From the Archives: Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol

Cover of the May 1987 issue of A.i.A.


“There are many Andy Warhols,” William S. Smith writes in the Editor’s Letter of our October issue, “some at odds with each other.” It can be difficult to understand how the same artist could be both a high society icon and impresario of the demimonde, a restless experimenter who pushed the limits of film and photography, and a sell-out who did more than anyone to merge vanguard art and money.

In our May 1987 issue, art historian Thomas Crowe wrote about Warhol’s early paintings—his celebrity portraits as well as his depictions of death and violence. Crowe felt these works were far deeper and more complex that normally understood. His task, in a sense, was to separate the art–which was earnest, mournful, and personal—from Warhol’s public image, which was all about surface and impersonality. On the occasion of “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, we present his seminal essay in full below. —Eds.  


THE PUBLIC WARHOL consists of not one but, at a minimum, three persons. The first, and by far the most prominent, is the self-created one: the product of the artist’s famous pronouncements and of the authorized representations of his life and milieu. The second Warhol is the complex of interests, sentiments, skills, ambitions, and passions that are actually figured in paint on canvas. The third Warhol is the persona that has sanctioned a wide range of experiments in non-elite culture far beyond the world of art.1 Of these three, the latter two are of far greater importance than the first, though they are normally overshadowed by the man who said that he wanted to be like a machine, that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, that he and his art were all surface, and that one need look no further. The second Warhol is normally equated with the first; and the third, at least by historians and critics of art, is largely ignored.

This essay is primarily concerned with the second Warhol, though my discussion will necessarily entail some attention to the first. The conventional reading of Warhol’s work turns around a few circumscribed themes: the impersonality of the artist’s selection and presentation of images, his passivity in the face of a media-saturated reality, the suspension of any authorial voice in his work. In general, Warhol’s subject-matter choices have been regarded as essentially indiscriminate. Most commentators have displayed little interest in them, other than to observe that, in their totality, they represent the random play of a consciousness at the mercy of the commonly available commercial culture. The debate over Warhol centers on whether or not his art 1) fosters critical or subversive apprehension of mass culture and the power of the image as commodity,2 2) succumbs in an innocent but telling way to that numbing power,3 or 3) exploits it cynically and meretriciously.4


THE RELATIVE LACK of attention to Warhol’s early pictures has made a notoriously elusive figure even more elusive than he needs to be—or better, only as elusive as he intended to be. What has also gone unobserved is the contradiction at the core of the usual interpretation of Warhol’s work: that the authority for the supposed effacement of the author’s voice in Warhol’s pictures is none other than the author’s voice itself. It was Warhol who told us that he had no real point to make, that he intended no larger meaning in his choice of this or that subject, that he always let others do his choosing for him, that his assistants did most of the physical work of producing his art. Indeed, it would be difficult to name an artist who has been as successful as Warhol was in controlling the interpretation of his own work. But for that received reading to stand, it would need to be demonstrated that there is in fact an absence of coherent subjectivity within Warhol’s work; moreover the external determinations that therefore give the work its shape would somehow have to be mapped. Thus far no such demonstration has ever been offered, and hence there are no critical criteria to sustain that reading; nor is there any satisfactory account of the ways in which the pictures can be said to reward attention. In the absence of such criteria, the fascination exerted by the works themselves remains occult and inexplicable.

Furthermore, the accepted ideas about Warhol are by no means specifically applicable only to him or to the moment of Pop. It would be difficult, for example, to identify on first reading the celebrated artist who is the subject of the following passage by a prominent critic of 20th-century art:

[The artist] claims that the modern scene is “no-environment” and presents it as such. To make his point, he opened a tabloid newspaper and leafed through its illustrations. There was a politician standing next to an arched doorway and rusticated wall, but remove the return of the arch—the wall might be a pile of shoe boxes in a department store or “nothing.” The outdoor crowd scene with orators on the roof of a sound truck could be the interior of Madison Square Garden during a prize fight. The modern image is without distinct character, probably because of the tremendous proliferation of visual sensations which causes duplicates to appear among unlikes. The Renaissance man saw and visualized, let us say, n things. Today, fed by still, cinema and television cameras, we experience n to the 100th power, and, of course, the ns become similar because our brains become numb to their differences.

