In the first days of May 1963, the long, burgeoning but also often unseen struggle for civil rights in the United States suddenly exploded into full public view. All at once, it seemed, stark and disturbing images of young American black men, women and children being assaulted by fire-hoses and police attack dogs on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, began appearing across the world's media engines when a peaceful organized mass protest against Southern segregation laws turned violent and ugly.
The result of these events, and of the shocking images they generated, was that almost overnight one of the great lies about America--the so-called "land of the free"--was made plain for all to see. Suddenly, the discomforting truth that, at the heart of the world's richest, most powerful and technologically advanced society--the self-proclaimed "leader of the free world"--lay an entire race of its own citizens who were themselves not free, but legally and violently oppressed by its rulers, was graphically and embarrassingly exposed.
The glaring injustice and moral hypocrisy, known to every black person then living in the United States but so often overlooked or ignored by others, was now visually manifesting itself day after day on the front pages of both the country's and the world's media in such a way that it could no longer be denied. "The events in Birmingham," President John F. Kennedy was to say in June 1963, "have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them" (quoted in David J Garrow, Birmingham Alabama, 1956-63: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, New York, 1989, p. 239). Not only did the violence in Birmingham ultimately force important changes in the law however, but it also seems to have marked a turning point in American history, inaugurating a new phase in the struggle for civil rights and galvanizing black youth across the whole of the American South to such an extent that it led directly to the historic march on Washington that took place three months later.
In addition, the stark and troubling images of racial division, protest and violent political conflict that poured out of Birmingham in May 1963 can also, in retrospect, be seen to be the first of a now all-too-familiar wave of similar imagery of 1960s America as a country divided and fighting against itself. From the Kennedy assassination that would occur in November '63 and the subsequent shootings of Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and even Andy Warhol himself, to the anti-Vietnam war protests, student sit-ins and other violent political clashes that came to dominate U.S. politics and media imagery throughout the rest of the decade, the pictures of the violence in Birmingham in May 1963 were in many ways the first of these new portraits of a changing America.
In particular, it was a series of photographs shot on May 3rd by a young Associated Press photographer, Charles Moore, that best encapsulated the moment and which most effectively caught the public imagination by doing exactly what Martin Luther King had wanted, and forcing anyone who saw them to take a side in the conflict. Moore's picture of young black children being blasted by the jet of a fire hose for example, was seen as a picture that appeared to implicate the entire nation. The cutting of the figure of the fireman firing the hose from view bestowed a disturbing anonymity upon the white line of force blasting these kids in a way that for many viewers seemed to implicate them in the violence. Similarly, Moore's image of a lone black man fleeing from two policeman setting their attack dogs him, is one that clearly divides the conflict into a simple case of victim and aggressor, forcing its audience to side with one or the other.
When on May 17th three of Moore's images of policemen with dogs attacking civil rights protesters on the 3rd of May were published in Life magazine, they caused a national outcry that reverberated all the way to the Senate. The historian and one-time adviser to President John F Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., said later of them that they had "transformed the national mood and made legislation not just necessary, but possible" (A. Schlesinger Jr., quoted in S. O'Hagan, "Charles Moore Obituary," The Guardian, 24 March, 2010). President Kennedy too recognized the extraordinary power of such images arguing that the dramatic events in Birmingham had been "so much more eloquently reported by the news camera than by any number of explanatory words" (Pres. J. F. Kennedy, quoted in Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr, University of Georgia, 1987, p. 138). While Malcolm X argued that the President had only stepped in to quell the trouble and promise legislative change under the pressure that such images had brought about upon him. The President, "did not send troops to Alabama when dogs were biting black babies," he said. "He waited three weeks until the situation exploded. He urged a change not because it is right but because the world is watching this country" (Malcolm X quoted in M S. Handler, "Malcolm X Scores Kennedy on Racial Policy: Says He Is 'Wrong Because His Motivation Is Wrong': Head of Black Muslim Group Cites Birmingham Crisis," New York Times, 17 May 1963).
The photographs that Charles Moore took on the 3rd May 1963 encapsulate all these aspects of this unique moment in United States history in a way that serves almost as a modern kind of history painting. All this discussion about the power of such imagery would have intrigued Andy Warhol who, on seeing Moore's photographs in Life magazine immediately adopted them as the source for what would become his own Race Riot paintings of 1963 and '64. Like the story of Moore's photographs, Warhol's startling silkscreened paintings pose important questions about the nature and function of media imagery, about how we see and react to the news and how its images can also be used to provoke and manipulate us. How, also, the power of even the most shocking and provocative of "realist" imagery disintegrates under constant repetition or alternatively, how the same images can be employed, as in advertising, to manipulate an audience and even government policy into any given direction.
All of this is encapsulated in the story of the images that the Birmingham riots generated and was an aspect of these pictures that Warhol, with his long experience of the manipulation of imagery in the advertising industry, was all-too aware of. In fact, Warhol was one of the first artists to fully understand the power of the photographic image in this way. With his flat, empty, silkscreen way of painting and his sphinx-like pose of indifference, he was also among the first not to just question such imagery but also to reveal to us, in a new pictorial form, its innate and disturbing vacancy.
