On 16 November in New York, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale will feature an exceptional group of works on paper by Andy Warhol (1928-1987), offered from the collection of art dealer and curator Anthony d’Offay. Executed between 1962 and 1966, the unique silkscreens, including Race Riot (1963) and Ambulance Disaster (1963), and three rare trial proof images of Jacqueline Kennedy — Jackie I, Jackie II and Jackie III (all circa 1966) — relate directly to paintings made by Warhol of the same subjects.
One of a small number of Race Riot works on paper in existence, the 1963 Race Riot silkscreen being offered was based on a photograph taken in the same year by photojournalist Charles Moore of demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. Earlier that year, bombings had targeted black leaders of the Birmingham Civil Rights campaign. Explosive devices were placed at the parsonage of Rev. A. D. King, brother of Martin Luther King, Jr., and at a motel where King and other campaign organisers had stayed.
The original photograph by Charles Moore, a celebrated chronicler of the Civil Rights movement, of a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 which Warhol used to create his silkscreen, Race Riot. Photo: Charles Moore / Getty Images
Warhol’s silkscreen retains the black-and-white scheme of the original photograph, but the contrast has been pushed to create an altogether starker look. The large scale also draws the viewer’s attention towards the white police officer's violent attack on the black protestor at the centre of the image.
By turning a press photograph into high art, Warhol raises questions about the nature of media images, how we view and respond to them, and how they can be manipulated. For an artist more typically associated with celebrity culture, Race Riot was a rare excursion into the arena of civil rights and social justice, and a deliberate statement on the injustices being perpetrated by forces opposing racial equality.
In Ambulance Disaster (1963), based on a 1960 press photograph, what at first appears to be an almost abstract play of black, white and grey slowly coalesces into a scene of a deadly traffic accident. A brazen depiction of violence, the work had an extraordinary impact when it was first exhibited. Expanding his subject matter to encompass existential themes, Warhol not only took his brand of Pop Art in a startling new direction with Ambulance Disaster, but redefined himself as an artist working on a far more ambitious stage.
‘Having turned away from soup cans and Coca-Cola, he did these extraordinary pictures to do with death, to do with disaster,’ says Anthony d'Offay. The works were printed ‘in such a way that they retain the sense of graininess that comes from the mass media,’ d'Offay explains. ‘It's horrifying, but the result is, strangely enough, something incredibly beautiful’ and ‘incredibly powerful.’
An equally radical departure for Warhol was his haunting Jacqueline Kennedy series, produced shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November, 1963. Now considered among the most poignant of the 1960s Pop era, these works captured not only the widespread grief that engulfed America, but the pervasive media coverage that accompanied it.
For days after the assassination, images of Kennedy’s widow flooded television screen and newspapers. Warhol draws parallels between visions of tragedy and advertising campaigns, connecting Jackie to the famous Campbell’s Soup Cans of 1962. But the endless repetition of scenes from Kennedy’s death had another effect: through excessive duplication, the power of the image is eroded and the emotional impact dulled. Warhol commented on this modern paradox: ‘The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.’
In Jacqueline Kennedy I (Jackie I) , Warhol renders his subject in silver, at once symbolic of the future (astronauts, jet planes, fast cars) and the past (the glamour of the ‘silver screen’). In Jacqueline Kennedy II (Jackie II), above, the closely cropped image of Jackie in mourning is enveloped in purple, a colour rich with religious symbolism. In Jacqueline Kennedy III (Jackie III), Warhol selects four of the most powerful photographs of Jacqueline from the hours immediately leading up to, and in the days following President Kennedy’s assassination.
‘What she did, who she was, are defined in some way’ by these images, says d'Offay. ‘We remember her that way.’
In the 1960s and 1970s, Warhol did not formally publish trial proofs for any of his edition prints. The trial proofs — and any related artwork — were confined to the artist’s studio and printer’s workshop, and not meant for public sale. Beginning in 1980, Warhol realised their commercial value and began to formally edition his trial proofs and include them as part of his edition print projects.
Only a handful of Jackie I, II and III trial proofs authenticated by the Andy Warhol Foundation are known to exist.