The Car Crash paintings that Warhol made between late 1962 and early 1964, form the most varied and extensive group of pictures in his seminal series of Death and Disaster paintings. Drawing on six different documentary source photographs each outlining six separate, horrific and increasingly bizarre fatal accidents, Warhol's Car Crashes remain among the most powerful, challenging and provocative paintings made by any artist in the Post-War era.
Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) is one of the masterpieces from this series. It is an unforgettable painting that makes multiple use of what is arguably the most extraordinary, strange and disturbing source image of all those used in Warhol's famous Death and Disaster paintings. Describing more than just the scene of a car crash, this large electric green colored painting is a haunting work whose macabre and endlessly puzzling imagery startles with its stark and repetitive photographic presentation of a mundane suburban street shockingly transformed into a horrific disaster scene bordering on that of a surrealistic nightmare.
Silkscreened over a phthalo green background, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) is a unique, seemingly mechanically colored work that belongs to a series of five paintings all made in the summer of 1963 and once known as the "burning car" paintings, that use the same source photograph. The other four paintings, White Disaster I (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart), White Disaster II (Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main), White Burning Car III (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburg) and the smaller image, White Burning Car Twice, are all executed solely in the newsprint-like tones of black and white. The extraordinary source image used by all these imposing and famous pictures was taken by photographer John Whitehead and inserted, apparently arbitrarily, into an article on racial integration that appeared in the June 3 issue of Newsweek in 1963. The caption that accompanied the photograph in the magazine described the photograph and the scene it records as follows: "End of the Chase: Pursued by a state trooper investigating a hit-and-run accident, commercial fisherman Richard J. Hubbard, 24, sped down a Seattle street at more than 60 mph, overturned, and hit a utility pole. The impact hurled him from the car, impaling him on a climbing spike. He died 35 minutes later in hospital."
The photograph used in these paintings describes therefore, a freak accident. Like the black irony implicit behind Warhol's later Ambulance Disaster paintings showing the horrific and fatal result of a collision between two ambulances returning from the same crash scene, or the terrifying and almost comic minimalism of Foot and Tire, one of the key features of Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) is the truly strange and exceptional nature of its imagery. In one freakish instant, a peaceful suburban street has been transformed into a horrifying scene of hell. It was this truly unique moment of reality, this peculiar moment of transition, when all values were transformed, life extinguished into death, the banal and the mundane into the exceptional and extraordinary - that particularly fascinated Warhol in many of the Car Crash images he chose, captivating his imagination at precisely the same time that it also terrified him. As David Bourdon has recalled, all throughout his life Warhol had an acute terror of unpredictable and indiscriminate death - something which, by his own admission led to such things as a perpetual and irrational fear of the driver of whatever car he happened to be in falling asleep at the wheel. Deeply conscious of the ever-presence of death, Warhol was mesmerised by the shallow fleeting transience of life and the thin, fragile intensity of reality - the way in which things could be here one minute and gone the next. Something of this existential transience is implicit within the shallow photographic realism Warhol offered up in his paintings through the silkscreen technique. It is an element that is particularly emphasized in his Death and Disaster series and nowhere more so than in the "burning car" crash pictures such as Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I).
Following on perhaps, from his painting Suicide (Fallen Body) in which a woman's body lies amidst the crumpled wreckage of the car she had fallen onto, in Warhol's first great Car Crash paintings, Green Disaster 2 (Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main) and Orange Car Crash 14 Times (MoMA, New York) for example, the artist's concern was with the bizarre and horrifying intermingling of mangled human bodies and crumpled metal. It is in these paintings that Warhol first displays his interest in transforming, through a pattern of repetition, horrific reality into an abstraction - one which he later likened to being like "dress fabric." "When you see a gruesome image over and over again," Warhol told Gene Swenson at the time, "it really doesn't have any effect" (Andy Warhol cited in "Interview with Gene Swenson," Art News, New York, November 1963).
Using the shallowness and apparent objectivity of the photographic image and the ease of repetition provided by the silkscreen process, Warhol sought in these works to explore the power and potency of such horrific images of man merged with machine. Running the same image repetitively across a brightly colored monochrome canvas in such a way that the eye becomes accustomed to its sequential and even patterned rhythm or play of form, Warhol not only sanitizes his imagery and makes it familiar, but he abstracts it, transforming its horrific and shocking power into something banal and vacant. In subsequent Car Crash images, such as 5 Deaths, it is less the abstract and more the strange, bizarre, almost unreality of the photographic image and the accident itself, that appears to capture Warhol's attention and which his paintings focus upon. Verging on surrealism, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) is the ultimate example of this other tendency in Warhol's Car Crash paintings. Like something from David Lynch's Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, where the charming and banal idyll of a suburban community is shown to be nothing more than a shallow artifice of respectable surface appearance beneath which there lurks a darker reality of horror and depravity, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) reveals a very real but similar rift in the world of appearances. And it does so with all the gritty realism and mechanical style of an illicit movie or a film noir.
