Pop art is always a difficult movement to broach. Is it art at most ironic or a parody of the conceit of the industry? Perhaps it is fine art at its contemporary best, a creative critique of history as it unfolds, or simply, the opportune outcomes of opportunistic individuals with a savvy for making people believe in nothing.
What is certain is this: financially speaking, pop art is resolutely big business and its leading figure Andy Warhol is its most bankable star, a man whose fame and influence over what art is has proved to be as interesting and provocative as Paul Cezanne’s desire to paint the actual perception of real.
With little time to fully come to terms with Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud going under the hammer for an unbelievable $142.4 million (approximately £89 million) at a Christie’s auction in New York, Warhol’s bankability was once again confirmed at Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale.
His 1963 Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) went for $105 million (£65 million), which like Bacon’s triptych, is a record for the artist at auction, smashing his previous best Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), which achieved $71.7 million (£44.1 million) in 2007.
“The night truly belonged to Andy Warhol,” commented Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. “Silver Car Crash is the most important work of contemporary art we have ever had the privilege to offer, and its exceptional result is a testament to that fact.”
He went on to say that the eight-foot by thirteen-foot work of art, which depicts the immediate and tragic aftermath of a car crash with the driver amidst the mangled vehicle, is the best painting he has sold in his entire career. It now is the second most expensive work of contemporary art in the world.
What makes Silver Car Crash so novel in Warhol’s oeuvre is that it is seemingly less superficial or manufactured than his other works of art, which were, at a reduced level, glossy reproductions of the already mass duplicated.
It stemmed from his reputable death and disaster series from the sixties – executed between 1962 and 1964 – which saw him take a more serious and less sardonic tone, focusing his attention on the tragedy of American life in the twentieth century, or more accurately, the melancholic nature of existence.
“The composition of the painting is very cinematic,” Mr Meyer explained in an official blog last month. “If you go to old cinemas, you have these film rolls. When they rupture, then suddenly the ‘silver screen’ goes silver – because there is no image there anymore. And that is what he is painting; he’s painting a cascading rupture of images, and then the whiteness next to it. Or the end of the image.”
He likens its pathos to Pablo Picasso’s seminal and macabre Guernica (1937) and Théodore Géricault’s distressing The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), both indictments on the misfortunes of war, which has blighted humanity in perpetuity.
It is certainly powerful, staunch in its unflinching depiction of death. Arguably, this was always his preoccupation. The colourful, playful, universally understood and appropriated pop images he is best known for can be read as a critique of modern, industrialised democracies, which zombify people with their false idea of the perfect lifestyle.