The historical references in this passage are not quite Warhol’s style (though he was capable in 1964 of an inscrutable allusion to Memling as one of his sources5). Nevertheless, the artist described here displays an apparent resignation in the face of the mass-produced image that is similar to the attitude commonly ascribed to Warhol. He professes an inability to make distinctions between the real and the simulated, to penetrate beneath the undifferentiated surface of manufactured signs. In light of the reference to a “proliferation of visual sensations which causes duplicates to appear among unlikes,” these comments could even plausibly have come from a young artist working at the current moment, some practitioner of replication or appropriation, smitten with the idea of a precession of simulacra. (Such art and the writing that surrounds it have given Warhol’s example a new currency in the mid-‘80s.7) But the artist whose views are being elaborated here is neither a Pop artist nor a “simulationist”; it is in fact Willem de Kooning. The writer is Thomas Hess, and the date is 1953.7

Hess is using de Kooning’s point to explain the painter’s obliteration of all but a vestige of illusionistic detail in his famous Woman I, which had already been in process for some two years. In Hess’s commentary, a perceived leveling of experience in the larger environment is offered as justification for a heightened subjectivity specific to the act of painting. The artist is seen as restoring a capacity for vision lost elsewhere. Such observations about mass society and its media, if fresh in the early 1950s, would have become banalities a decade later. They could be, and clearly have been, used to explain drastically different artistic responses to the postwar American environment. There are, however, more substantial links between de Kooning and Warhol to be discovered in the areas of method and subject matter.

The fixed point in Woman I around which all of de Kooning’s agonizing revisions, repaintings and scrapings-away took place was an image of a woman’s lips that he had cut out from a magazine advertisement.8 A similar piece of collage remains in one of de Kooning’s studies; the image on the painting was removed shortly before the work was declared finished. Such disembodied mouths also appear in the great pictures (for example, Excavation) that were executed before the Woman series. The working procedure for Woman I makes evident the relationship between de Kooning’s earlier, Cubist-derived fragmentation of the body and the fetishization that characterizes the commercial sexual image. (Similarly, in Attic, of 1949, de Kooning left a newspaper transfer print of a bathing-suit model embedded in the painting’s surface9). In 1951, when de Kooning began working on Woman I, Marilyn Monroe had not yet been established as possessor of the movie-star smile, but by 1954 she clearly had. And in one later canvas in the Woman series, the painted lips and smile were given her name.

De Kooning has cheerfully discussed his fascination with Monroe, a personification of working-class beauty whose florid style contrasted so completely with the restrained type of feminine beauty commonly observed in bohemian circles.10 In such circles, de Kooning’s interest was of course not an isolated case, as the later biography by Norman Mailer amply demonstrates.11 It was in 1954 that Monroe made public her union with the working-class hero, Joe DiMaggio, as well as her rapid break with him. After that brief moment of perfect symbolic symmetry, she moved into a different milieu—the world of serious art—and established contact with at least the fringes of bohemia. New York was now her new base, and Arthur Miller the man in her life. To give form to her new seriousness she turned to Lee Strasberg and the Actors’ Studio, a survival of the Old Left Group Theater. The attitudes prevailing there, it need hardly be said, had much in common with the guiding ideas of the Abstract-Expressionist generation; for both, authenticity in expression was the result of an unplanned process of inner discovery, a peeling away of learned responses to allow an unmediated confrontation between medium (script or paint) and self. For both, also, this individualized and internalized conception of freedom was bound up with the sublimation of forbidden politics.


