In March of 1963, two suburban housewives outside Detroit, Michigan, ate a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches as they watched their children play. Shortly thereafter, they were taken ill, driven to the hospital, and later died. Their cause of death? Botulism poisoning from a tainted can of A&P brand “chunk light” tuna. A few weeks later, a photograph displaying the two victims, identified as Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown, appeared in the April 1, 1963 edition of Newsweek alongside the infamous can that unwittingly led to their demise. The ordinariness of the two women, both middle-aged and unremarkable in appearance, appealed to Andy Warhol, who captured their image in a group of large-scale silver paintings he called the Tunafish Disasters.
Created just one year after his iconic series of Campbell’s Soup Cans, the Tunafish Disasters are important works from a key moment in Pop art history. They belong to the seminal Death and Disaster series that consumed Warhol for most of 1963, as he prepared for his major European debut at Ileana Sonnabend’s Paris Gallery, an exhibition called “Death in America.” Conceived as a series, the Tunafish Disasters illustrate Warhol’s commitment to revealing the underlying anxiety of Cold War America, while demonstrating his obsession with his own mortality. Consisting of only eleven paintings, the Tunafish Disasters are emblematic of Warhol’s best work, and linger with a ghostly beauty that belies the tragic ordinariness of the events that inspired them.
Tunafish Disaster illustrates the particular unease underlying the collective society’s “faith” in a system that prided itself on efficiency, wholesomeness and goodness in 1950s and ‘60s postwar America. The abundant supply of consumer goods that Warhol so effectively championed in his earlier work—Campbell’s soup, Coca-Cola, even the humble dollar bill—was dependent upon faith in a reliable system that produced them with an unerring sameness. The flipside of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans was Tunafish Disaster, which exposes the breakdown of that same system when it went disastrously awry. Together with news photographs of suicide victims, car crashes, race riots and the atom bomb, Tunafish Disaster joins with the everyday horrors depicted in Warhol’s seminal Death and Disasters series. The series illustrates the real anxieties that are part and parcel with modern life, and hints at the underlying anxiousness that pervaded the era of the Cold War: “In terms of ‘our fears,’ Warhol’s series effectively articulated the end-of-the-world anxiety that gripped the United States during the Cold War era, the art historian Bradford R. Collins wrote in his recent article concerning Death and Disaster. “The artist’s endlessly repeated images of death, and the instruments thereof, were all products of the new atomic era’s “imagination of disaster” (B. R. Collins, “Warhol’s Modern Dance of Death,” American Art, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer 2016, p. 36).
Warhol was himself deeply afraid of his own death, but he smoothed over such fears by creating a persona that was cool and detached; he also understood the media’s role in anesthetizing the American public to tragedy and violence. In his portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, Warhol seized upon the media’s coverage of famous celebrity deaths, which often recycled the same few tragic photographs, broadcast in an endless loop. Warhol continued this theme in the Death and Disaster series, focusing instead on the victims who became instant celebrities because of the unusual or frightful aspects of their death. He famously said: “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect. ...and I thought people should think about them some time. ...It’s not that I feel sorry for them, it’s just that people go by and it doesn’t really matter to them that someone unknown was killed” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Swenson, “What is Pop Art?”, Artnews Vol. 62, November 1963, pp. 60-61).
In Tunafish Disaster, Warhol allows the chilling effect of the deadly can of tunafish to loom large over the entire scene, creating an aura of death that is heightened by the sheer size of the canvas itself and his use of silver paint. He zooms in on the “A&P” brand tuna can, which has been photographed from an overhead angle to allow the serial numbers imprinted on the top of its lid to linger in deadly proof of its contamination. The two victims—Mrs. Margaret McCarthy and Mrs. Colette Brown—are relegated to smaller photographs positioned just beneath the large can of tuna. Each display the trappings of an unremarkable suburban existence, and smile obliviously in photographs that bear no indication of their tragic fate. Warhol further accentuates the haunting specter of the scene by blowing up the source image to larger-than-life proportions, as if to convey the nightmarish importance of the story that is illustrated by its original caption: “Seized shipment: Did a leak kill… Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown?”
The impetus for Warhol’s Death and Disaster series was originally presented to him by the critic Henry Geldzahler, who discussed the direction for Warhol’s next great body of work while they lunched together in June of 1962. “That’s enough affirmation of life,” Geldzahler said. “It’s enough affirmation of soup and Coke bottles. Maybe everything isn’t always so fabulous in America. It’s time for some death. This is what’s really happening,” he said, showing Warhol a copy of the New York Mirror featuring the wreckage of a recent plane crash with the headline “129 Die in Jet” (H. Geldzahler, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 169). The suggestion dovetailed neatly with Warhol’s own anxieties and fears, as well as provided a solution for his European debut. Warhol had begun amassing a collection of crime photos along with the celebrity head shots he used for his portraits of Marilyn and Liz as early as the 1950s, and he understood the bizarre role that death played in creating celebrity, saying “death can really make you look like a star” (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Gidal, Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings, New York, 1971, p. 38).
As the Warhol scholar Neil Printz has pointed out, the Tunafish Disasters are the only group of paintings within the Death and Disaster series for which Warhol consistently employed a silver background across all eleven paintings of the series. Printz explains that Warhol’s use of silver personifies the bizarre scenario in which both victims died: The “Tunafish disasters might not be the first silver paintings, but they are the first in which the silver color is material to the subject” (N. Printz, quoted in G. Frei & N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York, 2002, p. 342). Printz also suggests that Warhol may have used silver to mimic the mechanized and industrial nature of death in his Death and Disaster paintings, whether by electrocution, as in the Electric Chair series, or by the effects of an industrially-produced tin can.
Whatever his intention, it is clear that the color silver was important to the artist at the time, having embarked on a series of silver portraits shortly thereafter, consisting of legendary actors of the “silver screen,” such as Marlon Brando, James Cagney, Liz Taylor in Cleopatra, and the famous series of Ferus Type Elvises. Whereas these later paintings featured spray-painted silver from an aerosol can, the Tunafish Disasters demonstrate hand-painted silver backgrounds where the subtle evidence of Warhol’s hand is revealed to tantalizing effect. Looking back, Warhol explained, “Silver was the future, it was spacy—the astronauts wore silver suits… And silver was also the past—the Silver Screen—Hollywood actresses photographed in silver sets. And maybe more than anything, silver was narcissism—mirrors were backed with silver” (A. Warhol & P. Hackett, quoted in Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando, 1980, p. 83).
In Tunafish Disaster, the precision of Warhol’s newly minted silkscreen process is writ large, rendered with delicacy and care to produce a flawless matrix of perfectly registered dots registered upon a hand-painted silver backdrop. Warhol would have silkscreened the painting by hand, and in this painting he chooses to crop out the text from the original article in order to focus more fully on its compelling imagery. He must have been drawn to the high-contrast legibility of the original UPI press photograph, since he used similar photographs distributed by UPI in several other Death and Disaster paintings. In the present Tunafish Disaster, Warhol repeats the silkscreened image twice, presenting two identical “twin” versions side-by-side. Rather than overlap, he allows the two images to delicately fade into each other, creating a ghostly blur that would become a key feature of a later series—the Ferus type Elvis paintings he would begin shortly thereafter. The effect of repeating the original source image has the unusual quality of both reinforcing the grim details of the poisoning while simultaneously distancing the viewer from the event, which is accentuated even further by the ethereal silver background. Hand-painted by the artist using care to render a fully uniform coat, the resulting painting is one of only two Tunafish Disaster painting featuring a perfectly square format. This key feature serves to frame the central imagery that’s at once easily legible and subtly terrifying.