Andy Warhol's Statue of Liberty is a seminal work from the artist's most influential period and one of the most important paintings by the artist ever to come to market. The beguiling simplicity of its recurring image of New York's most famous landmark not only demonstrates Warhol's mastery of image making, but also belies a complex narrative of political and cultural meanings that encapsulated what it meant to be an American during one of the most challenging periods in the country's history. Striking and beautiful, yet at them same time, dark and complex, Statue of Liberty stands not only as a monument to Warhol's ability as an artist, but it also marks him as one of the most astute cultural commentators America has ever produced. For fifty years after Statue of Liberty was painted, the themes and issues Warhol touched upon with this work are as relevant and pertinent today as they were half a century ago.
The graceful figure of the Statue of Liberty was destined to become an iconic symbol of freedom ever since the idea was first conceived at a dinner party held in Paris in 1865 at the home of the prominent French political intellectual, Édouard de Laboulaye. A fierce critic of Napoleon III (who had recently declared himself Emperor of France), Laboulaye had a long standing animosity towards the French ruling elite and had looked to the United States as an example of the kind of democracy he yearned for. The recent Union victory in the American Civil War had reaffirmed the United States' ideals of freedom and democracy and prompted Laboulaye to argue that honoring the U.S. with the gift of a statue would not only be an act of friendship between the two countries but also strengthen the cause for democracy in his beloved France.
By the day of her official inauguration, the Statue of Liberty had become one of the most famous structures in the world. The New York Times described the mood on October 28, 1886 as thousands gathered in the city for the official ceremony, "All day yesterday people came to the city in droves to participate in to-day's [sic] celebration. Extra heavily loaded trains, much behind scheduled time, were the rule on every railroad entering the city. Every hotel was crowded to its utmost capacity last night, and there was hardly one of the better known hotels which did not have to turn away hundreds of would-be guests."
Despite the large amount of publicity surrounding the new Statue, it was ultimately a very specific group of people who sealed the Statue's iconic status around the world. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the statue, specifically chose Bedloe's Island in Manhattan harbor as the site for his statue so that it would be visible to the thousands of ships that used this busy stretch of water during a period of dramatic expansion in the development of America. For the millions of immigrants entering the United States the Statue became the first glimpse of their new home. Symbolized by the broken chains and shackles that lie at the Statue's feet, 'Liberty' stood as a symbol of the new world and the new life that awaited the millions of people who had come to the United States seeking peace, freedom and opportunity.
Andy Warhol's development as an artist was indelibly linked with New York ever since he arrived in the city in 1949. A new graduate of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he arrived in the city determined to pursue a career as a graphic artist. Like the millions of immigrants who had come to the city before him, Warhol saw New York as a place of opportunity where he could fulfill his dreams and he soon landed a job at Glamour magazine. His unique 'blotted line' technique and ability to condense complex concepts into visually arresting images found favor with the city's advertising executives and magazine editors and led to a stream of work as a commercial illustrator. But the proliferation of imagery that Warhol found in New York, harvested from the city's newspapers, magazines, billboards and TV screens, fired his imagination and led him to develop a unique visual language that managed to topple Abstract Expressionism as the city's dominant language of artistic expression.
Pop became Warhol's raison d'être. An insatiable consumer of popular culture, Warhol took the objects he saw around him and turned them into high art and from his earliest days as a professional artist he captured the explosion in modern American culture that would dominate the world. From bottles of Coca-Cola to images of Marilyn Monroe and from Green Shield Stamps to Elvis Presley, Warhol's astute scrutiny of contemporary life would itself soon become high art and represent a new beacon of American supremacy.
Painted in 1962, Statue of Liberty stands firmly as the launch pad for one of the artist's most important series--his Death and Disaster paintings. Warhol perceptively recognized that although accepted by millions as a symbol of hope, the Statue of Liberty also had a dark side as soon after their arrival many immigrants' dreams of a new home in America began to unravel before their very eyes. For those who managed to survive the often grueling journey, landing on American soil was no guarantee they would be permitted to remain and become citizens: many were sent home because of illness or previous criminal convictions. Indeed some chose death rather than being sent back and over the years several hundred people committed suicide at Ellis Island rather than being deported back to their country of origin.
