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Andy Warhol Death and Disaster Series

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What was the rationale of the repetitive format in Warhol’s death and disaster series?

The repetition format began in the late 19th century which was portrayed by a number of artists like Andy Warhol who in his many works demonstrated repetition and fragmentation. This repetition is used to bring out motivated and non-motivated functions of art. The motivated functions of art are; communication, entertainment, art for political change, art for propaganda, art for psychological purposes, art for healing purposes, and art for inquiry. The non-motivational functions of art include; the mysterious experience, the instinct for harmony, rhythm and balance, the expression of imagination, universal communication, symbolic and ritualistic functions.

The work of Andy Warhol is as interesting as his personal life with each viewer having a unique understanding and appreciation of his work. Each image done by Warhol is not to be understood on the same terms since each has its own freedom and uniqueness; each difference is realized by a unique act of differentiation. The repetitive format used by Warhol in the orange disaster and the green car crash work are entirely not accidental, they depict variation in time and gives the viewer freedom to appreciate it depending on his/her intellect.

In the early 1960s, it was evident that Warhol was really preoccupied with tragic and disaster news reports of tragic deaths of suicides, crashes, and executions. His disaster series showed photographs which had only one hue of color or they had a replication or repetition of the same image or even with no color and they tended to magnify the depicted disasters and tragedies which were seen in these photographs from the newspapers. In his paintings, he tried very much to desensitize people into accepting the disasters and tragedies as being part of everyday life. The repetition of his work implied its multiplicity in the society as a mere silent witness to daily happenings of horror and that death was nothing but just an aspect of life that people have to reckon with. Warhol’s paintings of the 1960s were very important in inventing projects and diversified his activities. Andy was a brilliant businessman with a magic touch though most of his life was sad. He began his death and disaster series in 1962 and used bright colors. Most of the source images he used were mainly from newspapers and magazines where he reproduced the images using silkscreens.

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His near fatal shooting by Valerie Solanas in the year 1968 greatly affected him and his attitude towards business and work. His disaster and tragedy series symbolized mortality and with this as a motif, it explained why he was able to continue with his pop culture. The incident was very traumatic to Andy’s life since it damaged his torso and he had to wear on a bandage over his damaged torso for the remaining days of his life. His disaster series were not an appealing work but it has become the most admired piece of art. He deeply believed that decision making was highly required in photography

In the 1970s, Warhol continued becoming entrepreneurial and devoted most of his time around rich patrons so that he could get portrait commissions and also socializing at many nightspots found in New York City. Many people regarded him as being a meticulous observer, shy and quiet. Andy Warhol once mentioned that, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it”. In this statement, Warhol does not only make it difficult to know about him, but also about the meaning of his art work. The statement is rather startling and to some it can be timidly misleading. However, this is one of Warhol’s tactics to stimulate mental processes and institute thorough interpretation of his work which would otherwise be taken for ordinary pictures. This statement is also a manifestation of Warhol’s secrecy of himself to the public. He worked very hard to deny his intelligence and humanity and this is possibly why his work was never fully understood when he was alive.

The Orange disaster

The Orange disaster by Warhol is a picture of fifteen replicated images of an electric chair, three by five chairs (fig.1) shows Warhol’s fascination with death and his unusual sense of appreciating nature. While the picture is distressing, the orange tint dilutes the somber mood and adds a tone of happiness or brightness which is still disturbing to some people. By replicating the image several times, Warhol intended to have the image inscribed in the viewer’s mind for a long time. In retaliation, this was Warhol’s way of addressing capital punishment, which was at that time, a controversial issue in America. In this and other pieces of work by Warhol, it is the bright colors contrasted with deeply blackened regions that make the design. The simplicity of the designs and the familiarity of the subject matter is what make his images attractive.

In this piece of work, it is the bright colors contrasted with deeply blackened regions that made the design. The simplicity of the designs and the familiarity of the subject matter is what made his images attractive. Art according to Warhol is the simplest form of communication and each form of communication is goal oriented and in most cases may be used to bring out emotions, feelings and moods. Repetition in art can be used to bring out movement, unity, harmony, variety, balance, contrast, proportion, pattern and rhythm I which he uses it to bring out the meaning of art. The repetitive format as depicted by Crow is that, in several ways it compels the viewer to take a bias position in controversial issues like racism, death penalty and late modern capitalism.

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Viewers are led to observe these images as they would look at billboards or magazine advertisements: they look less into the subject of the images than at them. Repetition, understood as idleness, is a feature both of the work of art and of the subject matter in Warhol's serial images. Thus each of Warhol's repeated serial images is a repetition of an already familiar or familiarly composed subject. Coplans points out that:

Warhol takes the same image, repeats it, and creates in the viewer a strong sense of seeing a whole series of light changes by varying the quantity of black from image to image. Thus the same image runs the range of blacks or grays, apparently indicating different times or amounts of daylight, when in fact the viewer perceives a single photo printed with a variety of screening effects.

The consistency in the series of these images, more so on canvas, makes it very unique and thereby driving more emphasis to the viewer to agree with a debatable point in Warhol’s support. Andy Warhol incorporated popular culture and also commercial processes which helped him to produce work which was appealing to the public. He founded the Pop Art movement by expanding Duchamp’s ideas when he challenged the definition of art.  His art work on death and disasters signified empathy and power from the general transformation of these catastrophes.

