Andy Warhol, Gun, 1981-1982
Gun, 1981-1982. acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas 70 1/8 x 90 1/8 in. (178.1 x 228.9 cm) Stamped by the Estate of Andy Warhol and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. on the overlap and numbered PA15.058.Ο
PROVENANCE Private Collection
JORDAN CRANDALL: You don’t like guns, do you? ANDY WARHOL: Yes, I think they’re really kind of nice. (from Splash No. 6, 1986, excerpted in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, Edited by Kenneth Goldsmith, New York, 2004, p. 373). After Andy Warhol’s assassination attempt in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, much of the violent imagery that had occupied his work of the 1960s—electric chairs, traffic accidents, nuclear explosions—vanished from his new pictures. Instead, during much of the 1970s, both famous and unfamous faces became a prominent trope. Warhol also began to incorporate different series into his silkscreens, including the infamous oxidation paintings and the “shadow” paintings of the late 1970s. Yet as the injuries from 1968 exerted their relentless and painful influence upon Warhol’s life and work, he returned in 1981 and 1982 to the subjects that he had avoided for more than a decade. 1982 saw showings on opposite sides of the Atlantic for Warhol’s Guns, Knives, and Dollar Signs, some of the most ominous and captivating work of his entire career. The present lot, Gun, 1981-1982, exhibits Warhol’s full-circle return to the events that shook him to his mortal core in 1968, as we observe upon his canvas the exact style of pistol that almost claimed his life two decades before his death. Warhol’s obsession with death spawned a variety of frightening images in much of his earlier work. His Big Electric Chair, 1964, along with several other works from the early 1960s introduced America to the morbid side of Andy Warhol, where an intersection of aesthetics and mortality begat a body of work that was simultaneously beautiful and unsettling to behold. As a Pop artist, Warhol’s eternal mission of image reproduction gave way to a nearspiritual transformation for each of his selected subjects. The present lot is a fabulous example of Warhol’s own brand of artistic transubstantiation: “They offer Warhol’s familiar brilliance in transforming objects so ordinary that they usually escape our attention into icons as dense with associations as the crude crosses Warhol was replicating on canvas at the same time, 1981-1982”. (R. Rosenblum, Warhol’s Knives, Koln, 1998, p. 12). Even in his later career, his keen sense of observation made him an astute identifier of both obvious and subtle morbidity in everyday life, and, as he conflated so many tenets of his work, he furthered the resonance of Pop Art in its later years. Most of Warhol’s subjects, however, did not have the personal resonance of the present lot. On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas—a member of the factory and sometime actress in Warhol’s films—shot both Warhol and art curator Mario Amaya. While Amaya sustained only minor injuries, Warhol was left permanent scarring, physical impairments, and an emotional reflection on his own mortality that would shape his personal cosmology: following the attack, Warhol attested, he became further detached from an emotional existence, believing instead that life was something closer to the experience that one has while watching television. Yet, in the early 1980s, Warhol stopped trying to battle the painful memories of the attack through turning to alternative subject matter, and he created his most thematically violent canvases since the early 1960s. Gun, 1981-1982, is actually misleading in its title. The silkcreen portrait of humanity’s deadliest pocket device actually bears the inkprint of two compact, small caliber revolvers. The .22 caliber handgun, deadly if used at any range, was manufactured by High Standard in 1955, and part of their Sentinel revolver line. The Sentinel was a 9-shot .22 revolver. It was advertised to have an anodized aluminum frame, a high-tensile carbon steel barrel and cylinder, single-stroke multiple ejection, a swing-out counterbored cylinder, a movable square-notched rear sight, a non-slip scored trigger, a diamond-checkered grip, and target accuracy. In Warhol’s rendition, silkscreened twice, every detail is highlighted and dramatized in raw and monochromatic screens. Warhol’s inclusion of two screens of the firearm is eerily resonant when one investigates his testimony of the seconds surrounding his attempted assassination: the confusion and quickness of the moment lent itself to a variety of mental reconstructions for Warhol in the following weeks, so the vision of two pistols makes the memory more representative of his actual experience. One of the most remarkable features of Warhol’s canvas is the meticulous detail expressed in the impression. Normally a messy and indefinite process in terms of its final product, Warhol’s silkcreening typically produces blotches of too much or too little shading where ink has run through the image reproduced on the screen placed on canvas. Yet here we witness certain intricacies that are rare in Warhol’s ouerve: at the far left, we can see the exact structure of the lower gun’s barrel, each dimple below it in perfect form. In addition, the gorgeous shading on each trigger makes for a delicate and fascination impression, where each piece of metal appears translucent. Warhol succeeds in creating one of his most photorealistic works, where the impression of acrylic appears more like the skilled focus of a lens. Finally, Warhol’s chromatic choice makes the present lot’s subjects all the more stark and terrifying in their neutrality. They sit upon the canvas without the benefit of color, which was otherwise commonplace in Warhol’s contemporaneous silkcreens. Only black, white, and shades of grey give the pistols a steely determination, as if they are unaffected by the protests of pleading victims or hesitations of the shooter’s moral conscience. Warhol’s doubling of an image is hardly new in 1981. It dates to at least his Double Elvis, 1963, in which Elvis Presley (coincidentally holding a cocked pistol) does his best to look intimidating to an opponent. This piece, and Gun, 1981-1982 as well, represents a recurring trope in Warhol’s career, that of an image’s repetition upon a canvas. But while simply silkscreening