Exceptionally rare and paramount to Warhol's legendary Death and Disaster series, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown (Tunafish Disaster) is one of the great historic paradigms of Pop Art from the heart of a breathtaking moment in twentieth century Art History. This stunning silver, two metre wide canvas brilliantly illuminates how the agents of mass media, replication and multiplication, undermine and anaesthetise the significance of their subjects, here emblematised as a quotidian catastrophe. Having both tragically died from food poisoning after eating contaminated tins of tuna, the previously anonymous Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown were thrown into the public spotlight, providing Warhol with the perfect subject to critique the relationship between death and celebrity with his infamous silkscreen.
This work's execution in April 1963 took place at the height of an extraordinary shift in this most iconic of artistic careers, during which Andy Warhol revolutionised the terms of visual culture in the western world. Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown provides the perfect link between the seminal Death and Disaster Suicides, Car Crashes, and Electric Chairs; the celebrity portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor; and the immortal Campbell Soup Cans and Coca Cola Bottles, all of which were executed within a few months of the Tunafish works in an explosive outpouring of astonishing artistic invention. Warhol's exceptional aptitude to seize the most potent images of his time defines him as the consummate twentieth century history painter and Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown is central to this formidably stimulating and provocative body of work.
Warhol created only eleven Tunafish Disaster paintings and this elite group has consistently attracted high acclaim since its inception. It is telling of the high opinion Warhol held for this series that in 1964 he presented one to Walter Chrysler, one of America's leading art collectors and benefactors who had helped develop the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s. Cy Twombly was also especially drawn to this series, exchanging one of his own paintings for a Tunafish Disaster in the 1960s, which remains in his collection to this day. Furthermore, another version now resides in the esteemed Daros Collection in Switzerland.
The Tunafish Disaster works are exceptional among the entire Death and Disaster corpus by being silkscreened exclusively on silver backgrounds and Georg Frei and Neil Printz have signalled the importance of this inaugural focus on a single metallic colour: "The Tunafish Disasters...are the first in which the silver color is material to the subject" (Georg Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I, Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, New York 2002, p. 342). Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown is the direct descendent of a group of four Silver Disaster Electric Chair paintings, and the direct predecessor to Warhol's first silver portraits, Silver Marlon and Silver Liz as Cleopatra. However, unlike the preceding Electric Chairs, which carry clear shadows of brushstrokes, the silver paint here was applied by hand to be solid and opaque, eradicating the remnants of authorship and moving closer to Warhol's impersonal mechanical ideal. Immediately following the Tunafish paintings, Warhol embarked on the monumental series of Silver Elvis paintings (from early May) and the Silver Liz paintings (from June) that were made together for the renowned Ferus Gallery show organised by Irving Blum for September 1963. As one of the foremost Tunafish works, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown thereby established a crucial emphasis on the silver colour that would define Warhol's output for the legendary Ferus exhitbition and beyond.
The present work is unique in the series as the only painting to have its own title rather than the Tunafish Disaster label. The name of this work rather affirms the narrative of Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown, the two housewives from a Detroit suburb who became victims of a freak catastrophe. The source for the Tunafish paintings came from a page of the 1st April 1963 edition of Newsweek, which detailed the epitome of what Walter Hopps calls the "unpredictable choreography of death" amongst the "banality of everyday disasters" (Walter Hopps cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, The Menil Collection, Andy Warhol: 'Death and Disasters', 1988, p. 9). From the Newsweek article, Warhol created two screens: one including both the imagery and all the text; and one as a detail of the tuna can and the two subjects at the centre of the page. Using the latter he created Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown, which does not include the main body of text but narrates the story much more visually through the images and their captions alone.
Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown also represents one of the very first and most successful instances of Warhol's device of a compositional absence. He had first incorporated this in the four silver Electric Chairs, where a negative space comparable to the silkscreened area was left as a solid colour. In this painting Warhol creates a triptych effect by leaving an absent expanse of silver at the left that is the same width as each of the two screen impressions, thus providing a visual analogy to themes of impermanence, transience and loss. This compositional device was to become a staple trademark for many subsequent works, such as the Double Elvis now in the Seattle Art Museum and five of the Silver Liz works, where a monochrome panel is added to create a certain diptych effect.
Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown further provides the subject for an extraordinarily neat progression from Warhol's celebrated Campbell Soup Can, Coca Cola Bottle and Martinson Coffee Can paintings of the previous year to the Death and Disaster canon. Whereas Warhol had satirically glorified the soup, Coke and coffee products as champions of consumerist advertising, here the tins of tuna are grotesquely transformed from trophies of branding to the carriers of death and, in a bizarre turn of fate, the facilitators of celebrity. As Thomas Crow has observed, a year after the soup and coffee cans, "an A&P brand can of tuna commemorates a moment when the supermarket promise of safe and abundant packaged food was disastrously broken" (Thomas Crow, "Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol", in: Art in America, May 1987, p. 135).
