In the early 1960's, when Warhol was making his breakthrough photo-based silkscreen works on canvas, he created a small group of black and white works on paper, only 13 of which are known, including Cagney, Suicide, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Race Riot, a number of images based on his films, and the present lot, Ambulance Disaster. Warhol had a direct and personal involvement with the creation of these early works; only a small number were executed for each image, and each is different in some way, generally in terms of ink saturation and cropping. One can see Warhol working through the possibilities of the medium in these breakthrough screenprints, developing some of the major themes that he would explore for the rest of his career. Andy Warhol's Ambulance Disaster is a rare example, and is an especially powerful example of Warhol's fascination with the representation of death and disaster in popular culture. Warhol's fascination with the image continued, as he created several major paintings after the Ambulance Disaster subject.
Warhol based the image on a United Press International photograph of traffic accident in Chicago on January 9, 1960, which foreshadowed the extensive use of media-derived images that would become one of the important hallmarks of his career. Working on a monumental scale, Warhol heightened the image's raw power by exaggerating its strong contrasts of light and dark. Choosing to execute this work on Strathmore drawing paper, Warhol transferred the image into the realm of high art while preserving an echo of the pulpy texture of its original newspaper context. Warhol's graphic transformation of this image emphasizes its ambiguity, as only slowly through its murky shadows does the upturned head of the partially covered corpse become legible. Cropping the original photo to focus on the victim draped across the image-- like an anonymous modern-day Pietà-- Warhol created a powerful work of art that continues to shock.
In January 1964, Andy Warhol had his first solo show in Europe, at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, where he exhibited his Death and Disasters series. As he explained in his first major interview, with Gene Swenson, "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" (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Goldsmith, ed., I'll be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 18).
Among the later additions to the "death series," Warhol's 1963 silk-screen on paper, Ambulance Disaster, is a case in point: originally a comprehensively framed, emphatically horizontal UPI image, Warhol's tight vertical close-up crops the car's side-door markings and, with them, omits the telltale detail that, indeed, an "AMBULANCE SER[VICE]" has crashed. More concisely than anywhere else in his oeuvre, Warhol's image pits the indisputable fact of photography (the woman is surely dead) against its narrative ambiguity (although not from this crash, but a prior one). For all the allure of photography's purchase on reality, its meaning, by contrast, is a lure-- invested in the odd textual detail, explanatory caption or, as here, the title. Yet this "SILENCE" (as Warhol emphasizes the death-chamber sign in the electric-chair paintings) is also the genius of the "death series" as a whole: how it eschews representing death, according to painterly habit and formula that invariably dramatize and normally ennoble it, in favor of presenting death, like photography, as the brute fact it is.