Andy Warhol’s car crash artwork sells for a ‘monumental’ $85.4 million

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Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

This item has been updated with the final sale price and other details after the auction closed.

Andy Warhol may be best known for his pop art iconography of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and Campbell’s soup cans, but it was one of his screenprints of a mangled car crash that joined the most valuable post-war works ever sold at Wednesday’s auction.

White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times), a colossal painting from the artist’s Death and Disaster series, fetched $85.4 million at Sotheby’s in New York, a sum raised by the auction house described as “monumental”.

When Warhol created the work in 1963, he was fascinated by gruesome and morbid imagery—atom bomb clouds, electric chairs—and how widely printed publications reproduced them, believing readers had become immune to their effects. Of all his work, the series dealt most explicitly with his fixation on human mortality.

Andy Warhol photographed in his New York studio The Factory in 1983. Recognition: Brownie Harris/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

In White Disaster, Warhol reproduced a single image of a car crash 19 times in black and white. At 12 feet high and 6 feet wide, it is the largest of his car crash works.

“What sets[the artwork]apart is not just its immense scale, which really confuses anyone who stands in front of it… but also its palette,” explained David Galperin, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art in New York, ahead of the sale. “It really seems to glow, how the black screenprint registers against the sharp white background,” he added, explaining that Warhol repeated his image in different hues in the series, including lavender and orange.

The large format screenprint is 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

The large format screenprint is 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Recognition: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Galperin compared the piece’s scale and form to religious altarpieces, citing Warhol’s Catholic upbringing and the religious undercurrents in his work – particularly how religious icon paintings influenced his celebrity portraits. Warhol was working on the Death and Disaster series at the same time that he was screenprinting his famous images of Monroe after her death in 1962.

“These ideas of fame, tragedy, fame, death – these are the themes that occupied Warhol, and I think that the series he was working on at the same time, the Marilyn paintings and the ‘Death and Disaster Paintings’, are closely related connected,” said Galperin.

"Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)" set a record when it grossed over $100 million in 2013.

Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) set a record in 2013 with over $100 million. Recognition: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

In 2013, a smaller work from the Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) series sold for one at Sotheby’s a record-breaking $105.4 million. It was Warhol’s most expensive artwork until last year, when one of his screenprints of Monroe broke the record for an American artist, reaching $195 million.

Prior to the sale, “White Disaster” had been in a private collection for 25 years and was previously owned by Heiner Friedrich, founder of the Dia Art Foundation, and art dealer Thomas Ammann, according to Sotheby’s. It has been featured in major exhibitions on Warhol and more broadly Pop Art at the Tate Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Center Pompidou in Paris and most recently the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The work went up for sale Wednesday in one of two major auctions at Sotheby’s New York, raising a combined $314.9 million. Elsewhere, an untitled painting by Willem de Kooning fetched $34.8 million, the second highest sum ever paid for a work by the Dutch-American artist, the auction house said. Works by Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat were among the other eight-figure sales.

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