Audio: Andy Warhol, Hammer & Sickle
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
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Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Hammer & Sickle

Details
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Hammer & Sickle
stamped three times with the Estate of Andy Warhol and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts stamps and numbered 'PA25.043' (on the overlap)
synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas
72 x 80 in. (182.8 x 203.2 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
Provenance
Estate of the Artist
C&M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exhibited
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Hammer and Sickle, June 1999, no. 17 (illustrated in color).
New York, C&M Arts, Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, October-December 2002, no. 33 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

With a strong sense of irony, Andy Warhol's Hammer & Sickle presents two ubiquitous farm tools that over the course of the twentieth century came to represent one of the most fearsome ideologies in history. The humble hammer and sickle, longtime symbol of the Communist Party, had been instilling fear in the West ever since its adoption by Russian Communists in 1917 and had come to symbolize the oppressive and tyrannical excesses of countless governments across the world. That the modest tools of the worker had grown to represent the mighty forces of the Eastern Bloc intrigued Warhol, who understood the power images had in society and used his astute eye to investigate and deconstruct the meaning of these iconic symbols. Part of a series of drawings and paintings exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1977, Warhol's series of Hammer & Sickle paintings are among his most important artistic statements of the 1970s. At a time when he was busy painting portraits of the rich and famous, how 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 communist paranoia.

The most striking compositional aspect of Hammer & Sickle is Warhol's dismantling of the implements from their triumphal raised positions on the Soviet Flag to their more innocuous origins. Here they appear at rest, propped up against a wall and separated from their symbolic entanglement, looking as if they have just been discarded by their languid owner. The color palette, too, is far removed from the ominous communist red of its predecessors as Warhol executes the symbols first in a layer of pinkish red, followed by a thinner, more diaphanous layer of black. The featureless, sponge-mopped background field--a technique repeated from Skulls from the same year-- emphasizes the object-like qualities of tangible hammer and sickle, as well as their unwieldy strangeness when related together in this way. Much as the manipulated stacks of soup cans and bottles in his series of Campbell's Soup and Coca-Cola paintings begin to deconstruct and otherwise wear down the clear boundaries of a distinct commercial identity, to Warhol, the evacuated emblem of the hammer and sickle was an enticing, if antithetical, sign that also benefited strangely from material manipulation.

Warhol's then-assistant Ronnie Cutrone described the inspiration for Hammer and Sickle that came to Warhol while the artist was touring Italy. His glamorized portraits of black and Hispanic transvestites from the series Ladies and Gentlemen, 1975 had recently debuted at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrera, where they were acclaimed by the Italian radical left as an exposé of American capitalism's inherent racism. Although Warhol's imagery in this case had no particular social advocacy aim, he was charmed by the question of political affiliation consequently raised by the Italian press. After returning to New York, Warhol sent Cutrone to track down printed representations of the Soviet emblem. Yet the limited stock of iconography Cutrone collected was, almost paradoxically, too flat for Warhol's liking. So to flesh out the party symbolism, its referents--a hammer (of the industrial laborer) and sickle (of the peasant)--were acquired from a Canal Street hardware store and arranged 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 & 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. A prolific manufacturer of iconic images in his own right (with the muscle of mass-reproduction techniques), 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. In works as diverse in subject matter as his soup can paintings, Liz, 1963, and Birmingham Race Riot, 1964, Warhol unceasingly probed the superficial layers of readymade imagery--and in so doing, unraveled content through the condition of its less than pristine packaging. Yet in many respects, Warhol's Hammer & Sickle series subverts this working method, 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.

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 & Sickle was also prescient precisely for its direct presentation of Soviet anachronism, which 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 & Sickle has only grown richer with the passage of time and the complete disbanding of Cold War enterprise.
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