(Andy Warhol; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts)

Andy Warhol (b. 1928)

White Burning Car III, 1963

On view at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh

Great Works, In Focus

Warhol on fire

‘White Burning Car III’ is key to making sense of the artist’s sunnier works.

Andy Warhol’s “White Burning Car III,” (1963). On view at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. (Andy Warhol; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts)

You can see “White Burning Car III” in the Andy Warhol Museum in his hometown of Pittsburgh. It was based on a Weegee-like photograph taken by John Whitehead and published in the June 3, 1963, issue of Newsweek. Here is the caption that ran with it: “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 60mph, 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 a hospital.”

Andy Warhol’s “White Burning Car III,” (1963). On view at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. (Andy Warhol; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts)

How are you feeling right now? Sickened? Manipulated? Jolted by aesthetic electricity? Or . . . nothing?

Because that’s the question, isn’t it? That’s the Warholian whirlpool, the vortex we’re all in.

You are seeing Warhol’s work as a reproduction in a newspaper, either in print or online. Seeing the actual work is different. It feels, strange to say, authentic. It has real presence. It’s big, for starters. This makes the details more noticeable, the image more shocking. Up close, you also notice the medium: silk-screen ink on linen.

Silk-screen printing is a fairly low-tech form of mechanical reproduction, but its possibilities are manifold. In the early ’60s, as he worked on his “Death and Disaster” series, Warhol experimented with edges and overlap, with intensified tonal contrasts, and with empty space. You can see, for instance, how the pole is cropped in the three versions of the image at left but wholly visible in the two at right. The empty space at bottom right, meanwhile, makes the painting asymmetrical.

These decisions feel like anti-decisions, in the sense that they undo our expectations of art’s underlying purpose: to wring meaning and beauty from the visual environment. Instead, Warhol’s decisions — Why is the image repeated? Why five times, not six? Why the empty space? — reinforce the utter arbitrariness of the visual environment. They open onto a chasm of meaninglessness.

Warhol wasn’t the first to sense how modern life, as represented in the news media, teetered always on the verge of triviality. A similar sensibility came to life in the 19th century in the deadpan approach of Édouard Manet (whose letterhead said “Tout arrive” or “Everything happens,” which is Warholian avant la lettre) and in the arbitrary cropping of Edgar Degas.

An awareness of the relationship between disaster and banality — with the camera always mediating that relationship — built throughout the 20th century and into our own time, in the works of Gerhard Richter, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Rosalyn Drexler and a thousand others.

What’s interesting, still, is this particular disaster and the specific aesthetic sensation Warhol wrings from it. A man in a car. A hit-and-run. A police chase. A crash. The man impaled on a spike. The man impaled on a spike. The man impaled on a spike.

sebastian.smee@washpost.com

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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