"It was just something that caught my eye", Warhol responded somewhat typically when asked about the seemingly contentious political subject matter of his Race Riot paintings. Of all of the subjects in Warhol's vast and varied catalogue, the so-called Race Riot paintings with their manifest display of political violence and racial oppression are seemingly the least ambiguous and most partisan images in his oeuvre. Repeatedly showing the image of a black Civil Rights protester being savaged by the dogs of a group of white uniformed policemen, this memorable and extremely rare series of paintings seems to demonstrate the famously apolitical Warhol actively engaging in contemporary politics and making a rare, if not indeed unique,"liberal statement" with his art. But, as Warhol himself was at pains to point out, engaging with 1960s politics was not really his intention. As he told fellow "Pop" artist Claes Oldenburg it was, largely "indifference" that had characterized and determined his choice of this graphic and provocative subject matter.
First executed in the spring of 1963, Warhol's Race Riot paintings were created as part of a series of works based on the theme of Death in America that he was preparing for an exhibition to be held under the same title at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1964. Consisting of what is now known more accurately as his Death and Disaster series of paintings, the Death in America exhibition was to consist of a number of large-scale works on the theme of various typically American ways to die. Foremost among these images were of course, Warhol's graphic and shocking images of car crashes. These were accompanied by a select group of paintings of suicides, gangster funerals and electric chairs. The image of the Race Riot was, while not an image of death per se, a provocative and powerful image of a peculiarly American form of violence, segregation and political oppression. It fitted well into the context of an exhibition in which Warhol deliberately intended to present a grittier film-noir-like portrait of America. Anxious about the reception of his art in Paris for what would prove to be his first ever European one-man-show, Warhol feared an overly critical reaction to the seemingly overt celebration of mass-consumerism in his soup cans, coca-cola bottles, star-portraits and dollar-bills. In choosing a series of works on the subject of Death in America he hoped to court a favorable reaction from a French audience by presenting a series of works outlining the traumatic flip-side of the American Dream.
Warhol's choice of subject matter was also a continuation of a theme that had first surfaced while he was painting the Marilyns. It was around this time that he first recognized how the constant repetition of imagery ultimately seems to nullify the shocking effect of even the most horrific of images. This was an element that Warhol was keen to both expose and explore. "When you see a gruesome picture over and over again it doesn't really have any effect", he observed, constant repetition deconstructs the meaning of an image and reveals its true artificial nature as merely a banal abstract surface.
The exploration of the desensitizing of the audience and the nullification of meaning through repeated imagery is what distinguishes Warhol's Death and Disaster series most. It is also primarily this feature of these still disturbing and justly famous works that lends them their troubling ambiguity. As with his Campell Soup cans, the viewer is left in front of these powerful paintings wondering whether the artist is celebrating or criticizing his subject matter. No answer is given because, through the impersonal anonymity of the silkscreen-painting technique, the artist's presence and authorship remains seemingly absent or at best indifferent.
With his Race Riot paintings Warhol took this feature of his work even further imbuing one of the most contentious subjects in contemporary politics with the same ambiguity and sense of authorless indifference. At the same time, the Race Riot paintings again reveal Warhol's unerring, almost prophetic ability to select, isolate and transform a single image into a provocative and quizzical icon that stands as a symbol for an entire area of contemporary culture. Seeming to encapsulate the whole concept of violence and injustice in one unforgettable image, Warhol's Race Riots are in fact portentious icons of the entire cycle of protest and political violence into which 1960s America was later to descend. It was a cycle that would lead to the increasing politicisation of America's youth throughout the decade and which would spill over into the tragic violence of 1968 culminating in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and indeed,(within his own small circle), with the near-fatal shooting of Warhol himself.
Like the photographs of the naked Vietnamese girl running screaming from a napalm attack or the South Vietnamese Army Captain on the street of Saigon shooting a young suspect in the head - two still images that have burnt themselves into the collective memory and become icons of the Vietnam War - so too has the image of Warhol's Race Riot come to stand as an icon of America's Civil Rights conflict. Selected by Warhol from a feature in Life magazine, his Race Riot paintings make use, in fact, not of one image but of three sequential shots. In Warhol's hands, the three images are used as a kind of filmic montage in such a way that they seem to combine in the mind to form a single unforgettable archetype of racial injustice and state-endorsed oppression. As with the two Vietnam pictures, so provocative is this image that it is nigh on impossible to view Warhol's Race Riot paintings objectively, to see its repeated imagery without engaging with its subject matter. Yet this is precisely what Warhol asks us to do in these works. Taking an up-to-the-minute and morally repugnant contemporary image of stark clarity and disturbing power, Warhol's Race Riots expose and explore the bounds of the viewer's ability to recognize imagery as an artificial reproduction created without feeling, impersonally and mechanically.
