During the 1980s, Andy Warhol entered into a period of self-reflection that resulted in a critical re-engagement with the most celebrated works of his career, in which he seemed to awaken from the celebrity-filled bacchanal of the 1970s, to reassert his role as one of the greatest artists of the post-war period. In his monumentally-scaled Gun of 1981-1982, Warhol returns to the sinister overtones of his seminal Death and Disaster series of the 1960s, in which he merges graphically violent imagery within the coolly-mechanized austerity of his signature silkscreen style. His Gun of 1981-1982 stands at the intersection of aesthetics and violence that dominated the Death and Disaster series; works that are nevertheless strikingly beautiful to behold, in their haunting complexity and brilliance. In Gun, Warhol has cleverly intertwined two Hi-Standard Sentinel handguns, rendered in stark black silkscreen ink with obsessive, minute detail and enlarged to dominance that looms powerfully over the viewer. The gravitas of Gun is heightened considering the type of weapon that he depicts—the same type of gun that was used by Valerie Solanas in her assassination attempt that very nearly claimed his life. As an artist already obsessed with his own accidental death, Warhol never really recovered from the events of June 3, 1968, and the physical and emotional scars of that day plagued him from that point onward. Silkscreened twice, Warhol’s Gun is meticulously-detailed in a starkly-elegant monochrome palette, whose very creation must have been a cathartic gesture for the artist.
Executed across a vast canvas that stretches larger than life-size, Warhol’s Gun looms over the viewer, hovering in a way that the memory of Solanas’ shooting must have hovered in Warhol’s own mind. The visual stridency of the painting’s large-scale is emphasized by the overall crispness of the screening and its perfect execution, which lends a palpable sense of ironic elegance to the image that is undeniably contemporary. The starkness of its limited palette of black silkscreen ink upon a vast background of pure, white acrylic conveys a sublime elegance that recalls his best paintings of the 60s. Though each handgun is presented from a side-angle perspective, Warhol has tilted each one ever so slightly to present a ¾ view, which allows the viewer to peer into the gun’s barrel, a slightly-skewed perspective that draws attention into its empty (or not empty) barrel.
At this point in his career, Warhol was experimenting with photographic reversals, and in Gun, there is a translucency of image that recalls a photographic reversal, especially when looking discernibly at each pistol’s trigger. By overlaying two separate screens atop each other, Warhol plays with the central image, disrupting its legibility to lend a hazy, dreamlike quality to the piece. This complex sense of “double-vision” reads like a blurred film still, and may recall Warhol’s earlier homage to film noir in his 1962 paintings of James Cagney, who sports two handguns against a machine-gun toting rival. Certainly, the gun itself harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and the melodrama of film noir, but the visual doubling that Warhol employs also refers the his Elvis series, especially the Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] of 1963 in which Warhol screened Elvis three separate times. Like a hallucination or hazy memory, the doubled-gun of Warhol’s painting seems to pulse with a palpable sense of memory, like a doubled-image one might see upon waking from a blacked-out state.
In this way, Warhol’s Gun might be interpreted as a repressed vision, a flashback of a painful memory that has lingered over years of time gone by. Like any traumatic event, Warhol did not fully consciously recall the exact details of Solanas› crime. In one remark, he described the scene as such: “…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.” (Andy Warhol, quoted in A. Warhol and P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando, 1980, p. 343). He later described the event more eloquently, relating it to a dream, which speaks more to the nature of memory itself: “When you hurt another person, you never know how much it pains. Since I was shot, everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know what anything is about. Like, I don’t know whether I’m alive or whether I died. I wasn’t afraid before. And having been dead once, I shouldn’t feel fear. But I am afraid. I don’t understand why” (A. Warhol, quoted in1968; accessible via http://www.warhol.org/).
Though Warhol’s canvas appears straightforward, by overlaying two separate screens together on top of each other, the guns harken from Warhol’s own dreams and recollections of that terrible event nearly two decades earlier. Incredibly—and perhaps not coincidentally—a diary entry from this period describes a death threat that Warhol received on May 4, 1981, which prompted a new wave of paranoia that is palpably felt through the magnitude and power of the painting. By the following day, a hired-guard was stationed at Warhol’s studio and he had purchased several props and wigs to disguise himself.
During the last decade of his life, Warhol produced a series of paintings that were some of the most fascinating and portentous works of his entire career. The contemporaneous paintings from this period read like a catalogue of the fraught emblems that defined the American landscape of the 1980s: knives and guns, dollar signs and crosses. Vincent Fremont has recalled: “The Guns and Knives paintings from 1981-1982 are stark reminders of the violent society we lived in then and now. Having nearly been killed by a handgun Andy was able to make paintings of guns as iconic objects” (V. Fremont, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, New York, 2006, p.157). The imminent art historian Robert Rosenblum elaborated upon this topic, especially the “American-ness” of the gun, which has become a hotly-debated political topic in recent years: “While creating an inventory of American superstars and supermarket favorites, (Warhol) also compiled an anthology of the American way of death, from car crashes and race riots to the electric chair itself. … And it turned out, too, that the most commonplace instruments of death, guns and knives...would eventually turn up in Warhol’s art as isolated objects, as iconic in their spaceless environments as the famous Campbell’s soup can that launched his international fame” (R. Rosenblum, Andy Warhol, Knives: Paintings, Polaroids and Drawings, Salon Verlag, Cologne, 1998).
After he was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, Warhol suffered physical and emotional scarring that lasted the duration of his life. Oddly enough, most of the violent imagery that had composed his best work of the 1960s - car crashes, suicides, electric chairs, nuclear holocaust—vanished from his paintings after he was shot. As the 1980s dawned, Warhol returned to those subjects that he had avoided for nearly a decade. Calvin Tomkins once described Warhol as “a rather terrifying oracle” who, in the 1960s, “made visible what was happening in some part to us all” (C. Tomkins, “Raggedy Andy,” Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1970, p. 10). Indeed, Warhol’s Gun is as resonant today—if not more—than when Warhol rendered its likeness over thirty years ago.