‘[The car crashes] had a shock value that kind of excited him. Andy liked to think of it as mechanical, but it really was a hands-on approach, not an assembly line approach, it never really was; they were always original, each painting; mistakes were inevitable and he accepted them for what they were: he called them “divine accidents”’ (G. Melanga, ‘Death and Disaster: Gerard Melanga Discusses Warhol’, http://www.christies.com/features/videos/interviews/gerard-malanga-discusses-warhol.aspx).
‘The death series I did was divided into two parts: the first on famous deaths and the second on people who nobody had ever heard of and I thought that people should think about sometime … It’s not that I feel sorry for them 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’ (A. Warhol, interviewed by G. Swenson, ‘What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters, Part I’, in Art News, Vol. 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61).
‘These were instances in which the mass-produced image as the bearer of desires was exposed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering in death’ (T. Crow, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, in A. Michelson (ed.) Andy Warhol, Cambridge 2001, p. 50).
‘The faces now nameless. The situation of the death and disaster receding in time and memory. Mangled and wreckage. A midsummer night on a lonely road to nowhere. The characteristics traits of what we have called modernity’ (G. Malanga, ‘Photograph of a Painted Photograh: 5 Deaths,’ in Andy Warhol 5 Deaths, exh. cat, Stellan Holm Gallery, New York, 2002, p. 12).
With its glowing, cadmium red vision of a horrific late-night car crash, Andy Warhol’s Five Deaths stands among the most provocative and powerful images of the post-War era. Painted in 1963, it belongs to Warhol’s landmark Death and Disaster series, a profound body of work situated at the dawn of the artist’s lifelong fascination with themes of violence, tragedy and mortality. Compressed and darkened by ink and clogged paint, Warhol’s graphic tableau records five bodies crushed beneath the weight of an overturned car. Three victims are entombed inside its metal structure; in the centre, a female passenger lies in a pool of blood, fixing the viewer with her vacant gaze. Behind her, the twisted body of her male companion lies motionless, while the anonymous hand of another fatality hangs from the car’s dark interior. From out of this carnage, two additional figures emerge, bloodied and terror-struck as they crawl away from their lifeless companions. With its voyeuristic vantage point, the work taps into the dark undercurrents of mass-media consumption that simmered beneath the surface of suburban America. The inevitability of death haunted Warhol throughout his career, and would come to represent the source of some of his most iconic, unsettling and thought-provoking work. The car crash became one of the central motifs of the Death and Disaster series, epitomised by his monumental masterpiece Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), created during the same year. As Neil Printz has written, Warhol’s car crashes ‘constitute some of the most violent imagery in the history of art, with a graphic verism unprecedented outside of contemporary mass-media’ (N. Printz, ‘Painting Death in America’, in Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, exh. cat., The Menil Collection, Houston, 1988, p. 14). In Five Deaths, Warhol captures the fleeting ephemerality of existence and the thin, fragile line that marks the division between life and death.
Five Deaths stems from a truly seminal moment in which Warhol produced some of the most celebrated paintings of his career. During the ground-breaking period of the early 1960s, Warhol painted the works that now make up his inimitable canon, including Suicides, Black and White Disaster, Silver Electric Chairs, Race Riots and Burning Cars, as well as Liz, Elvis and Marilyn. Indeed, although his portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were both trigged by the actresses’ encounters with mortality - Monroe’s suicide in 1962 and Taylor’s near fatal illness in 1961 – Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings propelled his fascination to new, visceral levels. This obsession, which at times swelled into an irrational fear, exploded into a creative surge in the summer of 1962, when Henry Geldzahler, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brought a newspaper headline to Warhol’s attention: ‘129 Die in Jet’. As the artist recalls, ‘I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper: 129 Die. I was also painting the Marilyns. It was Christmas or Labor Day - a holiday - and every time you turned on the radio, some said something like “Four Million people are going to die.” That started it. But when you see an image over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect. The death series I did was divided into two parts: the first on famous deaths and the second on people who nobody had ever heard of and I thought that people should think about some time … It’s not that I feel sorry for them 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’ (A. Warhol, interviewed by G. Swenson, ‘What is Pop Art?’, in Art News, Vol. 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61).