DE KOONING’S PRECEDENT and the romance between the American intelligentsia and Monroe make it unsurprising that a New York artist would fix on her image when Warhol did. Without evident irony, Warhol in 1963 said: “De Kooning gave me content and motivation. My work evolves from that.”12 In taking up Monroe’s image as a subject, he would have known that he was dealing with a symbol that had special significance for a generation of artists he revered and whose number he was determined to join. She was a figure with a public myth that crossed over from commercial entertainment into high art; she was cherished by serious people because of it. Her public association in the early ‘60s with the glamour of the Kennedy presidency added to this aura. A film star who might have stood for the philistine era of Eisenhower now belonged with the new symbols of power that had seduced the artistic and academic communities. Someone with Warhol’s experience and acuity could not have been unaware of these resonances.

Any complexity of thought or feeling in Warhol’s numerous images of Monroe may, however, be difficult to discern from our present vantage point. Not only does the artist’s own myth stand in the way, but the pictures’ seeming acceptance of the reduction of a woman’s identity to a mass-commodity fetish can make the entire series seem a monument to a benighted past or an unrepentant present. One is especially wary at this moment, when the Monroe image is undergoing the most forceful of its posthumous revivals (the exaggerated media fascination with the pop singer Madonna is just one of its signs). Though the latest in a shelf of picture biographies of Monroe contains a text by a famous feminist writer,13 the publishing phenomenon in itself signals an undying nostalgia for women film stars who did not, either on film or in life, project a public image of self-possession and professional autonomy. Monroe remains “the last star,” a counter to the changes represented by the ascendancy of Streep, Fonda, Streisand, Keaton and the like.

The fantasies of de Kooning and Mailer have much in common this anti-feminist reaction, and they have given it undeserved respectability. It is far from the intent of this essay to redeem those fantasies or their contribution to Warhol’s role in perpetuating that mystique. Though Warhol obviously had little stake in the erotic fascination felt for Monroe by the male intellectuals of the ‘50s generation, he may indeed have failed to resist it sufficiently in his art. But there is a reticence in the majority of Warhol’s Monroe paintings, when they are viewed apart from the Marilyn/Goddess cult, that suggests a withholding of outright complicity with the anti-feminism of that cult.

One way that Warhol builds a certain distance and reserve into his Marilyn images is through an initial transformation of his photographic material. Though we are repeatedly told that he accepted his borrowed images without alteration,14 the most famous of his appropriated portraits gives every appearance of contradicting that assertion. The hair and earrings correspond to one widely reproduced publicity still—an upwardly tilted, right­facing, view. The face, however, seems to come from another shot, one that is angled to the left and lowered slightly. When they are combined, the result is a kind of internal cancellation of the coherence of each pose. The tilt of the head is suppressed, and with it Monroe’s mannered and practiced way of pleasing the viewer through the camera. Out of this manipulation of the image, embellished with some manually applied additions, Warhol produced a unit that is more square and solid than the originals, one that exhibits a self-containment at odds with the smile. An instructive comparison can be made between Warhol’s transformation of Monroe’s mannered form of self-presentation in the photographs and Rosenquist’s Marilyn Monroe I of 1962: for all the fragmentation and interference that the latter artist imposes on the star’s portrait, its false seductiveness is precisely what he lingers over and preserves.


WARHOL’S MOVES SEEM to be consistent with his sense that the older generation had made Monroe into a subject that required some seriousness in its treatment. But there was a more immediate and powerful reason for the reserve in his representation: Monroe’s suicide in early August 1962. Although Warhol began the series within weeks of her death, that simple fact has largely gone unremarked in the literature.15 Warhol’s immediate purpose was thus a memorial, even a funerary one. Some of the artist’s formal choices refer to this commemorative function directly: these are most evident in the iconlike Gold Marilyn Monroe—a single impression of her face against a gold background, the traditional sign of an eternal other world. As a series, the pictures represent a lengthy act of mourning, much of the motivation for which will lie beyond our understanding. The project itself, however, raises issues that continue to involve us all. How does one handle the fact of celebrity death? Where does one put the curiously intimate knowledge one possesses of an unknown figure? How does one come to terms with the sense of loss, the absence of a richly imagined presence that was never really there? For some that figure might be Monroe, for others it could be Buddy Holly or a Kennedy: the problem is the same.

