We found ourselves in a conversation today with a neighbor discussing an upcoming exhibition about Andy Warhol and cars. The neighbor suggested that Andy Warhol's Car Crash Paintings came as the result of being recruited by Ralph Nader to help visualize his message about the lack of safety features in cars in the mid 1960's, and that Warhol's series of paintings coincided with the publication of Nader's book Unsafe At Any Speed in 1965. It sounded like an interesting idea, getting the hot artist of the day to create fine art to help promote civilian safety.
In researching this historical suggestion, however, we have not found any authoritative data linking Warhol to Nader in this campaign. First and foremost, Warhol's Car Crash paintings were actually part of a series of paintings called The Death and Disaster Series, created in 1962 and 1963. Ralph Nader wrote his book two years later. It is not known whether Nader was aware of Warhol's paintings, but there is no indication via research that Warhol was directed by Nader to make these paintings.
(If there are any art historians out there who can contradict this assumption and provide data showing a connection, we'd love to see it!)
Another item to note is that The Death and Disaster Series was not just about car crashes (and therefore the lack of safety features in cars), but also included images of airplane crashes, the electric chair, atomic bombs, race riots, and even tuna fish cans, after Warhol saw a news item about the death of two people from food poisoning after eating contaminated tins of tuna.
The painting by Warhol at right, titled Green Car Crash from 1963, shows Warhol's method of repeating the image over and over again, and then coloring the whole canvas with a bright color, which helps to reduce the brutality of the images. Part of Warhol's idea with the multiple-image paintings was described in an Art News interview with him where he said: "But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect." So with these paintings, Warhol is commenting on how the daily repetition of pictures of death and destruction that he was seeing in the newspaper and on tv was numbing the public to the true horror of the various situations.
Ralph Nader, however, wanted the public to shake off this numbness and make them aware of the fact that these gruesome accidents could be avoided with better automobile safety features. In that sense, Warhol's paintings may not have been good accompaniments to his argument since they were attempts to strip the context of the accident away from the image itself. One of the points of Nadar's book was that car manufacturers were avoiding common sense safety features, such as seat belts, and their general reluctance to spend money on improving safety overall. It may seem hard to believe in this day of seat belt laws that they were not even standard issue in cars until the late 1950's!
It's funny that this all started with a brief conversation with a neighbor; the way he told the story of Nader and Warhol working together sounded like a great collaboration ... I guess it goes to show that one shouldn't believe everything you hear!