A massive painting by pop artist Andy Warhol, White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times), is going up for auction at Sotheby’s later this month—and it is expected to fetch some $80 million.
The piece, which is 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide, is one of the largest panels from Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, which he created as a meditation on his obsession with mortality. The last time a piece from this series went on sale was almost a decade ago; Silver Car Crash sold for $105 million in 2013.
“A monumental altarpiece for the modern age, Andy Warhol’s White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) from 1963 stands amongst the most radical and haunting artistic achievements of the 20th century,” writes Sotheby’s in a statement.
Warhol based his piece on a gruesome photo that ran in Newsweek in June 1963—playing on the old news cliche, “if it bleeds, it leads,” as Artnet’s Caroline Goldstein puts it. But the artist’s goal wasn’t just to shock viewers with a haunting image or evoke horror or sorrow. He was also attempting to explore the ways that we become desensitized to violence through repeated exposure to it.
“These Disaster paintings are not Andy reveling in disaster: This is Andy sitting at the eye of the storm, being the one still person among disasters, death and horror,” art historian John Richardson said in a 2013 interview with art dealer Tobias Meyer, according to Sotheby’s. “And that is why to my mind they are the most moving, and the strongest of all of Andy’s imagery.”
The piece is made up of 19 stark black-and-white silkscreen prints lined up in twos and threes, ascending a gleaming white canvas. Experts have surmised that the piece is meant to evoke religious art.
“The monumental verticality of White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) mirrors the orientation of a religious altarpiece, its breathtaking magnitude enthralling the viewer to behold the iconic specter of death that Warhol has faithfully replicated,” Sotheby’s writes on its website.
Warhol was raised by a deeply religious mother. They attended church regularly; he even paid for his nephew’s studies to become a priest.
“The whole repetition of Andy’s imagery stems from the fact that he was Catholic,” Richardson said. “He went to church, he went to confession, he had to do 10 Hail Marys, 20 Ave Marias, and all this is reflected in the way his imagery is repeated again and again and again.”
On November 4, the piece will go on display in the auction house’s New York galleries, where it will remain until the sale on November 16.