The beginnings of the Marilyn series coincide with Warhol’s commitment to the photo-silkscreen technique,16 and there is a close link between technique and function. The screened image, reproduced whole, has the character of an involuntary trace: it is memorial in the sense of resembling memory, which is sometimes vividly present, sometimes elusive, and always open to embellishment as well as loss. Warhol’s second operation was to take the invented photomontage of Monroe and to reduce its fine-grained color to a one-dimensional monochrome. Thus the imaginary life is drawn out of the image, but the most basic trace, whole and uninflected, is left behind, a trace that Warhol has arranged in relationships that depend on differing degrees of presence and absence.

In the Marilyn Diptych, also painted in 1962, Warhol lays out a stark and unresolved dialectic of presence and absence, of life and death. The left side is a monument; color and life are restored, but as a secondary and invariant mask added to something far more fugitive. In contrast to the quasi-official regularity and uniformity of the left panel, the right concedes the absence of its subject, displaying openly the elusive and uninformative trace underneath. The right panel nevertheless manages subtle shadings of meaning within its limited technical scope. It contains a reference to the material of film that goes beyond Warhol’s use of repeating frames. At its simplest level, the monochromatic panel reminds us that the best and most enduring film memories one has of Monroe—The Seven-Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits—are in black and white. The color we add to her memory is supplementary. In a more general sense, she is most real and best remembered in the flickering passage of film exposures, no one of which is ever wholly present to perception. The heavy inking in one vertical register of the Marilyn Diptych underscores this characteristic. The passage from life to death reverses itself; she is most present where her image is least permanent. In this way, the Diptych stands as a comment on and a complication of the embalmed quality, the slightly repellent stasis, of the Gold Marilyn Monroe.


ONCE HAVING TAKEN up the condition of celebrity as trace and sign, it is not surprising that Warhol would move soon after to the image of Elizabeth Taylor. As unchallenged Hollywood divas with larger-than-life personal myths, Monroe and Taylor were nearly equal. Each maintained her respective position by a kind of negative symmetry with the other, by representing what the other was not. Warhol elaborated on the contrast, beginning with its dramatic confrontation of light and dark, and that duality opened a productive vein in his work through 1963 (as opposed to his dead-end experiments using male actors such as Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty). Also in 1963, Warhol completed his triangle of major female celebrities of the early ‘60s with a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy in the same basic format as the full-face portraits of Monroe and Taylor. The President’s wife did not share film stardom with Monroe, but she did share the Kennedys. She also possessed the distinction of having established a changed feminine ideal for the period. In the early ‘60s, Jacqueline Kennedy’s slim, dark, aristocratic standard of beauty had already made Monroe’s style, and thus her power as a symbol, seem out of date even before her death. (That new standard was mimicked within the Warhol circle by Edie Sedgwick, for a time the artist’s constant companion and seeming alter-ego during the period.) The photographs of Monroe from which Warhol constructed his image were from the ‘50s; in his series, he thus underscored the historical distance between Monroe’s life and her symbolic function.

