‘When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect’ (A. Warhol, quoted in ‘Interview with Gene Swenson’, Art News, New York, November 1963).
In the early 1960’s, at the same time that Warhol was making his breakthrough photo-based silkscreen works on canvas, he simultaneously created a small group of black and white works on paper including Cagney, Suicide, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), and the present works, Race Riot, and Ambulance Disaster. Warhol had a direct and personal involvement with their creation, primarily hand-printing each one himself. The prints were inked in monochromatic tones and screened in a method that retained the graininess and immediacy of the primary sources from which they were based. Warhol intervened with this raw imagery, however, through his purposeful cropping of the image, which in many respects served at once to further objectify the scene and heighten its anonymity. In addition, these prints display the range of ink saturations possible with the silkscreening process, a technique he was captivated by for its ability to ‘get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it’ (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ‘60s, New York 1980, p. 22). Warhol adopted a casual approach to screenprinting, combining conscious intent with accidental results, tendencies which belie his stance of total detachment from the process. By subverting the mechanical aspect of the medium through uneven and off-register printing, he exploits the mechanical and commercial implications of silkscreening to challenge the romantic notion of the ‘artist’s hand’. In this way, 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. These small imperfections from the silkscreening processes play a critical role in Warhol’s art: it is through the sheer volume of repetition of images that these unique attributes lose their conspicuousness.
This parallels Warhol’s own belief surrounding the shocking imagery presented by the mass media on a daily basis. ‘When you see a gruesome picture over and over again’ he said, ‘it doesn’t really have any effect’ (A. Warhol, quoted in ‘Interview with Gene Swenson’, Art News, New York, November 1963). The mechanical process of replicating the image and the monotonous repetitive application of the screen desensitizes the viewer to tragedy. Constant repetition deconstructs the meaning of an image and reveals its true artificial nature as merely a banal abstract surface. Through the flat, impersonal anonymity of the silkscreen-painting technique, the artist’s presence and authorship remains seemingly absent or indifferent. The exploration of the desensitizing of the audience and the nullification of meaning through repeated imagery is ultimately what most distinguishes Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. As Swenson notes, ‘Warhol’s repetitions of car crashes, suicides and electric chairs are not like the repetition of similar and yet different terrible scenes day in and day out in the tabloids. These paintings mute what is present in the single front page each day, and emphasize what is present persistently day after day in slightly different variations. Looking at the papers, we do not consciously make the connection between today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s “repetitions” which are not repetitions’ (G.R. Swenson, The Other Tradition, Philadelphia 1966, p. 36).
Executed circa 1963, Ambulance Disaster is one of the two iterations on paper documented in the catalogue raisonné of a subject which fascinated Warhol during this time. In this imprinting of the harrowing subject-matter, Warhol’s nuanced presentation captures snippets of tangible details which come in and out of focus through the slippages and idiosyncrasies of his chosen medium. ‘Mishaps occurred often... uneven inking, and off-registration [giving] the works a painterly appearance that seemed at odds with the uniformity achievable through commercial uses of silkscreen’ (A. Danto, ‘Warhol and the Politics of Prints, in F. Feldman and J. Schellmann (eds.), Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1987, Milan 2003, p. 22).
The motif of the grisly car-crash are among Warhol’s most powerful and disturbing pictures, reflecting the artist’s deep-seated horror of physical violence and his profound dread of accidental death. Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster is a particularly 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 Ambulance Disaster paintings on canvas. Warhol based his image on a United Press International photograph of a traffic accident in Chicago on January 9, 1960. Warhol heightened the image’s raw power by exaggerating its strong contrasts of light and dark and by closely cropping in on the shockage footage of the victim draped down the car door. Warhol takes the landscape documentary image and sharply narrows our focus on the trauma to such an extent that ultimately we are offered a starkly vertical image that our eye initially reads as near-abstract, only for the ordeal to slowly materialize from the inked imprint. 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 body become legible.
Although compositionally different from his paintings of the same subject, Roberta Bernstein noted that ‘they retain the hand-done look and varied surface textures that characterize his early paintings and demonstrate that Warhol’s initial thinking about printmaking technique was closely linked to his painting’ (R. Bernstein, ‘Warhol as Printmaker’, in F. Feldman and J. Schellmann, Andy Warhol Prints: Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1985, p. 10).