Andy Warhol’s Five Deaths on Turquoise is one of the most provocative, fascinating and powerful paintings ever produced by an artist of the post-war era. Painted between the months of August and September of 1963, Five Deaths belongs to Warhol’s seminal Death and Disaster Series, a profound body of work that speaks to the exceptional violence and tragedy that often dwells beneath the surface of suburban America, and underscores Warhol’s lifelong obsession with his own death. The painting depicts the visual horror of a late-night automobile accident, indelibly rendered in black silkscreen ink upon an eerie background of phthalo green, in which two surviving members can be seen crawling from the wreckage, their faces covered in blood. The striking terror of the accident is underscored by the voyeuristic vantage point of the photo. Its ground-level angle allows for a peering-in on the scene that accentuates the lascivious quality of the surviving woman’s bare shoulders and prone position. A chilling, formidable work, the image verges on indecency by nature of its lurid details, which Warhol’s silkscreen technique so perfectly captures in its coolly-mechanized way.
Throughout his life, Warhol lived with a nearly obsessive dread of accidental death, and his fascination with car crashes, in particular, both enthralled and terrified him. During his lifetime, he amassed a graphic collection of high-contrast press photographs of car crashes that were often too gruesome to be published, and he readily admitted to an irrational fear of the driver of the car he happened to be riding in falling asleep at the wheel. Several of Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings were based on newspaper photos from tabloid-style publications like the National Enquirer or the New York Daily Mirror, but he was also drawn to the more graphic photographs taken from the scene of crimes, suicides or accidents that were never widely circulated. In an oft-cited interview with Gene Swenson in 1963, Warhol explained: “Did you see the Enquirer last week? It had “The Wreck that Made Cops Cry”—a head cut in half, the arms and hands just lying there. It’s sick, but I’m sure it happens all the time. I’ve met a lot of cops recently. They take pictures of everything, only it’s almost impossible to get pictures from them” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Swenson, “What is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters, Part I,” Art News, November 1963, p. 60).
Warhol and his studio assistant Gerard Malanga scoured New York’s bookshops in search of these more lurid photos, and in the case of Five Deaths on Turquoise, found a news photograph that had been issued by the UPI wire service. The picture’s caption reads in part: “Two Die in Collision. Los Angeles, Calif.: Three Survivors of a car-truck collision, pinned beneath their overturned automobile, wait to be freed by rescue squads here, June 17th. Two other passengers in the car, both sailors from the USS Maddox at San Diego, were killed.”
The black-and-white press photos that Warhol adopted for Death and Disaster were printed in high-contrast for easy dissemination and legibility, a technique that made them readily adaptable to Warhol’s silkscreen process, since they appeared highly stylized, the figure/ground separation heightened. In Five Deaths on Turquoise, Warhol’s silkscreen technique brilliantly reproduces the high-contrast legibility of the original photograph, but his choice of coloration truly sets the painting apart from others in the series. Rather than turquoise, as the title suggests, the painting is actually rendered in “phthalo green” a synthetic green pigment that imparts an eerie, unearthly quality to the already macabre scene. The strange peculiarities of phthalo green affect a dual response: at once drawing the viewer in by its strange magnetic power but also forcing it away by nature of its uncanny, nightmarish hue. The effect is not unlike the actual result of viewing a horrific crash—we can’t help but peer into the gruesome violence of the scene, but are simultaneously repelled by its graphic content. Warhol seemed bewitched by the emotive power of this phthalo green, having employed the same hue in his monumentally scaled Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) that he painted only a few months earlier.
Warhol painted Five Deaths on Turquoise between the months of August and September of 1963, during a truly seminal moment in which he produced some of the most celebrated paintings of his career. In this groundbreaking year Warhol successfully painted the iconic works that now make up his inimitable canon: Suicides, Black and White Disaster, Early Serial Disasters, Silver Electric Chairs, Red Explosion, Tunafish Disasters, Race Riots, Burning Cars, Five Deaths as well as Liz, Elvis and the photo booth self-portraits.
During this time, Warhol’s home on Lexington Avenue could no longer accommodate the number of paintings being produced, so in early 1963 he began to rent out a two-story firehouse on East 87th Street. He used the top floor as a studio and the bottom floor was kept as an empty gallery, wh Five Deaths that were painted in lurid hues of various sizes. The present painting, Five Deaths on Turquoise, makes use of a perfectly-square format, measuring 30 x 30 inches with a border of phthalo green along the upper and lower edges that visually mimics a letterboxed film still. The work was painted in preparation for Warhol’s Winter show at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris. Warhol described: “My show in Paris is going to be called ‘Death in America.’ I’ll show the electric-chair paintings and the dogs in Birmingham and car wrecks and some suicide pictures” (A. Warhol, quoted in N. Printz and G. Frei, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York, 2002, p. 311). The Sonnabend exhibit was intended to depict the darker side of America with the expressed aim of appeasing a French audience that Warhol believed would not entirely welcome his Pop paintings of soup cans and celebrities. With its central image of disaster taking place along the American highway landscape, Five Deaths on Turquoise relates to the key paintings exhibited at Sonnabend that opened to much acclaim in Paris in January of 1964. Compared with others in the series, the exceptional execution of the screened image and its perfectly-centered, square format allows Five Deaths on Turquoise to stand apart from contemporaneous works in the series. After the exhibition, the painting remained in The Ileana and Michael Sonnabend Collection for decades and was on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art beginning in 1986.
Among the Death and Disaster paintings, the car crashes constitute the most numerous and varied set of images and depict particularly gruesome deaths. According to the Warhol scholar Neil Printz,“they constitute some of the most violent imagery in the history of art, with a graphic verism unprecedented outside of contemporary mass-media.” (N. Printz, “Painting Death in America,” Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters, exh. cat., Houston, The Menil Collection, 1988, p. 14) In Five Deaths on Turquoise, Warhol captures the extraordinary contrast that results when an otherwise ordinary joyride turns into horrific tragedy, and in doing so, he captures the fleeting ephemerality of life and the thin, fragile line that marks the division between life and death.