Confronted by the tragedy of death and its incongruous by-product of celebrity, the progenitor of Pop - Andy Warhol - anaesthetised the news story zeitgeist through the effects of replication and multiplication, so undermining the manipulative potentiality of mass media. In keeping with his very best work, celebrity, tragedy and the spectre of death inhabit every pore of this silkscreened painting. This compelling work stands as a treatise on the emotional conditioning inherent to mass culture. Scrutinizing the public face of a private disaster, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown questions how anonymous victims are elevated to notoriety via the exceptional conditions of their demise, or as Crow describes, "the repetition of the crude images does draw attention to the awful banality of the accident and to the tawdry exploitation by which we come to know the misfortunes of strangers" (Ibid). The uncertain interplay between anonymous suffering and the broadcast exposure of bereavement and loss is here locked into the lamina of silkscreen ink.
Warhol was disturbed by the media's potential to manipulate but simultaneously he celebrated the power of the icon. Thus at the same time this painting encapsulates portraiture as biography and it acts as a memorial to the anonymous victims by eulogising their story to the realm of high art. Like a tomb to the Unknown Soldier, Warhol enlists the simulacra of these two strangers to commemorate all casualties of mass culture in a newly homogenised society. Their smiling faces of a lost domestic tranquillity will hereafter always re-tell their tragedy. Indeed, as Warhol himself explained in the famous contemporaneous interview with Gene Swenson: "when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect...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).
A true Pop Art original, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown recounts the most exquisite technical masterwork, with the regimented dots of the screen perfectly registered on the flawless flat silver picture plane. Warhol's pioneering method divests the work of any authorial voice and desensitizes the subject by evoking the mass production of newsprint photojournalism. The beaming faces snapped in a private sphere of existence are reduced to a prefabricated schema of dots, and ironically in both newspaper image and unique silkscreen, these personal lives are starkly disassembled for mass consumption. Via the manner and method of their execution, these images narrate a story that has been prepared and packaged for the insatiable appetite of a mass audience, just like a Campbell soup can, Coca Cola bottle or A&P tin of "Chunk Light" tuna. By developing this technique and by faithfully reproducing the alien aesthetic of a found image, Warhol recruits the technical process to interrogate issues of authorship and authenticity.
In the top tier of the extraordinary Tunafish paintings, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown is a work of real art historical significance. Conceptually it summates every thematic strand of the Death and Disasters and manifests the logical bridge with Warhol's portraits of celebrities who were similarly touched by tragedy. Aesthetically it should be seen as the prototype for the silver Liz and Elvis paintings that immediately followed, as well as some of Warhol's greatest artistic achievements that continued this extremely early employment of the compositional void. Extraordinary in scale, having been created on a roll of silver-painted canvas on the floor of Warhol's Firehouse studio at East 87th Street, Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown will forever symbolise the crucial moment when formative experiments matured into sensational masterpieces at the source of the epic artistic journey of Warhol's career.
Silver paint and silkscreen ink on canvas
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Warhol, 1964
Turin, Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone Arte Moderna, Warhol, 1965, n.p., illustrated
Pasadena, Art Museum; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Eindhoven, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum; Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; London, Tate Gallery; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Andy Warhol, 1970-71, p. 107, no. 41 (Eindhoven), no. 80 (Paris), p. 77, no. 101 (London) illustrated in colour
Venice, Giardini della Biennale, XXXIX Biennale Internazionale dell'Arte, Dalla Natura all'Arte, dall'Arte alla Natura, 1978, no. 1, p. 55
Tokyo, Museum of Contemporary Art, Revolution: Art of the Sixties. From Warhol to Beuys, 1995, p. 273, no. 156, illustrated in colour
London, Tate Gallery, The Froehlich Foundation. German and American Art from Beuys and Warhol, 1996, p. 201, no. 284, illustrated
Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie & Württembergischer Kunstverein; Tübingen, Kunsthalle; Hamburg, Deichtorhallen; Sammlungsblöcke. Stiftung Froehlich, 1996-97, p. 201, no. 284, illustrated in colour
Hamburg Kunsthalle; Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum, Andy Warhol, Photography, 1999-2000, p. 69, illustrated in colour
Karlsruhe, ZKM/Museum für Neue Kunst, Faster! Bigger! Better! Signetwerke der Sammlungen, 2006-07, p. 315, illustrated in colour
Karlsruhe, Museum für Neue Kunst (on temporary loan September 2002 – September 2006)
114.9 by 200cm. 45 1/4 by 78 3/4 in.
John Coplans, Andy Warhol, London 1970, p. 107, illustrated
Rainer Crone, Andy Warhol, Stuttgart 1970, p. 234, no. 430, illustrated
Rainer Crone, Das Bildnerische Werk Andy Warhols, Berlin 1976, no. 779
'Special Andy Warhol' in: Artstudio, No. 8, 1988, p. 90, illustrated
Georg Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I, Paintings and Sculptures 1961-1963, New York 2002, p. 344, no. 372, illustrated in colour
Stable Gallery, New York
Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
Galleria Apollinaire, Milan
Sale: Sotheby's, London, Contemporary Art, 28 June 1995, Lot 40
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner