When Andy Warhol's Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) hit the block at Christie's, experts thought the auction house's estimate — $25 to $35 million — was optimistic. Warhol's previous auction record was $17.38 million, but more to the point, would buyers want such a grisly image on their living-room wall? As art consultant Sandy Heller told ABC News, "It's hard to put an image of an impaled figure in a burning car in a home where you have little kids." So what drove the price to $71.72 million, after a heated bidding war? Why is Warhol's "Death and Disaster" series, which included auto wrecks, plane crashes, and even race riots and suicides, suddenly so sought after?
Cynics will say that it's all about exploiting unexplored corners of the Warhol market. The more interesting answer, however, is that collectors are beginning to make the emotional connection between this gruesome body of work and the artist's more attractive (to the casual observer) portraits of celebrities. Warhol made the link explicit with his 1962 portraits of Marilyn Monroe (painted shortly after her death) and, the following year, a grieving Jackie Kennedy. "I guess it was the big plane crash, the front of the newspaper: 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or Labor Day, a holiday, and every time you turned on the radio they said something like 'Four million are going to die,'" he said in a 1964 interview.
Then, there's the fact that 40-odd years later, we don't get our disasters from the next morning's paper or a disembodied voice on the radio; we watch them unfold over and over in five-minute video clips, the products of millions of Abraham Zapruders. The particular accident documented in Green Car Crash — a driver fleeing the police was left hanging from the spike of a telephone pole after his car hit the pole and overturned — is just the sort of bizarre spectacle that might enjoy a brief run on YouTube before the censors step in. So the tabloid sensationalism that inspired Warhol now looks almost quaint — Marilyn's publicity still from Niagara (the source for Warhol's portraits of the actress) versus Anna Nicole's bloated corpse.
Finally, there's the conventional explanation, noted by Warhol himself: "When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn't really have the same effect." So go ahead, put the painting in the family room — the kids have probably seen worse. —Karen Rosenberg