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Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Hammer and Sickle
signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1976'; signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1976' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
15 ¼ x 19in. (38.8 x 48.2cm.)
Painted in 1976
Private Collection.
Gagosian Gallery, London.
Private Collection.
Ben Brown Fine Arts, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
N. Printz and S. King-Nero (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne: Paintings 1976-1978, vol. 5A, New York 2018, p. 152, no. 3583 (illustrated in colour, p. 142).
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol, 1990-1991, p. 70, no. 54 (illustrated in colour, p. 32).
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Andy Warhol and His World, 2000, p. 85, no. 32 (illustrated in colour, p. 63).
New York, Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Andy Warhol: Skulls and Hammer & Sickles, 2006.

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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

A striking example of an enigmatic and powerful series, Hammer and Sickle (1976) sees Andy Warhol bringing his razor-sharp Pop sensibility to bear upon one of the most charged symbols of his time. In a virtuoso combination of silkscreen and painterly techniques, he depicts a hammer and sickle – not as the flat, graphic icon of the Soviet Union, but as a still life of two objects. Deploying the heightened brushwork of the latter decades of his practice, he washes a Prussian blue base layer in bright titanium white for the background; the hammer and sickle are outlined in cadmium red light, and the bold, graphic shadow they cast is painted with a pinkish aura of naphthol crimson. The tools – based on a photo taken by his assistant Ronnie Cutrone – are flipped relative to their usual orientation in the Communist motif, and their compound form is disrupted by their vivid shadow, which casts the structure of the picture into near-abstraction. Warhol once claimed that the Hammer and Sickle series was sparked by a trip to Italy where he was asked if he himself was Communist, due to the images of Chinese leader Chairman Mao that he had made in 1972; another story says that the ubiquitous hammer-and-sickle graffiti he saw daubed on walls on the same trip alerted him to its strength as a Pop logo. Whatever their precise origin, the Hammer and Sickle works, which Warhol began making in 1975 alongside his iconic Skull cycle of still-lifes, went on to form one of the important series of his 1970s practice. Warhol’s focus at this time on photographs composed in his studio as source imagery led to an ever-greater emphasis on dramatic composition and colour in his work, which would culminate in the magnificent abstract Shadows of 1978-79. Hammer and Sickle is an outstanding display of this new formal sensitivity, as well as of Warhol’s typically intelligent destabilising of symbolic meaning.

For all his much-documented interest in the depthless ‘surface’ of things – even his own blank persona reflected the mechanical flatness of his endlessly reproducible silkscreens – Warhol was also alive to the possibilities of three dimensions. His use of real objects in Hammer and Sickle allows him to deconstruct the flat elements of the Communist symbol, reconstituting them as an ambiguous still life. Remembering the genesis of the series, Cutrone says Warhol asked him to find a ‘three-dimensional’ example of the hammer and sickle on his return from Italy. ‘Well, for a couple of weeks – three weeks, actually – I was going to all the Communist stores in New York trying to find something that was three-dimensional, and there just wasn’t anything’, Cutrone recalls. ‘Most of the symbols I found were just flat. So, we decided to use the real objects. So, I went to a hardware store, a number of them, and picked out the best hammers and sickles I could find and brought them back and shot them with three or four rolls of film, all different ways, using different lighting’ (R. Cutrone, quoted in P. S. Smith, Andy Warhol’s Art and Films, Ann Arbor 1986, pp. 278-79). The ‘three-dimensional’ version of the symbol that resulted – Warhol would use seventeen different photographs as a basis for the silkscreens – opens up a diversity of new readings. Created at a time when the Cold War was ongoing and the Bomb a very real threat, the hammer and sickle’s weighty appearance as potential weapons might lend them an edge of physical menace. At the same time, they display a bathetic mundanity when unmoored from the symbol and exposed as everyday objects in themselves; ironically, of course, this particular hammer and sickle purchased from a New York hardware store function as consumer goods in a Capitalist system (part of the ‘CHAMPION’ logo stamped on the sickle’s handle can be glimpsed in the present work). With its sharp, dynamic red, black and white shapes, Hammer and Sickle could also be said to wryly echo the abstract visual language of Russian Constructivism, which posited art as a social force in service of the Revolution during the early twentieth century.

Surely Warhol’s most cutting irony, however, lies in the fact that his own artworks by this time were extremely valuable commodities. He knew that when works from the Hammer and Sickle series were sold, a version of the Communist symbol would end up adorning the walls of wealthy American collectors and institutions. As a Warhol artwork, this visual taboo would become a status symbol and luxury item: perhaps the ultimate image of Capitalism consuming and transforming the apparatus of its adversary. In the world of commerce, Warhol saw a kind of utopia. To some degree, he used similar tools to the Communist regime, albeit to extremely different ends; Hammer and Sickle, after all, is itself is a product of Warhol’s Factory, of his own culture of mass manufacture. Warhol felt that the way of life in the United States, where presidents and poor people alike could drink Coca Cola, 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). Folding these ambiguities into a rich and multivalent image, Hammer and Sickle stands as a potent icon of Warhol’s complex vision of the world.

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