. Photo-mechanics emphasize the separation of figure and ground, with the high contrast of black and white, and the ability to endlessly repeat the same image. Andy Warhol’s iconoclastic adoption of screenprinting in painting fully engaged the screenprint’s facility with photography, its capacity for saturated, vibrant hues, and its potential for repetition. Screenprinting allowed Warhol to distance himself from artmaking and to simulate mechanical processes, inventing radical printing methods that, ironically, became his personal signature.
Just as the screenprint could create distance between the artist and the art, printed imagery could dilute the emotional impact of the subject matter. By the 1960s the vast media industry in the United States had been consolidated into a few communications giants, which contributed to a uniformity of news reporting across the country. Often the same photograph or video clip was shown again and again in periodicals and television networks, inuring the public to certain images no matter how potent their content. The irony of this appealed to Warhol, who subtly used this brand of raw imagery, aesthetically cloaked in bright colors and repeated patterns, to subversively infuse raw emotion into his subject matter.
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 – the innocent, uninvolved bystander. When Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in August 1962, two of Warhol’s interests were thrust together and gave birth to two genres that are inter-related despite their apparent opposition. The glamorous portraits of Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy are sumptuous in color and high style, but their underlying tone is one of sadness and tragedy for the inner person underneath the façade of success and stardom. All three women in these frontal, smiling images were assumed to be archetypes of the dream woman, desired by men and aspired to by women. In contrast to the fictitious blonde of Lichtenstein’s comic female archetype, Warhol specifically portrayed real women of such fame that the public felt they knew them The great irony of Warhol’s art is the subtext of his icons, for each of his ideal women was touched by death or tragedy at a young age.
Conversely, paintings such as 5 Deaths Twice I, depict anonymous victims and indiscriminate death in a much more blatant manner, but with a sense of ``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) Perusing high-circulation tabloids and picture magazines, Warhol kept a virtual `image bank’ of black and white photographs, some of them also from archival sources since the scenes were often too violent for public consumption. The source for 5 Deaths Twice I was a UPI photograph whose caption reads in part, ``Two Die in Collision. ..Three Survivors of a car-truck collision, pinned beneath their overturned automobile, wait to be freed by rescue squads…Two other passengers, both sailors from the USS Maddox at San Diego, were killed.’’ (G. Frei and N. Printz, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume One, New York and London, 2002, p. 342). Although text is no longer included by Warhol in his screenprint, 5 Deaths Twice 1 remains extremely narrative through the power of the chosen image – so powerful that the common title of Five Deaths in this series overstates the actual facts.
The title of this work also attests to its place as the first in the second series of paintings in which Warhol used this particular image during 1963. In the earlier paintings, the screen was used primarily for multiple images within one screen. In this series, the image is screenprinted on single canvases, often with borders at top and bottom to produce a square canvas, which in turn can be arranged and re-arranged into multi-panel compositions such as the present diptych. The multi-panel constructions, begun with the Ethel Scull portrait series, allowed each image to inhabit a discrete space and the saturated, vivid cadmium red color – akin to the background of many celebrity portraits – gave added power to the graphic punch of the repeated images. 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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