From civil rights marchers attacked by police dogs on the pages of LIFE magazine to nightly footage of the Vietnam War to the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the iconic face of Marilyn Monroe, the early sixties were a time of mediated mayhem. Tabloid headlines and news reports presented images that would have existed a decade earlier only in the imagination. During this period of time, Andy Warhol made a pivotal shift that reflected this mass production of arresting imagery—from handmade paintings to work created through the new mechanical process of photosilkscreening. ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work organized by the Walker, brings together 26 paintings created during those years that feature images of both tragic celebrity (Marilyn Monroe and the widowed Jackie Kennedy) and everyday disasters (car wrecks, electric chairs, and murders).
Trained as a commercial artist, Warhol began his career by producing hand-drawn images for newspaper and magazine advertisements. Initially, he focused on standard brands and product logos—Coca-Cola, Campbell’s, Brillo. Soon, however, he abandoned the freehand stencil, opting instead for mechanical production and using newspaper and tabloid clippings depicting celebrities, movie stars, and daily life as sources for his pictures. Warhol was especially seduced by the notion of the artist as a “machine” that produces art in the most casual, easy, and informal ways. He adopted the commercial photo-silkscreen technique as a method of creating mass-produced images that he subsequently printed in assembly-line fashion.
In the summer of 1962 he created 129 Die in Jet, based on a front-page photo from the New York Mirror; it was the first depiction of death in his work. After Marilyn Monroe’s apparent suicide on August 5, 1962, Warhol produced a number of portraits based on her publicity still from the 1953 film Niagara. Some weeks later he began a series of Suicide paintings and started searching in earnest for rare magazines, tabloids, and photographs of self-inflicted deaths. In November 1963, while he was working on his Death and Disaster paintings, ARTNews published an interview conducted by Gene Swenson in which Warhol said, “I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of a newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. 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 ‘Four million are going to die.’ That started it.”
In 1963, Warhol mounted his first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York. His debut included portraits of Marilyn and Elvis. The next summer, he rented a studio—the first “Factory”—in a former fire station and began his Disaster series, which included Car Crash and Race Riot.
Though Warhol denied his own subjectivity, his choice of images of automobile wrecks made it difficult for the viewer to believe in his neutrality. Both the Marilyns and the electric chair paintings were a type of psychological portrait of American popular culture—its absorption in the lives of celebrities and its morbid fascination with violence and tragedy. Warhol often introduced new subjects relating to the themes of death and disaster, including his Race Riot pictures based on three photographs taken by Charles Moore that accompanied an article published in LIFE. The sequential shots showed a clash between civil rights demonstrators and police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama.
Soon after, Warhol began work on Tunafish Disaster, appropriating images from a Newsweek article about a fatal food-poisoning incident, and his portrait series Thirteen Most Wanted Men. Following President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Warhol started creating portraits of Jackie Kennedy based on published photographs of the grieving young widow. By 1965, he had moved away from the subject of death and disaster.
Today we still find ourselves inhabiting a mediasaturated reality. Not only do we live in a time when the abundance of images has been maximized by the appearance of the Internet, but our apparent contempt and tolerance for pictures depicting horrors has exposed our limited ability to find an appropriate response. As Warhol asserted, “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect.” As we find ourselves confronting these difficult images from the 1960s, we might discover some unexpected truths about American life today.
Organized by Douglas Fogle, the exhibition ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964 premieres at the Walker on November 13, 2005, and continues through February 26, 2006. The show will then travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.