Andy Warhol’s paintings of death & disaster

Andy Warhol - Black and White Disaster #4 (5 Deaths 17 Times in Black and White), 1963, acrylic, silkscreen ink and pencil on linen, installation view, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2018
Andy Warhol – Black and White Disaster #4 (5 Deaths 17 Times in Black and White), 1963, acrylic, silkscreen ink and pencil on linen, installation view, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2018, photo: Public Delivery

Introduction

Andy Warhol created a series of artwork with a distinctive act of discrepancy, which he named Death and Disaster. Death and Disaster show images in one color, a reproduction of the same images, or the same images with no color entirely.

Andy Warhol majorly used repetition to communicate his ideas. He successfully employed this technique with a range of subjects over the years. The series started in 1962 and consists of a collection of around 70 slightly similar works. The artist used the element of repetition in Death and Disaster to bring out both motivated and non-motivated purposes of art.

From his Death and Disaster series, Andy Warhol clearly brought out the motivating functions of art: art for propaganda, political change, communication, entertainment, and others. At the same time, the work also brings out the non-motivational functions, including rhythm and balance, the instinct for harmony, the expression of imagination, the mysterious experience, symbolic, universal communication, and ritualistic functions.

Video: The Death Paintings

3 min 21 sec

How the paintings came about

As pointed earlier, most Andy Warhol paintings were from newspaper cuttings. In the 1960s, the country was riddled with tragic and disaster news such as tragic death of suicides, executions, and crashes. The Death and Disaster series contains images with only one hue of color or a repetition of the same photograph or had a replication, with or without color. The images typically enlarge the portrayed tragedies and disasters, which are more often reported in newspapers. Andy Warhol used Death and Disaster work to try as much as possible to desensitize the masses into accepting death, disasters, and tragedies as part of their lives.

Andy Warhol - Twelve Electric Chairs, 1964, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 88 1/2 x 84 1/4 inches
Andy Warhol – Twelve Electric Chairs, 1964, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 88 1/2 x 84 1/4 inches, installation view, Brant Foundation
Andy Warhol – Twelve Electric Chairs, 1964, acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 92 x 88 1:3 in, installation view, Venus Over Manhattan
Andy Warhol – Twelve Electric Chairs, 1964, acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 92 x 88 1:3 in, installation view, Venus Over Manhattan
Andy Warhol - Little Electric Chair, 1964-1965, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 55.9 x 71.1 cm (22 x 28 in)
Andy Warhol – Little Electric Chair, 1964-1965, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 55.9 x 71.1 cm (22 x 28 in), photo: Christie’s

Warhol’s inspiration

According to Andy Warhol, when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect. He started painting death images because his head was preoccupied with tragic news from radios, newspapers, and television.

In his interview with Gene Swenson1 in 1963, Andy Warhol revealed after being asked why he started with “Death” pictures:

I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper: 129 dies. I was also painting the Marilyns2. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day – a holiday- and every time you turned on the radio, they said something like ‘4 million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.

Video: Warhol’s Factory studio manager about Death & Disaster

2 min 34 sec

Analysis

Each image in the series is supposed to be understood and appreciated differently because they possess each separate uniqueness and freedom. The difference in each painting is gleaned by a unique act of distinction. Death and Disaster paintings draw on the viewers’ intellect to be understood. Andy Warhol used different colors to propagate the variation when people can appreciate on their own free will. For example, the artist’s green car accident and orange disaster are completely not accidental. They both offer viewers a chance to interpret them as they wish.

Conclusion

Death and Disaster is closely linked to Andy’s personal life, making it more relatable to the viewers than other pieces of repetition art. While works from Death and Disaster were never going to be as appealing as other art pieces, it has become one of the most admired pieces of art.

Works from Death and Disaster

The Orange disaster, 1963

This painting by Andy Warhol is a replica of fifteen photographs of an electric chair. The painting indicates the artist’s unnatural fascination with death and his rare and unique ways of appreciating nature. Andy Warhol had a unique way of making distressing images into something pleasing to the eye by adding colors, in this case, orange tint, which reduces the somber mood. While the resulting images have some tones of brightness and happiness, some viewers still find them disturbing.

The reason behind the replication of images is to have them inscribed in the minds of the viewers for as long as possible. But the Orange disaster had a major deeper meaning. It was Andy Warhol’s way of voicing his opinions on capital punishment, which he was totally against. The painting had bright contrasting colors along with deeply darkened areas that created the design. Andy Warhol’s paintings appealed to some audiences because of their simplicity and the familiar message they conveyed. The artist believed that art is the modest form of communication, with each message being goal-oriented and may be used to reveal emotions, moods, and feelings.

Andy Warhol - Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, 1963, silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on two canvases, 268.9 x 416.9 cm (8' 9 7/8 x 13' 8 1/8 in)
Andy Warhol – Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, 1963, silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on two canvases, 268.9 x 416.9 cm (8′ 9 7/8 x 13′ 8 1/8 in), photo: MoMA

Green Car Crash, 1963

The use of the automobile in the paintings resulted in viewers questioning the originality and neutrality of Andy Warhol. Green Car Crash indicates the artist’s repetitive use to drive home a message. He used bright colors to reduce the goriness portrayed.