What is most remarkable about the source image used in Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) and what distinguishes it from all other of the Car Crash images is the startling contrast that it reveals in its foreground and background. In the foreground of the painting Richard Hubbard's overturned car lies in flames, while his body, impaled on a post at the left of the picture, hangs limp, though still in fact alive, in a manner that has prompted several critics to mistake the image as one depicting a lynching in the Deep South. This horrific and extraordinary scene is displayed with the apparent calm detachment and documentary objectivity of a real estate photograph or image from a holiday brochure. Composed in such a way that the pole on which, the dying Mr. Hubbard is impaled, intersects the picture frame roughly in accordance with classical rules of landscape painting and so as to balance the dramatic horizontal of the burning car, the eye of the photographer has, unconsciously no doubt, fitted the physical details of this tragedy into a standard and visually pleasing formal arrangement. Something of the stability and calm of the composition is reiterated by the background scenery in which the sleepy suburban landscape, remains seemingly undisturbed and unchanged by the horrific incident taking place in the foreground. At the heart of this is the nonchalant figure of a man, hands in his pockets, seemingly unconcerned, sauntering past the scene on the other side of the sidewalk. He is apparently oblivious to the nightmare of death and destruction taking place only a few yards away from him.
This extraordinary contrast, captured in this photograph, between the mundane normality of everyday suburbia and the exceptional violence and tragedy that periodically strikes at its heart pictorially describes exactly what Warhol wished to express in the Death and Disaster series about the extraordinary tragedies and horrors occurring to ordinary people on a daily basis. Extraordinary tragedies and events that 'go by', Warhol said, completely unnoticed. It was no doubt for this reason that, in this work alone of the five 'burning car' crash paintings, Warhol has concentrated on the specific part of the photograph showing the impaled figure and the passer-by, repeating this segment of the source photo in a triple sequence both at the centre and in the bottom row of the painting.
Emulating the effect of a stuttered filmic sequence, this film-shutter-like run of repeated imagery, throws the horror of the impaled man and the extraordinary complacency of the nonchalant figure strolling past him straight at the viewer in an almost accusatory way. Can we, the spectator, the painting seems to ask, really adopt a similarly blind attitude to such horror as that of the walking man going on his way oblivious to all around him? Here, the rippled emphasis of the repeated image does not diffuse the horror of the painting's imagery but compounds it. The fact that this painting was made at a time, in the early 1960s, when political conscience was becoming a central question of the New York intelligentsia only makes this image more prescient and indicative of its time. Indeed, in Warhol's hands, such is the power of this weird, banal and horrifying image to invoke questions about the moral complacency of a middle-class America that it seems more than coincidence that it was made at precisely the same time that Hannah Arendt's report on the 'Banality of Evil' was being serialised in the New Yorker magazine.
Painted sometime in either June or July of 1963, Green Car (Green Burning Car I) was one of the first paintings that Warhol made with the help of his new assistant Gerard Malanga. It was made as part of Warhol's preparation for his winter show at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris. This exhibition Warhol originally intended to be called "Death in America," and was to include images of the darker side of the U.S. in the aim of pleasing the French intellectuals whom Warhol had been led to believe would not welcome his earlier "Pop" images drawn from the country's overtly consumerist culture. With its central image of disaster taking place in the heart of an all-American suburban landscape, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) was one of the key paintings to be exhibited at this exhibition which subsequently opened to much acclaim in Paris in January 1964.
Like so much of Warhol's work Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) is a deeply incisive mirror of its time. Much more than a painting of a mere road accident, the painting with its sequential progression of silkscreened images seeming like razor thin slices of reality laid and overlaid upon one another, seems to present a panoply of mayhem and violence taking place in the suburban heart of America. Anticipating the troubled and turbulent path that middle-America would take throughout the 1960s, the painting is, like much of Warhol's work, deeply prophetic in the sentiments and atmosphere it projects.
Calvin Tomkins once described Warhol as "a rather terrifying oracle" who, in the 1960s, "made visible what was happening in some part to us all" ("Raggedy Andy" by Calvin Tomkins cited in Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. 1970. p. 10). Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) is a work that reveals Warhol seeming to stare at the synthetic surface of reality and peeling its layers off to reveal a deeper and more disturbing truth lying beneath it. Like veils or synthetic screens of reality, the layered images that combine to form this extraordinary painting seem to outline an innate and disturbing division underlying even the most mundane, ordinary and respectable reality. The more you look, the painting seems to suggest, the more things are not what they seem. It is the same sentiment that Warhol returned to when talking about suburban America in his 1985 book entitled America.
"You see houses everywhere, the green lawns with the sprinklers, the jungle gyms in the backyards, the kids riding their bikes to school, the mailman coming by with a smile, a woman unloading bags of groceries from her station wagon, and you can't help but think, 'This is the real America.' You imagine that everyone around who you haven't seen in a long time is living this very regular humdrum life that's peaceful...But then you start learning the details. You find out the nice man who always had an extra piece of gum to give you has gone completely off his rocker and killed his wife, that the ex-minister of the church you grew up in is now a big drunk who's totalled three cars. You learn that your best friend's parents who were always so great are getting a divorce, that the woman who you always thought the most ordinary housewife ran off with another man from Canada. You find out that the girl you had a crush on in elementary school is now a religious fanatic living in India with a bald head...Nobody in America has a normal life" (Andy Warhol cited in America, New York, 1985, p. 176).