Warhol had become increasingly fascinated by death and had gradually begun introducing examinations of mortality into his work beginning with his stark 1962 painting 129 Die in Jet (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) and continued with his portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. At first glance these seemingly innocuous paintings would appear to celebrate the glitz and glamor of Hollywood's elite but, as is often the case with Warhol, closer interrogation is rewarded with a much more subversive reading of these works. His magnificent Gold Marilyn Monroe (Museum of Modern Art, New York), depicting her entombed in a glowing halo of gold paint like a modern day religious icon, was produced immediately after the superstar was found dead from an overdose of barbituates. Later Warhol would admit that death was the underlying theme in much of his work from this time, "I guess it was the big plane crash picture," Warhol recalled of 1962, "the front page of the newspaper 129 DIE. I was also painting the Marilyns. I realized that everything I was doing must have been about Death" (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Frei and N. Printz, (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculpture 1961-1963, vol. 01, New York, 2002, p. 224).
Immediately after Statue of Liberty, Warhol would continue to explore this theme with his stark images of suicides, car crashes and other disaster paintings. His Car Crash paintings, like the present work, represent the duality of an iconic object in American culture. For many thousands of its citizens the automobile was the ultimate physical manifestation of the American dream. The dominance of the auto industry not only demonstrated the country's industrial might but the entire industry was also built on the idea that the car was the single object that embodied American notions of success and freedom. Just as his later Tunafish Disaster paintings became the dark side of his earlier renditions of Campbell's soup cans, his Suicide and Car Crash paintings become the embodiment of the American dream gone wrong.
The year 1962 was an unsettling time for United States and her Allies. It was the year which saw rising tensions between America and the Soviet Union resulting in the Cuban missile crisis. It also saw a sudden realization by the US government that the Vietnam War would not end quickly or necessarily in its favor, and the Cold War divisions of Europe were brutally demonstrated when East German border guards killed 18-year-old Peter Fechter as he attempted to flee to the West across the newly built Berlin Wall. Meanwhile at home, racial tensions were increasing as violence erupted following James Meredith's successful enrollment as the first African-American student at the segregated University of Mississippi. 1962 also saw the early stirrings of the counterculture movement that spent much of the decade questioning what it meant to be an American during this time of challenge and change. The civil rights movement, feminism, the anti-war movement, environmentalism and the gay-rights movement all examined the values of America that previous generations had accepted without question.
Through his Death and Disaster paintings Warhol managed to capture the tumultuous times with the same shrewd and astute cultural commentary with which he launched himself into the art world with his 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, except with these works he scrutinized a side of American life that many preferred not to acknowledge. Along with Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, Warhol's Statue of Liberty set the tone for much of the decade with his re-appraisal of an American icon, and in this context Warhol was one of the first artists to identify these undercurrents that have since become an important motif in popular culture.
As one of the earliest examples of his overlapping grid pattern, Statue of Liberty demonstrates Warhol's increasing interest in the aesthetic impact of repetition. By his own account, his replication of the image was intended to 'empty' the image of its emotional meaning (N. Printz, "Painting Death in America," Death and Disasters, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 1988, p. 17), but in relation to his Death and Disaster paintings it can also be seen to relate to the ubiquitous nature of death itself, as Printz points out, "This appearance of universality carried conviction for Warhol. Marilyn and Liz related to death by virtue of its ubiquitousness. Death is everywhere, according to Warhol--just like Pop" (Ibid., p. 21). Like his repetitions of other cultural icons such as Marilyn Monroe, in Statue of Liberty the repetitious nature seems to serve two purposes: not only does it celebrate the ubiquitous nature of the image itself but it also encourages a closer examination of what that image represents in the context of a changing society.