Created in the spring of 1963, Warhol's Race Riot paintings were an immediate and perhaps impulsive response to a feature that Warhol saw in Life magazine entitled "The Dogs' Attack is the Negro's Reward" which appeared on May 17 of that year. Consisting of the three photographs which Warhol later incorporated variously into his paintings of the subject, the article outlined the one-sided violence at a peaceful Civil Rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama. After months of coordinated sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations organised by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the plan known as "Project C" ("C" standing for confrontation), the city's director of public safety, Eugene ("Bull") Connor, responded, as anticipated, and rose to the demonstrators' bait. Ordering the use of police dogs and fire hoses to end the protest he commanded a violent put-down of the protest. The result was a major media coup that garnered national attention and generated widespread public sympathy for the cause of desegregation.
The specifics of the conflict almost certainly mattered little to Warhol. What was important from his point of view was the contentiousness of the imagery and the way in which it encapsulated a unique and bestial form of violence. Talking to Gene Swenson in November 1963, Warhol referred to these works as "the dogs in Birmingham" and in a sketch for his later series of "little Race Riots" he showed he had forgotten the location of the violence by referring to these images incorrectly as "Mongomerty (sic), dog, Negro". Mustard Race Riot the largest and finest of this rare series of only four paintings from 1963, was also inaccurately entitled Selma when it was exhibited at the ICA, Philadelphia in 1965. Whether it was Birmingham, Selma or Montgomery, the location of the imagery clearly remained unimportant to Warhol. As with his other Death and Disaster images, all that mattered was the provocative and disturbing power of the imagery.
Mustard Race Riot is the major example from Warhol's Race Riot series and conceptually the closest to his other Death and Disaster paintings. A double canvas image, blank mustard color on one side and fully-saturated mustard-backed imagery on the other, it relates closely to Warhol's other double-canvas paintings that incorporate a monochrome canvas alongside a silk-screened one. David Bourdon has pointed out that these "diptychs" were first created at Warhol's Firehouse studio after Warhol had asked his friends, "Wouldn't it be a good idea to add a blank panel?" , adding, " It would make the painting twice as big and twice as expensive." (D. Bourdon, Andy Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 158.) "Warhol's imagination" Bourdon wrote, "was fired by the possibility that he could persuade collectors to buy an 'empty' monochrome unit, a notion that appealed to the Rumplestiltskin in him. If he could stencil pictures of dollar bills and convert them into actual cash, why couldn't he sell blank canvases?" (Ibid.)
As with the Death and Disaster series the concept of a diptych consisting of one screened and one blank canvas seems to have originated while Warhol was working on the Marilyns and was inaugurated with his Gold Marilyn tondo diptych. It is however primarily with the car crashes and the electric chairs of the Death and Disaster series that Warhol makes use of this new technique. Apart from any pleasure Warhol may have gained from being able to sell abstract monochrome canvases, it is clear from these works that the blank canvas also performs an added and important function. Contrasting the emptiness of one canvas with the fullness of the provocative and disturbing imagery on the other underscores Warhol's intention of exposing the artifice of even the most horrific images and lends these "diptychs" a powerful existential gravitas that is less evident in his single-canvas images. As both a design feature and as a reinforcement of Warhol's conceptual concerns, the play between empty space and dense repetitive silk-screened imagery in these works, visually reiterates the sense of shallowness and artifice that underlies all Warhol's work.
In Mustard Race Riot this contrast is extreme throwing into opposition a completely covered left-hand panel with an empty monochrome right one. Sequentially layering the three different images of the Birmingham riot, the violent images are bricked together covering the entire left-hand canvas so that they appear like wallpaper. In the juxtaposition of the dense, frantic, sensational, shocking contemporary imagery on the first panel with absolutely nothing on the second, Warhol appears to pose an existential question about the nature of the difference between the two.
Installation view of Warhol, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris, 1964 c 2004 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Warhol in front of his paintings from the Death and Disaster series, in the living of his townhouse Photograph by John D. Schiff c 2004 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York