Andy Warhol was a sucker for a good logo, and they do not come much better than the Communist emblem, the hammer and sickle. When he was visiting Italy during the 1970s, he noticed that much of the graffiti included the hammer and sickle, just as the image of Che Guevara can still be found on walls near most Italian universities and in the doors of the bars and cafés nearby. Warhol realized that the hammer and sickle, especially littered about the Italian urban landscape, had become a Pop image all on its own, and so he decided to adopt it for himself.
This solution adds a strange sense of directness and indirectness to Hammer and Sickle. The source is clearly photographic, and indeed the composition of the two key elements does not particularly recall the Communist logo -- they appear to have been placed almost upside-down in relation to the symbol in the Soviet flag. The components have been deliberately placed crossing each other, but posed against a wall, with harsh shadows adding to the dynamic criss-crossing of dark and red against the stark, pale background. The fact that this work is so emphatically figurative, showing the posed tools, provides a witty puncturing of the Communist regime, especially at the time of execution when the Cold War was still a daily reality. The logo has become rooted in a strange realism, simultaneously ultra- and anti-Socialist. It is a subverted, even artistic variant of the Communist symbol, and to some degree the fact that these tools, these utensils so reminiscent of manual labor have been purchased merely to be the component parts of a still life picture by a hyper-Capitalist, super-consumer artist furthers this deflation of the gravitas of the workers' way.
Warhol takes this deflation ever further -- this Communist symbol has become the theme, as Mao had a few years earlier, for a luxury item, a painting by one of the world's most recognised artists. Suddenly, on the walls of the homes of art patrons, magnates, tycoons and industrialists, all of whom would have been considered the taboo exploiters of the masses by most Communist regimes, the hammer and sickle could appear in safety, without denunciation or suspicion, with impunity and a good dose of irony. This was a minor example of the relentless victory of Capitalism -- the world of commerce has taken the apparatus of its adversary, absorbed it and turned it against itself.
One wonders whether his own family's Eastern European roots perhaps made Warhol, who was usually notorious for avoiding politics, more sensitive to the subject of Communism. Thinking of his distant cousins laboring under such a regime, would he revel in debasing the Communist symbol featured on flags fluttering over the buildings of so many Eastern European cities at that time? Possibly not: one can well understand his fascination with Communism (made evident in his repeated pronouncements of wonderment at the way of things in China especially) in other terms. After all, the production-line was something that had long obsessed Warhol, who repeatedly declared that he wanted to be a machine. What is more machine-like than the cliché of the Communist worker, the Communist factory? Hammer and Sickle itself is a product of Warhol's own Factory, of his own culture of manufacture. To some degree, Warhol and Communism used similar tools, albeit to extremely different ends. Warhol felt that the way of life in the United States, where presidents and poor people alike could drink Coke, was already a form of Communism Lite: "The idea of America is so wonderful because the more equal something is, the more American it is" (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 54).
Warhol was always interested in symbols, in the mechanics of our visual culture in an age of movies, media and advertising. The hammer and sickle essentially functioned in Communist states as ads in a society devoid of advertising. So, too, the image of Mao fascinated Warhol because, in China, it was everywhere. It had an endemic nature that advertising could hardly approach, to which McDonalds and Coca-Cola could hardly even aspire. Warhol's works show him as constantly exploring the way in which such symbols are made and interpreted: in taking two simple objects from a nearby shop and placing them close together, Warhol has enacted a strange alchemy, prompting interpretation. Yet to some degree, this is merely an image of two objects, a still life. Even the configuration of the original Communist symbol is deliberately disrupted. In a further exploration of the potency of symbols, one cannot help but wonder whether this still life might not, like so many of Warhol's pictures, also double as a form of modern vanitas, a memento mori, with the sickle doubling for a scythe. After all, Communism in the age of the Bomb remained a very real threat, a very credible nemesis.
There is a further twist to the ontological game that Warhol plays with his representation of a real hammer and sickle standing in for the generic archetypal symbol: despite its distinctly figurative nature, it deliberately echoes the abstract visual language of Russian Constructivism. The dynamic red and black forms of the tools and their shadows are engaged in a swirling interplay that is made all the more dramatic by the deliberately bold and flattened color, the limited palette. Is Warhol absorbing the visual language of the Constructivists, so apt in presenting the symbol of their nation, or is he undermining a serious and respected movement in the history of art, sullying their pure concept of art with the most mundane figurative content? As is ever the case with Warhol, the only answer... is ambiguity.