Green Car Crash

Warhol’s chose to use automobile wrecks in his death and disaster series therefore made it a complex matter to the viewer since it made it very difficult for them to believe in his originality and neutrality. These paintings like the paintings of the Green Car Crash from 1963 (fig. 2) was a typical example of psychological portraits which were morbid and were accompanied with tragedy and violence. This painting showed Warhol’s repetitive format where he repeated the image several times and then used a bright color to color the canvas so as to reduce the brutality that is portrayed by the image.

The serial images showed that Warhol’s work had lots of accidents due to use of silkscreen which came at unpredictable intervals. The difference of the series is not explained with reference to similarities such as the subject matter. Each difference is distinctive and unexpected. It is these accidents that Warhol never avoids making, because he really had no option. Therefore the making of accidents is the making of Warhol’s art. The unnaturally large size of most of his images including the Orange Disaster, exaggerates not only their monotony but also the accidents which differentiate them. Additionally, non-consistency in brushwork, hatching or scribbles over the images increases the factor of randomness. The accidental, differentiating activity of Warhol is presented as fundamental to his practice and therefore to his images.

Fallen body

The suicide painting of the fallen body (fig. 3) was about a 23 year old Girl, Evelyn McHale who was crumpled in a wreck and was really astounding. She had jumped to her death from the 86th floor and ended up landing on a limousine at the parking lot where Robert Wiles, took a photograph few minutes after her death. Warhol used this image and entitled it as the Suicide fallen body. He used the replications of this image to show how the society churned celebrities. Warhol picked common images and made them look unique and attractive to viewers. Incidentally, none of the images is identical to another, each image always differ drastically from the adjacent. Due to using the silkscreen, which is sloppy and never identically applied, the images produced becomes structurally different. In this scenario, the process of repetition generates the differences observed, and they are not by intent.

Tuna Fish Disaster

In the 1960s, Death and fear were the most concerns in most of the people during the cold war and the silkscreen images by Warhol portrayed the darker side of the American society. In the Tuna Fish Disaster (fig. 4), Warhol made a repetition of the two women who died out of the consumption of the tuna fish together with the tuna cans. This Tuna Fish disaster showed the bad and weaker side of consumption which happened at a time when the supermarkets in the American society had made a promise to protest all their consumers from all the foods that they sold to them. Out of all this, it showed that disasters like the Tuna Fish disaster could happen to anyone and at any one time. By replicating the Tuna Fish disaster image several times, Warhol intended to have the image inscribed in the viewer’s mind for a long time. The replicated image grabs a viewer’s attention and makes him /her think more deeply of the picture. However, the same is attributed to his way of production, which is by using the silkscreen. This method makes it impossible to apply paint uniformly, thereby bringing in the differentiation observed in his images.

"Dublication that can accomodate difference"

Coplans does not see the repetitive structure of Warhol's series of images as utter replication, but rather, an abnormality that Coplans calls "pops". He has it that they are found throughout any series, such as unstructured irregularities in design. The differences they create between serial images leads to the view he shares with Richard Meyer that Warhol's repetitive structures are a matter of "duplication that can accommodate difference". I believe that Warhol used the notion of difference to a great extent, his sequential images expose that the activity of making things, situations or people the same also makes them different. When this paradox is studied in the context of Warhol’s routine imagery, it leads to a way of understanding the structure of the routine as a continually repeated sameness which in becoming the same always, becomes different.

The repetitive format can make the pictures boring to some viewers and they can be tempted to pass quickly from one image to another, as if they are identically the same. For viewers to appreciate the entire image, they need to view the repeated individual images in series. This changes the viewer’s opinion of the images drastically and greater appreciation of the work is enabled. In this case, the viewers end up generalizing many aspects since repetition in art may be very confusing to viewers who have no idea on anything to do with art and artworks. Warhol had a different view on repetition since he wanted to bring out the meaning of all his death and disaster images in a different perspective. He believed that if the viewer got the chance to view the image several times, the viewer would be able to understand the picture or image better than if he had just seen the image only once.

The death and legacy of Warhol

Warhol died in 1987 of heart failure sometime after undergoing a gall bladder surgery in New York City. Other than painting, Warhol did other lots of artistic work in entertainment industry. Most of the work he did is stored in The Andy Warhol Museum which he also called ‘The Factory’. Andy Warhol was one of the greatest and most celebrated illustrators of his time. His prowess did go beyond painting; he was also a film maker, music producer and collector, filmmaker and publisher. His distinctive and fanciful painting and drawing ability made him what he was. Unfortunately, not much was known about Warhol when he was alive; mainly because he hid this from the public and would make up a different story whenever he was interviewed over it.

The repetitive structure of Warhol’s work in these death and disaster series makes it important since it allows for persistent nature of the activity which produces his work. Without repetition, the meaning of these images could have never been disclosed or interpreted by other people and it would have lost its uniqueness. These images are the kind that one understands with one glance since Warhol uses ordinary objects to portray hidden ideas, giving the viewer option to interpret the image as pleasant to him/her. However, it is important to appreciate that the variations in the repeated images is purely accidental and is a result of the mode of production. The difference in the series is not in any case seen with relevance to the subject matter, but to the variation from one image to another within the series. In essence, it is the accidents in using the silkscreen for his production that makes these two images unique.

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