Andy Warhol's pictures often present the viewer with a paradox, appearing deliberately cool and objective while concealing levels of meaning that are revealed only upon closer scrutiny. Nowhere is this more true than in Gun, executed in 1981-1982. This large picture shows nearly fetishised image of a revolver, which dominates the expanse of the surface. It is sleek and shiny, presented as a desirable consumer object, implying that Warhol has joined in the adulation of this product of industry and technology. The very process by which Gun has been created, through the transferral of a photographic source to silkscreen, illustrates Warhol's participation in a similar industrial process. This is an artform that is perfectly suited to the era of factories and capitalism; yet the cool, objective distance that Warhol maintained in creating Gun is itself ironic. Warhol appears here to engage in the entire visual language of weaponry, of the gun as a status symbol, as a tool that begets violence; which is all the more pertinent because Warhol, whose pictures often touched upon the subject of death, had deeply personal associations with guns.
Death and violence were recurring themes in Warhol's works, be it in images of dead or dying actresses, the electric chair or Elvis drawing his gun. Warhol's series of Gun paintings was created at the same time that he was also making pictures of knives. While the slick presentation of Gun implies a certain ambivalence and detachment on the part of the artist, he himself had been the victim of a shooting, as had his pictures. For, in an almost comic episode that curiously prefigured the later attempt on his life, four of Warhol's Marilyn pictures had been shot by a fellow artist, Dorothy Podber. A friend of Billy Name's, she had been in the Factory in 1964 and had seen these pictures stacked against a wall. She asked Warhol if she could shoot them; not taking her seriously, he agreed and was surprised to see her remove a gun from her handbag and take a shot that passed through the canvases. Initially, Warhol was shocked, though he subsequently renamed each picture, resulting in the so-called Shot Marilyns. Discussing Warhol's reaction, Ondine commented that
Andy really was playing with a loaded pistol in everything he did, but every time I saw him witness real violence he was completely surprised. He didn't expect violence on other people's parts and violence shocked him. He wasn't aware of it. He didn't have street smarts (Ondine, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 201).
This lack of anticipation of violence in others reached a tragic new level when, in 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. A feminist writer whose works included the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM was an acronym for "Society for Cutting Up Men"), Solanas hovered on the fringes of Warhol's Factory crowd, even appearing in one of his films. On June 3, 1968, she appeared at the Factory and, when Warhol appeared, shot at him and at his friends, also hitting Mario Amaya. Warhol himself gave an account:
... as I was putting the phone down, I heard a loud exploding noise and whirled around: I saw Valerie pointing a gun at me and I realized she'd just fired it. I said "No! No, Valerie! Don't do it!" and she shot at me again. I dropped down to the floor as if I'd been hit I didn't know if I actually was or not. I tried to crawl under the desk. She moved in closer, fired again, and then I felt horrible, horrible pain, like a cherry bomb exploding inside me (A. Warhol, quoted in A. Warhol & P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando, 1980, p. 343).
Warhol never fully recovered his health and bore extensive scars from the shooting and subsequent drastic surgery for the rest of his life. Therefore he was in a special, qualified position to understand the devastation that a gun can wreak. The seemingly inscrutable Gun therefore shows a subject that had incredibly profound associations for the artist. Victor Bockris, in his book The Life & Death of Andy Warhol, states that the gun used in this picture and its sister-works was the "the same snub-nosed .32 that Valerie Solanas had shot him with" (V. Bockris, Ibid., 1989, p. 453). Gun is thus filled with the artist's poignantly acute awareness of the weapon's latent potential for destruction.
Warhol would continue to be fascinated by guns for the duration of his life. He was photographed in 1975 playing with Mick Jagger's gun when the singer had rented his Montauk estate for the summer. Yet while that episode and indeed the almost glamorous appearance of Gun appears to show some aesthetic appreciation of the weapon, Warhol himself was at pains to distance himself from the perceived glamour of violence:
Some people, even intelligent people, say that violence can be beautiful. I can't understand that, because beautiful is some moments, and for me those moments are never violent (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 58).