A grotesque choreography of the inevitable, Five Deaths is a modern-day vanitas, a work that captures the macabre irony of life and its ill-fated end. Throughout his life, Warhol cultivated an obsessive dread of accidental death, and the car crash, in particular, both enthralled and terrified him. Over the course of his career, he amassed a graphic collection of high-contrast press photographs of car crashes that were often too gruesome to be published, and he readily admitted to a fear of drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Several of Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings were based on newspaper photos from tabloid-style publications, but he was also drawn to the more graphic photographs of crime scenes, suicides or accidents that were never widely circulated. As Warhol’s assistant Gerard Malanga recalls, ‘images like this were never really used in newspapers like the Daily News or the New York Times. They were usually relegated to newspapers like the National Enquirer or scandal tabloid sheets. So in a sense these were really images censored out by the mainstream press, and so they ended up in these unmistakable scandal sheets’ (G. Malanga, ‘Photograph of a Painted Photograh: 5 Deaths’, in Andy Warhol 5 Deaths, exh. cat, Stellan Holm Gallery, New York, 2002, p. 25). In an oft-cited interview with Gene Swenson in 1963, Warhol remarked ‘Did you see the Enquirer last week? It had “The Wreck that Made Cops Cry”—a head cut in half, the arms and hands just lying there. It’s sick, but I’m sure it happens all the time. I’ve met a lot of cops recently. They take pictures of everything, only it’s almost impossible to get pictures from them’ (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Swenson, ‘What is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters, Part I’, in Art News, November 1963, p. 60).
The specific source for Five Deaths was one such image, a discarded 8 x 10 United Press International photograph which Malanga found in a bookstore on 7th Avenue and 23rd Street. The picture’s caption reads in part: ‘Two Die in Collision. Los Angeles, Calif.: Three Survivors of a car-truck collision, pinned beneath their overturned automobile, wait to be freed by rescue squads here, June 17th. Two other passengers in the car, both sailors from the USS Maddox at San Diego, were killed’. Printed in high-contrast for easy dissemination and legibility, the image was readily adaptable to Warhol’s silkscreen process. Using a flat back silkscreen base, the image was screen-printed onto backgrounds painted in a single flat colour. Yet in spite of the mechanical nature of this method, the authorial voice and handmade mark are still prevalent in Five Deaths. As Melanga remembers, ‘[The car crashes] had a shock value that kind of excited him. Andy liked to think of it as mechanical, but it really was a hands-on approach, not an assembly line approach … they were always original, each painting; mistakes were inevitable and he accepted them for what they were: he called them “divine accidents”’ (G. Melanga, ‘Death and Disaster: Gerard Melanga Discusses Warhol’, http://www.christies.com/features/videos/interviews/gerard-malanga-disc usses-warhol.aspx).
In the economic boom that swept much of the United States after World War Two, the automobile was celebrated as a thing of beauty - a symbol of the prosperity, leisure and social mobility promised by the American Dream. In Five Deaths, however, Warhol demonstrates how this euphoria had the potential to be subverted in the blink of an eye – a drama played out with alarming frequency across the country. This sense of propinquity struck Warhol right from the very beginning: as Malanga recalls, ‘When we were making the 5 Deaths with the car upside down and the people underneath, Andy asked, “Are they still alive?” as if the accident had actually occurred in front of us’ (G. Malanga, ‘Photograph of a Painted Photograh: 5 Deaths, in Andy Warhol 5 Deaths, exh. cat., Stellan Holm Gallery, New York, 2002, p. 29). Ultimately, the physical deformations of the victims are less shocking than the brutal immediacy with which their lives have been extinguished: a harsh reminder of the ever-present spectre of death. Malanga’s description of the image is poignant: ‘The faces now nameless. The situation of the death and disaster receding in time and memory. Mangled and wreckage. A midsummer night on a lonely road to nowhere. The characteristics traits of what we have called modernity’ (G. Malanga, ‘Photograph of a Painted Photograh: 5 Deaths,’ in Andy Warhol 5 Deaths, exh. cat, Stellan Holm Gallery, New York, 2002, p. 12).
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen
Andy Warhol , 1960s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
New York, Stellan Holm Gallery, Andy Warhol: Five Deaths, 2002, no. 9, p. 61 (illustrated in colour, p. 42).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
20 3/8 x 30in. (51.8 x 77cm.)
G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York 2002, no. 520, p. 446 (illustrated in colour, p. 444).
Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York.
Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006.
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