The semiotics of style that locked together Warhol’s images of the three women represents, however, only one of the bonds between them. The other derived from the threat or actuality of death. The full-face portraits of the Liz series, though generated by a transformation of the Marilyn paintings, in fact had an earlier precedent. Taylor’s famous catastrophic illness in 1961—the collapse that interrupted the filming of Cleopatra—had entered into one of Warhol’s early tabloid paintings, Daily News, 1962. The contemporaneous rhythm of crises in the health of both Monroe and Taylor had joined them in the public mind in the that year, and it was a bond that the third would not share until November 1963. The Kennedy assassination pictures are often seen as an exception in the artist’s output, unusual in their open emotion and sincerity,17 but the continuity they represent with the best of his previous work seems just as apparent. As with the Marilyn images, it is a death that galvanizes Warhol into a sustained act of remembrance. In this case, however, he has a stand-in, the widow who had first attracted him as an instance of celebrity typology. Again, Warhol limits himself to fragmentary materials—eight grainy newspaper stills out of the myriad representations available to him. These he shuffles and rearranges to represent the irrevocable transformation of the life of the survivor: in Nine Jackies, 1964, Jackie happy and Jackie sad are differentiated by the color of the panel; in Jackie II, 1966, a simple doubling within one undivided field is a device for multiplying the marks of stoicism and grief, but at the same time it makes the figure seem less solitary in her mourning. The emotional calculus is simple, the sentiment direct and uncomplicated. The pictures nevertheless reveal, by their impoverished vocabulary, the distance between public mourning and that of the principals in the drama. Out of his deliberately limited resources, the artist creates a nuance and subtlety of response that is his alone, precisely because he has not sought technically to surpass his raw material. It is difficult not to share in this straightforward expression of feeling, however cynical one might be about the Kennedy Presidency or the Kennedy marriage. In his particular dramatization of medium, Warhol simultaneously found room for a dramatization of emotion and even for a kind of history painting.


THUS FAR MY reading of Warhol’s work has proceeded by establishing relationships between his early portraits. But that reading can also be expanded to include the apparently anodyne icons of consumer products for which the artist is most renowned, such as the Campbell’s Soup Cans. Even those familiar images take on unexpected meanings when considered in the context of his other work of the period. For example, in 1963, the year after the soup-can imagery had made him famous, Warhol did a series of pictures under the title Tunafish Disaster. Understandably enough, these are lesser known works, but they feature repeated images of a directly analogous object, an A&P­-brand can of tuna. In this instance, however, the contents of the can were suspected of having killed more than one person, and newspaper photographs of the victims are repeated below those of the deadly containers. The wary smile of Mrs. McCarthy, the broad grin of Mrs. Brown (both posed with self-conscious sincerity for their snapshots), the look of their clothes, glasses, and hair styles—all speak the language of class in America. The women’s workaday faces and the black codings penned on the cans transform the commodity into anything but an abstraction.

The pictures of course commemorate a moment when the supermarket promise of safe and abundant packaged food was disastrously broken. Does Warhol’s rendition of the disaster render it safely neutral? I think not, no more than it would be possible for an artist to address in a neutral manner the recent panic over tamperings with non-prescription medicines, and to avoid confronting the kinds of anxiety those events provoked. In this case, the repetition of the crude images does draw attention to the awful banality of the accident and to the tawdry exploitation by which we come to know the misfortunes of strangers. But the pictures do not mock our potential feelings of empathy, however inadequate they may be. Nor do they direct our attention to some peculiarly 20th-century estrangement between an event and its representation. After all, the misfortunes of strangers have constituted the primary content of newspaper writing since newspapers first began. The “Tunafish Disasters” take an established feature of Pop imagery, established by others as well as by Warhol, and decidedly push it beyond the realm of consumption. We do not consume the news of these deaths in the same way that we consume the putatively safe contents of a can.

It is possible to make similar observations about Warhol’s several series based on photographs of automobile accidents, also from 1963. These commemorate events in which the American car of the 1950s, the supreme symbol of consumer affluence, has ceased its existence as an image of pleasure and freedom to become a concrete instrument of sudden and irreparable injury. (In only one of Warhol’s pictures of the period, Cars, does an automobile appear intact.) Does Warhol’s use of repetition in or Five Deaths or Saturday Disaster diminish the impact of the visible anguish in the faces of the living or the horror of the limp bodies of the unconscious and dead? We cannot penetrate beneath the image to touch true pain and grief, but the reality of suffering is sufficiently indicated in the photographs to draw attention to one’s own limited ability to find an appropriate response. As for the meaning of repetition in these pictures, might we just as well understand it to suggest the grim predictability, day after day, of more events with an identical outcome, the leveling sameness with which real, not symbolic, death erupts in our experience?