A unique red, white and blue, multiple-image painting of the Birmingham race riots of 1963, Race Riot is one of the comparatively rare group of only ten silkscreen paintings of this dramatic confrontation that Warhol made between 1963 and 1964. Comprising four square canvases--two red, one white and one blue--and each depicting the same repeated image of two Birmingham policemen setting their attack dogs on a lone, fleeing black man, Race Riot is the only multi-colored work belonging to this now historic series of paintings and at nearly six feet square is also the largest and most impressive of the series of six 1964 paintings.
Warhol's first four first Race Riot paintings (Pink Race Riot, Museum Ludwig Cologne, Mustard Race Riot, Museum Brandhorst, Munich and two other examples whose whereabouts are currently unknown) were made in direct response to the Life magazine spread in the spring of 1963 and employed all three of the Charles Moore photographs. These works, made as part of Warhol's preparation for an important exhibition in Paris on the theme of "Death in America" were ones that essentially continued the formal logic of Warhol's large Car-Crash paintings by representing Moore's three photographs repeatedly as a kind of disjunctive filmic montage of troubling and traumatic imagery.
Of all of the subjects in Warhol's vast and varied catalogue, it is the Race Riot paintings, with their manifest display of political violence and racial oppression that assert themselves as arguably the least ambiguous, one-sided and partisan images of Warhol's entire oeuvre. Repeatedly showing the image of a black man being savaged by the dogs of a group of white uniformed Southern policemen, this rare, yet unforgettable series of paintings was one that seemed to demonstrate the famously apolitical Warhol actively engaging in contemporary politics and making a rare, if not indeed unique, "liberal statement" with his art. Warhol, in making these works, it seemed to some, had now joined the many other artists, actors, musicians and public figures visibly stepping out in support of civil rights in the summer of 1963. When Warhol was asked for the reason he had chosen to paint such loaded, provocative and contentious imagery however, he responded with a shocking but also typically dismissive indifference, saying that the Life feature with Moore's much-talked about images were just something that had "caught my eye" (A. Warhol quoted in D. Bourdon, Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 154).
Begun almost immediately after Moore's photographs had appeared in Life magazine Warhol's first Race Riot paintings were first created as part of the general theme of "Death in America" that he was preparing for the exhibition to be held under the same title at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1964. Consisting of what are now known more accurately as his Death and Disaster paintings, this exhibition was to comprise of a number of large-scale works on the theme of various typically American ways to die. Foremost among these images were of course, Warhol's graphic and shocking images of car crashes. These were accompanied by a select group of paintings of suicides jumping from skyscrapers, gangster funerals, the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison and the Atom Bomb. The image of the Race Riot was, while not an image of death per se, a provocative and powerful image of an almost uniquely American form of violence, segregation and political oppression. It fitted well into the context of an exhibition in which Warhol deliberately intended to present a grittier film-noir-like portrait of America and the flip-side to the happy, optimistic pop-culture that he had previously made his name with.
Anxious about the reception of his art in Paris for what would prove to be his first-ever European one-man-show, Warhol feared an overly critical reaction to the seemingly overt celebration of mass-consumerism of his Soup Cans, Coca-Cola bottles, Celebrity-Portraits and Dollar-Bills. In choosing a series of works on the subject of Death in America, he hoped to court a favorable reaction from a French audience by presenting a series of works outlining the traumatic underside of America and the American Dream.
Warhol's choice of "death and disaster" subject matter was in part a continuation of a theme that had first surfaced while he was painting the Marilyns. For it was around this time that he first recognized how the constant repetition of imagery ultimately seems to nullify its shocking effect, even when using the most horrific of images. This was an element that Warhol was keen to both expose and explore. "When you see a gruesome picture over and over again" he said, "it doesn't really have any effect" (A. Warhol, 'Interview with Gene Swenson.' Art News, New York, November 1963 in Art in Theory 1900-1990, London, 1992. p.732.) Constant repetition deconstructs the meaning of an image and reveals its true artificial nature as merely a banal abstract surface.
The exploration of the desensitizing of the audience and the nullification of meaning through repeated imagery is ultimately what most distinguishes Warhol's Death and Disaster series. It is also primarily this feature of these still disturbing and justly famous works that lends them their troubling ambiguity. As with his Campbell Soup cans, the viewer is left in front of these powerful paintings wondering whether the artist is celebrating or criticizing his subject matter. No answer is given because, through the flat, impersonal anonymity of the silkscreen-painting technique, the artist's presence and authorship remains seemingly absent or indifferent.
In his Race Riot paintings Warhol was taking this feature of his work to an extreme, imbuing one of the most contentious, up-to-the minute and also divisive, subjects in 1960s American politics with the same ambiguity and sense of authorless indifference he bestowed on the Soup Can, Brillo Box or other consumer products. At the same time, however, these paintings again reveal Warhol's unerring, almost prophetic ability to select, isolate and transform a single image into a provocative and quizzical icon that stands as a symbol for an entire area of contemporary culture.