Painted early in 1963, 5 Deaths is one of the first paintings in Andy Warhol's ground-breaking Death and Disaster series. Coming immediately after his celebrated portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, the gruesome aftermath of an horrific car crash might seem an unexpected departure from the Pop imagery with which Warhol had begun to make his name. However, the painting's unorthodox subject matter was the result of Warhol's increasing desire to celebrate not just the good things about his beloved America, but also a darker underside of the nation's character. Exhibited in the first major retrospective of the artist's work after his death in 1987, 5 Deaths signals the beginning of a subject matter that would continue to pre-occupy Warhol throughout his career and be the source for some of his most profound, unsettling and thought-provoking work.
Across an unexpectedly vibrant canvas (given the nature of the images which he placed upon it) Warhol screens two images of a California car crash. One of these screens, striking in its clarity, is placed centrally within the canvas, bordered by a large swath of orange canvas at the top, and a second version of the image below. Unlike other examples of this particular screen, the remarkable clarity of this particular screening brings home the brutality of the scene we are witnessing. The source image for 5 Deaths is a news photograph of a vehicle accident in Los Angeles dated June 17th and issued by the UPI wire service. A few brief lines of perfunctory news copy issued with the photograph describes the accident as having been caused when a truck hit the car carrying a group of youngsters out for the evening. Two of the survivors can be seen crawling from the wreckage, their bloodstained faces caught in the glare of the photographer's flashbulb, whilst a third survivor remains trapped inside the vehicle. The other victims of the crash, two sailors (according to the copy) stationed on board the U.S.S. Maddox in San Diego, lie dead within the wreckage-their anonymous bodies slumped in the back of the car with an outstretched arm being checked for a pulse by a first responder whose feet can be seen behind the trunk of the car.
The vertical composition of the screens, one stacked on top of another, calls attention to Warhol's increasing interest in the medium of film. Although by the time 5 Deaths was painted in 1963 Warhol had been investigating the impact of repeated images for a while, this particular painting is a rare example of his use of repetition only on the vertical axis as opposed to the 'all-over' grid of his earlier Death and Disaster works. In 5 Deaths, this vertically recalls a film strip as its passes through the projector and by including an expanse of unscreened canvas in the upper portion of the work, Warhol simulates (intentionally or not) the interruption of the projection-as though the film has become stuck-bringing the scene to a juddering, abrupt halt. In this way, it might be argued that Warhol is drawing our attention not only to the artifice inherent in the reproduction of such images, but also to the fragility inherent in life itself.
The prurient detail which is displayed in this image demonstrates Warhol's increasing interest in mortality. Indeed, although his earlier paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were both triggered by the tragic experiences which happened to the actresses (Monroe's suicide in 1962 and Taylor's near fatal illness in 1961), it is only with these early Disaster paintings that his increasing interest in death becomes blatantly apparent. His curiosity about death had been sparked in 1962 when the curator Henry Galdzahler had suggested that Warhol paint the darker side of American life. His first foray into the subject was a work titled 129 Die in which he painted the front page of the New Mirror with the splash headline '129 DIE IN JET.' The following year, around the time 5 Deaths was painted Warhol explained the origins of his fascination with death to Gene Swenson, "It was Labor Day," Warhol said, "and every time you turned on the radio, some said something like 'Four Million people are going to die.' That started it. But when you see an image over and over again, it doesn't really have any effect. The death series I did was divided into two parts: the first on famous deaths and the second on people who nobody had ever heard of and I thought that people should think about some time.It's not that I feel sorry for them and it doesn't really matter to them that someone unknown was killed, so I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered. (A. Warhol, interviewed by G. Swenson, "What is Pop Art?," rt News, November 1963, pp. 60-61).
Warhol's choice of car crashes to be among the first images to be immortalized in his Death and Disaster paintings was a remarkably perceptive one for the artist. In the post-war economic boom that swept much of the United States after World War II, the automobile had become the symbol of prosperity and social mobility that the American Dream promised. In cities like Los Angeles, the automobile had become the dominant cultural phenomenon around which much of the newly classified concept of leisure time was played out. By depicting the results of a momentary lapse in concentration when lives can be changed forever, Warhol also showed that the American dream can become a nightmare in the blink of an eye, and that is shown nowhere more dramatically than in images such as 5 Deaths.
The car crash was a motif that Warhol returned to throughout his career, including his monumental masterpiece Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) also painted in 1963, and together they form the most varied and extensive group of pictures in his seminal series of Death and Disaster paintings. They encompass many of the themes that Warhol had become progressively fascinated with including mortality, voyeurism and the increasing consumption of mass-media. These horrific images might seem an unlikely subject matter for art, but with through Warhol's perceptive eye, 5 Deaths remains amongst one of the most powerful, challenging and provocative paintings made by any artist in the post-war era.