In his show notes for Calvin Klein’s Spring 2018 collection, amid the fervent anticipation that preceded his sophomore outing for the brand in New York last September, Raf Simons revealed a Warholian belief that would not only contextualise the clothes that followed, but set a precedent for his tenure at the brand: “fashion tries to hide the horror and embrace only beauty, but they are both a part of life.” Simple enough – there is never beauty without horror, no doubt a reference to the political predicament of the country he now calls home – but the words also resonated with the vanitas of Warhol’s early Sixties Death & Destruction series, which, as shown here, Simons collaged across the Spring collection. Like the Ruby Sterling installation that hung suspended from the ceiling, re-contextualising the classic iconography of American horror, the select use of Warhol’s works, the first iteration in a partnership with The Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, reinforced Simons’ vision of an America defined by the proximity between beauty and horror, dreams and nightmares.
And now, this partnership between Calvin Klein and The Andy Warhol Foundation is set to continue until 2020 – granting Raf Simons and his team unprecedented access to Warhol’s oeuvre, including his unpublished works, while in return the brand will support The Foundation’s endowment scheme, which, since its founding in 1987, has distributed over a quarter of a billion dollars in grants. In celebration, we’re looking back at the first collaboration between the two American institutions, with a closer look at the Death & Destruction prints used in Raf’s Spring 2018 collection.
Ambulance Disaster, 1964
Death & Destruction was a two year project that began in 1962 against the backdrop of a newly dominant mass media, one that Warhol saw as numbing its audience with constant reports of death and tragedy. This, a prime example of Warhol’s dual depiction of anonymity and fame, of dreams and horror, leaves us uncertain of where one ends and the other begins. Taken from the scene of two ambulances that collided with each other en route to the hospital, Warhol took the dehumanising weight of the image one step further with his repeated screen prints, emphasising the way in which the media twisted the individual nature of death into a genre of headlines.
Electric Chair is based on a press photograph taken in 1953 of the chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York, where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for their supposed involvement in passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Unlike his other images in Death & Disaster, the distinct absence of any human figure in Electric Chair adds to the pathos of the work, as the chair waits for its next occupant. The electric chair is emblematic of Warhol’s observation that, whilst we are surrounded by tales and images of death, we simultaneously distance ourselves from it – precisely what Simons urged us not to do.
Here, Simons directly juxtaposes horror and dreams. Amid the ugliness there is always the American dream, no better embodied by Dennis Hopper, the writer, director and star behind the 1969 hit film Easy Rider, which came to define modern notions of American masculinity and machismo. In his wide-brimmed cowboy hat, Hopper represents the original American dream of Westward expansion, a New Frontier, and a land of unbridled possibility.
Taken from a newspaper article about two Detroit mothers, who, having shared the same tuna sandwich whilst watching their children play, both died two days later from poisoning. Here, Warhol emphasised how the seemingly innocuous and unremarkable is, in the hands of the American mass media, transformed into a tale of fear and horror. In a new world of dangerous mass media, Simons is taking up Warhols legacy, reminding us that for all the beauty (and there was plenty of it in the collection), we must not neglect the ugly or allow ourselves to ignore the nightmare-ish. It is a juxtaposition that has always been part of an American identity, as much as it is today as it was fifty years ago.
Carried out between August and September 1963, the work epitomises Warhol’s interest in the contradiction between public exposure and private despair. It was that inescapable level of exposure, emphasised in the repetition of the image, which also prompted Warhol to say, “it was Labor Day and every time you turned on the radio they said something like `Four million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect…”. The anonymous victims of the crash lie bloodied and bewildered, brought into the public spotlight through unwarranted coincidence. It is the same warped relationship between tragedy and celebrity that informed so much of Warhol’s work.
One of Warhol’s many muses, Sandra Brant and her then husband Peter would later work together with Warhol on the 1973 film L’Amour, featuring a young Karl Lagerfeld. Warhol favoured paparazzi photographs for his portraiture, another indication of his interest in the idea of celebrity, the role of the media in its cultivation, and the way in which it too straddled both horror and beauty. There can never be one without the other.
Top photograph by Jason Lloyd Evans at Calvin Klein SS18