Cagney is a visually groundbreaking silkscreen work on paper that marks an important transition in Andy Warhol’s painting practice. Executed near the height of Warhol’s creative output, itis one of eight unique silkscreen variants and one of the first known examples of Warhol’s use of silkscreen on paper. Dated 1964, though possibly executed in 1963, the Cagney series signals a transition away from the portrait heads of 1962-1963 and into a deeper realm of full-figured celebrity subjects that incorporate an alluring duality of pop culture and violence.
Warhol himself told Rainer Crone and later Heiner Bastian that the source image for Cagney was derived from a publicity still for the 1931 film Public Enemy, in which actor Jimmy Cagney portrayed Al Capone. In fact, more recent scholarship has determined that Warhol’s source was a publicity image for Cagney’s 1938 film Angels with Dirty Faces, in which the actor plays tough man Rocky Sullivan. Whether it’s Al Capone or Rocky, the effect is the same. We see Cagney, the star and epitome of cool, with his back against the wall and his guns drawn. The menacing shadow of another gunman pointing a machine gun at Cagney looms on the wall. The tough man is cornered, but he won’t go out without a fight.
Cagney is one of the first paintings by Warhol to depict a male celebrity in full-figured character. Along with the silver Brando and Elvis paintings, which were executed contemporaneously with Cagney, this marks an important shift away from one-dimensional celebrity portraits, such as Marilyn and Troy, and towards the duality of character that inhabits Warhol’s best paintings. Cagney, like Brando and Elvis, is a potentially dangerous paramour. He is dressed suavely in a double-breasted suit and silk polka-dot tie, but he’s a violent man. There is a friction between violence and sex appeal here. The line is blurred between the ‘fact’ of the celebrity and the ‘fiction’ of their character. Once Warhol hit this note, he continued to play it for much of his career. Only a few months after the Cagney series, he took it even further by reducing the celebrity and focusing on the outright depiction of criminals themselves in his 1964 Most Wanted Men series. The celebrity aspect was altered, but the criminality and sex appeal remained.
Each of the eight unique Cagney works on paper were executed on 30 x 40 inch Strathmore sheets, and the embossed Strathmore emblem is visible in the lower left of this version. Warhol likely used the same silkscreen as used for his sole Cagney painting, a massive 204 x 79 inch (520 x 201 cm) work on canvas from 1963. In order to fit the large silkscreen image onto the smaller Strathmore sheets, Warhol focused his image on Cagney and left out much of the second gunman’s shadow. The cropping was effective, and Warhol was evidently pleased with the result. He almost immediately exhibited two of the Cagney works on paper at the Wadsworth Athenum in Hartford as part of Sam Wagstaff’s important January-February 1964 exhibition, Black, White and Grey: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture. Since then works from the Cagney series have been widely exhibited and collected by museums. This work was shown at four different museums throughout the 1970s and 80s, and was included in the important Warhol retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1978. Other unique Cagney works reside in the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and the Collection Froehlich, Stuttgart.
Like Warhol’s unique silkscreen paintings on canvas, the Cagney works on paper bear unique imperfections relating to the silkscreen process. This version of Cagney is perhaps the cleanest and least-marred silkscreen impression in existence. It bears none of the large white streaks that disrupt the image in other versions, such as the example owned by MoMA, New York, and the tonality of the ink is remarkably rich. Cagney’s shadow in particular is in stark contrast with his figure and the wall behind him, and the effect is particularly vivid.
Confusion as to the cataloguing of these works has persisted over the years, partly because of notations in Rainer Crone’s important 1970 Warhol catalogue. As the 2002 Warhol catalogue raisonné explains, “Crone never recorded the [Cagney and Bela Lugosi] paintings and cited most of the works on paper as prints, although each is unique. Crone’s information appears to have come from a misreading of the Castelli Gallery inventory.” [G. Frei and N. Printz, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 1, New York, 2002, p. 349.] Recent scholarship, including the Warhol catalogue raisonné project and Jacqueline Brody’s paper on the Cagney series, have helped dispel this notion. As Brody wrote, “When Frayda Feldman and Jörg Schellmann followed Crone with their expanded catalogue of the prints in 1985, Warhol told them that he considered any silkscreens on paper he printed himself, such as Cagney, to be ‘unique drawings’, and not prints.” J. Brody, “Andy Warhol’s Cagney Prints,” Print Quarterly, vol. 26, no 2, June 2009, pp. 142-153. This underscores the historical importance and special nature of the series, and in particular this work: while the series is itself rare, a work of this caliber and visual strength within the series is even rarer.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).