Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Hammer and Sickle

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Hammer and Sickle
signed three times, inscribed and dated 'to Carlo Bilotti Andy Warhol 1976' (on the overlap)
synthetic polymer, silkscreen inks and acrylic on canvas
72¼ x 86¼ in. (183.6 x 220 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Carlo Bilotti, Rome
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 22 February 1986, lot 105
Vivan Horan Fine Art, New York
Private collection, Zurich
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 November 2007, lot 37
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
S. Morgan, "Andy & Andy, The Warhol Twins: A Theme and Variations," PARKETT, vol. 12 (Collaboration Andy Warhol), 1987, p. 55 (illustrated).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Andy Warhol Series and Singles, September-December 2000, pp. 164 and 198, no. 86 (illustrated in color).

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Robert Manley
Robert Manley

Lot Essay

Andy Warhol experienced European popular culture as a diplomatic celebrity of American Pop Art at the Cold War's height, which decisively influenced this Hammer and Sickle. With strong irony, it depicts two ordinary yet symbolic objects of Communism. Part of a series of drawings and paintings exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1977, Warhol's series of Hammer and Sickle paintings were his most important artistic statement of the late 1970s. At a time when he was busy painting portraits of the rich and famous, how perverse and provocative he must have felt dedicating a new series to the symbol of the Soviet Union and worldwide socialism, at the very height of the Cold War and anti-communist paranoia.

Warhol inverts the implements from their triumphal, raised positions on the Soviet Flag, the most striking compositional aspect of the stylistically minimal Hammer and Sickle. Here they appear at rest, crossing at an arbitrary angle, which lacks both geometric vigor and menace. He repeated a technique from Skulls, from the same year: a featureless, sponge-mopped background field. This emphasizes the object-like qualities of a tangible hammer and sickle, as well as their unwieldy strangeness when related together in three dimensions. The evacuated emblem of the hammer and sickle enticed Warhol, as he captured them in alternative constellations across the Hammer and Sickle series, here screenprinting them from a photographic source. It was a sign that benefited strangely from material manipulation, much like the manipulated stacks of soup cans and bottles in his series of Campbell's and Coca-Cola paintings, to which it was ideologically antithetical. The antiquated instruments show no evidence of use, in contrast to their counterpart consumable products. In all of these works, Warhol deconstructed and otherwise wore down the clear boundaries of a distinct commercial identity.

Hammer and Sickle's color palette remains true to the Communist cause, unlike Warhol's iconic acid portraits of Mao (1972). Swathes of dark and red delineate the shadows cast by the store-bought tools under bright studio lights. These strong fields of color imply substance but are not substantial in their own right, achieving a balance between the abstract and the representational that the shallow Soviet graphic reduces entirely. The hammer and sickle had long since transmuted into pure sign, like Chairman Mao's visage omnipresent throughout the People's Republic of China, as much a powerful imprint of state oppression as a hastily appropriated mark of graffiti.
Warhol's then-assistant Ronnie Cutrone described the inspiration for Hammer and Sickle while the artist was touring Italy. Warhol had recently debuted his glamorized portraits of Black and Hispanic transvestites from the series Ladies and Gentlemen (1975) at the Palazzo dei Diamente in Ferrera, where the Italian radical left acclaimed them as an expos of American capitalism's inherent racism. Although Warhol wasn't particularly socially advocating anything in this case, the question of political affiliation consequently raised by the Italian press charmed him; the neorealist film director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini had also reviewed Ladies and Gentlemen favorably. An open tolerance for socialist ideas existed In Italy as well as in Paris, as it did nowhere in America, and by the mid-1970s the hammer and sickle had become a rather common feature of street graffiti in bohemian city districts. Warhol took note of this phenomenon while walking through Naples with Lucio Amelio (his Neapolitan art dealer), when the reception of Ladies and Gentlemen was still fresh.

After returning to New York, Warhol sent Cutrone to track down printed representations of the Soviet emblem, which Cutrone found in largest quantity buried in left-leaning bookshops, often under the surveillance of trench-coat-wearing U.S. Government operatives. Yet the limited stock of iconography Cutrone collected was, almost paradoxically, too flat for Warhol's liking. So to flesh out the party symbolism, Warhol acquired its referents - a hammer (of the industrial laborer) and sickle (of the peasant) - from a Canal Street hardware store and arranged them into a "political still life" against a white backdrop in The Factory. Cutrone recalled the incongruence of Warhol eating McDonald's in the morning and painting Hammer and Sickle in the afternoon.

As the king of American Pop art, Warhol had inherited his Modernist forebears' gross obsession with surface - but did not limit himself to the two-dimensional plane defined by the painting's canvas. He prolifically manufactured emblematic images in his own right (with the muscle of mass-reproduction techniques), and Warhol's persistent practice took measure of the variegated exterior surface of the news media, consumer culture, American celebrity, and even the construction of his own self-image. Warhol unceasingly probed the superficial layers of readymade imagery in works as diverse in subject matter as his soup can paintings, Liz (1963) and Birmingham Race Riot (1964) - and in so doing, unraveled content through the condition of its less than pristine packaging. Yet Warhol's Hammer and Sickle series subverts this working method in many respects, because of the ultra-abstraction and ideological "other" of its subject: Communism. The relatively late development of the work alludes to its function as an aerobic exercise of the hammer and sickle's iconographic potency, because Warhol - despite sometimes reproducing political images - maintained strictly apolitical views. The critic Arthur C. Danto commented on the singularity of Hammer and Sickle as conjured entirely from Warhol's own mind, despite his traditional instinct for culling ideas from a wide variety of sources and frequent collaborations with fellow artists. (A. C. Danto, Icons of America: Andy Warhol, New Haven, 2009).

Warhol's practiced postmodern probing of the Soviet hammer and sickle is remarkable for its utter lack of apprehension, as fearless and perhaps twisted an engagement with contemporary threats to Capitalism as his Atomic Bomb (1965). Hammer and Sickle was also prescient precisely for directly presenting the Soviet emblem as an inert anachronism, as the Soviet Union itself would soon succumb to the "commonism" of the market economy mass production that Warhol so adored. A significant and rare achievement within Warhol's vast oeuvre, Hammer and Sickle has only grown richer with the passage of time and the complete disbanding of the Cold War enterprise.

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