Andy Warhol - Green Car Crash, 1963 (detail), acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 90 x 80 inches (228.6 x 203.3 cm)
Andy Warhol – Green Car Crash, 1963 (detail), acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 90 x 80 inches (228.6 x 203.3 cm), photo: Rob McKeever/Gagosian

Suicide (Fallen Body), 1962

In this painting, Andy Warhol incorporates the image of the fallen body of Evelyn McHale into his work to communicate his thoughts on suicide. The original image was a photograph taken by student photographer Robert Wiles just moments after Evelyn had fallen to death on a black limousine from the 88th floor of the Empire state building. He also used the replications of the image to show how the community churned celebrities.

Tuna Fish Disaster, 1963

Tuna Fish Disaster was created by Andy Warhol to depict the darker side of society in America. The painting includes the repetition of an image of two women who died from eating tuna fish, alongside them the tuna cans. This portrayed the idiosyncrasies of American retailers who vowed to protect consumers from harmful products.

The painting shows that disasters like Tuna Fish can happen to any human being at any time. Andy Warhol replicates the image to ensure that it is etched on the memories of viewers for a long time. It also captures the imagination of the viewer and makes them think deeply about the painting.

Andy Warhol – Tunafish Disaster, 1963, from Death and disaster, silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen, 132.1 x 132.1 cm (52 x 52 in)
Andy Warhol – Tunafish Disaster, 1963, from Death and Disaster, silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen, 132.1 x 132.1 cm (52 x 52 in), photo: Christie’s

Race Riot, 1963-1964

Warhol created this acrylic and silk-screen painting in 1963. Before that, a young photographer called Charles Moore took images of protest in Alabama3, depicting police turning water hoses on children and peaceful marchers. These images changed the future of America forever as the majority of the white population was compelled to take a side in the growing political turbulence that was sweeping the country.

It is no surprise that Warhol used such an impactful image in his Death and Disaster series. At this point, he was still grappling with his illustration of iconic American imagery and the power of Moore’s photographs depicting race riots were just ‘too good’ to pass on.

Andy Warhol - Race Riot, 1963; Pink Race Riot, 1963, installation view, Walker Art Center, 2005
Andy Warhol – Race Riot, 1963; Pink Race Riot, 1963, installation view, Walker Art Center, 2005, photo: Gene Pittman

Three of Moore’s images show police dogs attacking a black man. While none had the element of death, the artist was fully aware of their power and wanted to include them in his forthcoming show at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris to show the dark underside of the infamous American Dream. He said then4:

My show in Paris is going to be called ‘Death in America’. I’ll show the electric-chair pictures and the dogs in Birmingham and car wrecks and some suicide pictures.

In these prints, the artist just enlarged and reversed the original photographs, but even with these not-so-subtle alterations, Moore still sued the artist for unauthorized use of his work. Race Riot marked the first time the artist indulged in a more political subject. Despite the images’ disturbing depiction of innocent African Americans besieged by authorities and dogs, the deadpan execution of Race Riot makes the tone of the work ambiguous and hard to gauge.

Andy Warhol - Race Riot, 1964, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, in four parts, overall 152.4 x 167.6 cm (60 x 66 in)
Andy Warhol – Race Riot, 1964, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, in four parts, overall 152.4 x 167.6 cm (60 x 66 in), photo: Christie’s

129 Die in Jet!, 1962

Created in 1962, 129 Die in Jet! is the first artwork in the series. It is made with acrylic and pencil on canvas. The artist created the piece in the aftermath of the Air France Flight 007 crash5 in which 129 died on the spot and one more succumbed to injuries later (making it 130 fatalities) and only 2 survived.

The image painted was taken from the cover of New York Mirror on June 4, 1962, just a day following the accident while taking off from Paris airport to Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, it was the worst air disaster and for Warhol, it was the first time to incorporate the theme of death in his work.

The Atlanta Art Association sponsored a 30-day tour of the art treasures of Europe, and thus 106 passengers who perished were art patrons heading home to Atlanta. The tour group included civic and cultural leaders from Atlanta.

This piece reminds us that art is autonomous and universal. The artist created something new with this painting, which is that something big is not, by all means, important, but rather it means to be committed to something.

Nevertheless, 129 Die in Jet! creates some sense of emptiness thanks to the enlargement. With this artwork, enlargement and commitment eliminate the meaning. While it has different translations, 129 Die in Jet! is a tribute to those who died in that crash.

All images: Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York unless otherwise noted.

More by Andy Warhol

Footnotes

  1. https://theoria.art-zoo.com/interview-with-gene-swenson-andy-warhol/
  2. https://publicdelivery.org/andy-warhol-marilyn-monroe/
  3. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/charles-moore?north-america/1960-1969/photograph/all/0
  4. https://risdmuseum.org/art-design/collection/race-riot-68047
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_France_Flight_007

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