In 1962, Warhol painted the cover of a newspaper showing a plane crash with the headline ‘129 dead’. The following year he produced silkscreens of suicides, car crashes, poisonings and race riots. The Disasters series emerged from the same media-saturated society as his advertising images and Hollywood stars, since voyeuristic photographs of twisted automobiles frequently filled the tabloids alongside the celebrity gossip.
Warhol presents these bleak images of contemporary America in a deadpan manner, without social commentary or moral consolation. The emotional distance is heightened by his audacious use of colour, transforming brutal photographs into highly aestheticised paintings. Although many of the images were drawn directly from magazines, he also used pictures from news agencies and police files considered too gruesome to publish. The repeated image and uneven application of ink suggest the frames of a film, creating an expectation of narrative progression that is continually frustrated.
Warhol was acutely aware of the history of art, and here, in his focus on death, he updates an age-old artistic theme. His Disasters, for instance, have been compared to the Disasters of War by the nineteenth-century Spanish artist Goya.