THE PICTURES OF anonymous disaster establish a tie between the celebrity portraits and the product labels that is different and more powerful than the conventional notion of their common identity as mass-produced images. Not long after his first meditations on the Monroe death, Warhol took up the theme of anonymous suicide in several well-known and harrowing paintings. Bellevue I, 1963, puts death in a context of institutional confinement. And again, one can see Warhol’s repetition of the photographic image within the pictorial field as increasing rather than numbing the viewer’s sensitivity to it, as he or she works to draw the picture’s separate elements into a whole. Warhol’s compositional choices in this work are artful enough to invite that kind of attention.18 Take, for example, the way the heavily inked units at the picture’s upper left precisely balance and play off the void at the bottom. The blank space at the end of this chain of images has a metaphoric function akin to the play of presence and absence in the Marilyn Diptych—it stands in a plain way for death and also for what lies beyond the possibility of figuration. In the 1964 Suicide, Warhol’s orchestration of the void, of all the fractures and markings generated from the silkscreen process, becomes almost pure expressionist invention.

As for the electric-chair pictures, they too present, as a group, a stark dialectic of fullness and void. And the dramatic shifts in these works between presence and absence are far from being some manifestation of the pure play of a signifier liberated from reference beyond the sign. They mark the point at which the brutal fact of violent death entered the realm of contemporary politics via the issue of capital punishment. The early 1960s, following the execution of Caryl Chessman in California, had seen agitation against the death penalty grow to an unprecedented level of intensity.19 The partisan character of Warhol’s electric-chair images is literal and straightforward, and that is what saves them from mere morbidity. He gave them the collective title “Disaster,” and thus tied a political subject to the slaughter of innocents in the highway, airplane and supermarket accidents he had memorialized elsewhere. Warhol was attracted to the open sores in American political life, the issues that were most problematic for liberal Democratic politicians such as Kennedy and Edmund Brown. In 1963, he also did a series on the most violent reactions to the civil-rights demonstrations in the South; in the Race Riots of 1963, political life lakes on the same nightmare coloring that saturates so much of his other work.

If we were to consider seriously Warhol’s dictum that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, we would have to conclude that in his eyes that renown was likely to be under fairly horrifying circumstances. What this body of paintings adds up to is a kind of peinture noire in the sense that we apply the term to the film-noir genre of the ‘40s and early ‘50s—a stark, disabused, pessimistic vision of American life, produced from the knowing rearrangement of pulp materials by an artist who did not opt for the easier paths of irony or condescension. A picture such as the 1963 Gangster Funeral comes over like a dispatch of postcards from hell.

Such a reading of Warhol’s pictorial art can alter as well our understanding of his words. There is, for example, his response to the final question put to him in the famous 1963 Art News interview with G.R. Swenson: “Do you mean that collage materials permit you to use an image and still be neutral toward the object represented?”20 Warhol flatly rejects the notion of neutrality, declares that he cannot understand the view that he “merely accept[s]” his environment. The most he will admit is that his work is “dead-pan,” a quality he believes he shares with most of the painting he loves: Mondrian, Matisse, Pollock are the names he mentions. This is the text from which some of the best-known quotes are drawn—e.g., “I think everyone should be a machine.” Yet the quality of “dead-pan” is significantly different from the passivity that Swenson expected Warhol to endorse. It is a consciously maintained absence of expression intended to disguise interest and engagement. Reading that interview now, one is struck by the barely suppressed anger of his responses, as well as by the intelligence and irony of phrases that would later congeal into clichés. (An old associate has attributed the special quality of this text to the fact that Warhol did not know he was being recorded.21)


By 1965, of course, this episode in his work was largely over; the Flowers, Cow Wallpaper, silver pillows, and the like have little to do with the imagery under discussion here. By then the clichés had begun to ring true. Nevertheless, there had been a threat in this work to create a true “pop” art in the most positive sense of that term—a pulp-derived, bleakly monochrome vision that held, however tenuous the grip, to an all-but-buried tradition of truth-telling in American commercial culture. Very little of what is normally called Pop art could make a similar claim. It remained, one could argue, a latency subsequently taken up by others—an international underground soon to be overground, who would create the third Warhol and the best one.