This exploration of serial imagery would go on to form one of the central cores of Warhol's oeuvre. In a process that was perfectly suited to his favored method of silk-screening canvases, Warhol transforms a familiar icon into an increasingly abstract image. Just as he did with his images of the Mona Lisa or baseball players, Warhol sought in a work such as this to explore the power and potency of such an iconic object. Running the same image repetitively across a monochrome canvas in such a way that the eye becomes accustomed to its sequential and even patterned rhythm or play of form, Warhol not only sanitizes his imagery but makes it familiar. As he pointed out to Gene Swenson, when you see an image over and over again he said "it really doesn't have any effect" (A. Warhol quoted in "Interview with Gene Swenson," Art News, New York, November 1963).
Statue of Liberty stands out within Warhol's oeuvre as one of the few paintings in which he renders the repeated image in two colors. Screened initially in chromium-oxide green silkscreen ink followed by a layer of cadmium red light pigment, this method of production gives an effect similar to a 3-D image. The mid 1950s witnessed the golden age of 3-D cinema with dozens of films including It Came from Outer Space and House of Wax being shown in specially adapted movie theaters across the country. The 3-D process fascinated Warhol and during his lifetime he would expend much energy in investigating it's optical and aesthetic possibilities. In addition to his Optical Paintings he also experimented with three dimensionality in a number of video projects including his 1973 feature-length film Andy Warhol's Frankenstein. Warhol's ultimate dream was to produce a three-dimensional alter-ego of himself but the technology was insufficiently advanced during his lifetime for him to fulfill this particular project.
In the present work, Warhol uses an image of the Statue taken from a postcard--the type which would have been sent by the millions of tourists who visited New York City every year. The blood-red nature of the second screen is rendered slightly off-center in relation to the first, creating the optical 3-D effect. When viewed through special glasses, the lenses polarize the images, articulating them as two distinct visual planes. The individual applications of each screen, both in terms of its positioning on the canvas and the quality of the screen itself, allows for a range of optical effects to emerge within this one canvas and in several of the screens the particular color combination and intensity of the two screens allows for some of the renditions to appear as a negative. In addition, a more evocative effect appears in the sky behind Lady Liberty as the fluctuating amount of ink applied through the screen produces an outcome similar to a mushroom cloud appearing behind her head, particularly in the upper and lower row of screens. This particular effect seems to have had a strong impact on Warhol as his striking Red Explosion (Atomic Bomb) (Daros Collection, Zürich) painted a few months later takes the impact of repetition that he began in Statue of Liberty to its final devastating conclusion.
Warhol was famous for always carrying a small portable camera around with him, snapping the people, places and imagery that caught his eye. The Statue of Liberty was the subject of many of these photographs and even appeared on the cover of Warhol's book America, a personal collection of the artist's own photographs along with an affectionate essay about the country he loved. Resplendent against a setting sun, the powerful outline of the Statue provides a fitting image for Warhol's reflections on the people and places that made up his life. But a year later the Statue would make a final appearance in one of his last great series of works, his Camouflage paintings.
Statue of Liberty is the direct manifestation of the duality that not only made up Warhol's personality, but also represented the national American psyche at large. The subject of the painting is perhaps one of the most recognizable objects in the world, still revered as the ultimate symbol of democracy and freedom. Yet to some it also represents a dream which has failed to live up to expectations and half a century after Warhol painted it, Statue of Liberty is a remarkably prophetic work which still resonates with contemporary political and cultural themes.
Since Warhol painted Statue of Liberty in 1962 the Statue's popularity has only increased; it has continued to be the symbol of hope for a city whose residents have direct personal experience of global terrorism. While some have attempted to use the image of the Statue of Liberty to highlight what they see as the irony of America's increasingly common policy of imposing democracy by means of armed intervention, Lady Liberty herself has never been so popular--her image shines as brightly as the torch she holds aloft. In 1968 Warhol predicted that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes yet Lady Liberty has outlived this prediction, as for nearly 150 years she has been the iconic image of the hope and freedom on which America was built. It was Warhol's perceptive understanding of what the Statue of Liberty had come to represent that enabled him to become the consummate chronicler of the world's most powerful nation, and that included giving an honest assessment of parts of the nation's character that perhaps it would have preferred not to acknowledge.