many images upon one canvas can be a comment on the ubiquitousness of an popular image, both Elvis and Gun function differently, for they seem as though they are one image split into two, two separate halves of the same iconic soul. Rather than represent the media-based replication of an icon, these fractured images do something different: they come to be an apt metaphor for societal prism, one where we see ourselves reflected in the power of the iconic image. As “the artist engaged in great formal play with these paintings, using multiple imagery in various configurations (recalling both his comments on the ubiquitousness of death in the media and the loss of power of a gruesome image seen again and again),” Warhol incites terror within us through conjuring his own. (M. King, “Popular Photography”, from Andy Warhol Photography, New York, 1999, p. 47). It may even be permissible to assume that, though he never let on to the full realities of his own concerns, Warhol had a deep social conscious. He presents his subjects with a detached hand, allowing the image to speak for itself: “Silent and disturbing, they are presented devoid of the sacrificed body,each of them an active tomb or sarcophagus of modernity exalting the triumph of death through a social instrument and technology.”(G. Celant, Superwarhol, New York, 2003, p. 7). As one of the most prominent and uncompromising aesthetes in contemporary art, Warhol’s antidote to the violence of the gun in human hands is to present it without a hand, to aestheticize the object itself, and detach it from its deadly use. But apart from any kind of prescriptive agenda, Gun, 1981-1982 is a quintessential example of Warhol as a brilliant and perhaps clairvoyant social observer. Warhol’s choice to silkscreen the present lot at the turn of the 1980s foreshadows the decade to come: in a sense, Warhol was accurately predicting the decadence and rising crime rates of the 1980s, but he was also identifying the more sinister themes in the American consciousness. While he chose to remain removed from the content of his silkscreens and from social criticism of the greed and violence in American culture, espousing only aesthetic appreciation for the images he created, Warhol is nevertheless impressive with his choice of content and manner of portrayal. Yet, for all of the negative aspects and associations of the present lot, Gun, 1981-1982, also manages to hearken back to one of Warhol’s favorite periods in American history. A fervent fan of the golden age of Hollywood, Warhol created a silkscreen of James Cagney facing a machine gun in 1964, which perfectly encapsulates the glamorous glorification of firearms by cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. The fact that Hollywood closely associated some of its biggest stars with crime, violence, and the pistol, made the gun a glitzy piece of masculine jewelry on the silver screen, paving the way for the film stars to increase their sophistication exponentially by holding a loaded revolver. Perhaps it is the fascinating conflict of associations that we have with the revolver that makes it such a ripe topic for Warhol in his art. After all, Warhol’s choice of subject is his most important step in creating a great painting. He manages to be infinitely suggestive yet only vaguely definitive. In exploring Warhol’s unique choices of content, let us examine the present lot and a similar painting by Roy Lichtenstein, Trigger Finger, 1963. In comparing the two paintings, what does Pop achieve through replicating one of society’s most conflicted images, simultaneously a representation of the deaths of millions and an eloquent symbol of power? Looking at Trigger Finger, 1963, Lichtenstein’s painting highlights the human power of the executioner: an unseen figure’s finger rests tightly on the revolver’s trigger. With little more effort, the unseen agent of death will complete his murderous mission. Here, Lichtenstein’s painting is a mystery novel: Who is the executioner? Who is the executed? Will the murder actually take place? Lichtenstein cues us in to the many circumstances surrounding the painting. In other words, he concerns us with the larger picture. Warhol, on the other hand deletes the entirety of human influence. The canvas bears the images of only two inanimate objects, perfectly harmless when spared the human element. In painting only guns and not their employers, Warhol celebrates the glory of the objects themselves as opposed to the human drama inherent in Trigger Finger, 1963. This is Warhol’s signature artistic emphasis: there is no interpretation to be had in the past or future of the object. The power of the image is in its face value, where it rests for the moment, apart from any mischief that it may have or might yet incur in the future. As he grew older and his health declined from the deteriorating effects of his assassination attempt, Warhol entered a lengthy period of artistic and personal self-reflection. The present lot, from the latter part half of Warhol’s career, conjures impressions of his early work. In that period from the early to mid 1960s, we find a thematic unity in his dark undertones: Marilyn Monroe, car crashes, knives and many other subjects of Warhol’s work all demonstrate his tendency towards tragedy. Warhol’s choice to return to these subjects in his later career echo the lasting power of the violent image, for, in the end, tragic images stick in the American consciousness far more than those associated with thoughtless bliss. Their power is haunting, and their proclivity for staying with us makes tragic images all the more suitable for immortalization in an artistic form. But Gun, 1981-1982, is more than just a continuation of Warhol’s morbid subject matter after a thirteen-year hiatus; it is a form of therapy, where Warhol chooses to revisit the demons of his past in order to cope with their lasting physical and psychological scars.With any observer, as with Warhol himself, when he is confronted with images of dreadful weight, the pictures bequeath the viewer with a deeply emotional and reflective catharsis in observation—the gun functions much in the same way that a portrait of the electric chair does: it simultaneously frightens us, warns us, and teaches us to avoid encountering it. For Warhol, voluntarily reencountering the gun that nearly took his life was one way to battle his demons in his art.