Caution. Danger. Don't Touch. Handle With Care. Fragile. The feelings conjured when one encounters these stern, explicit commands are complex. On the one hand, the recipient is immediately struck by an impending hazardous situation, and therefore should proceed with caution. On the other, there is always the urge to rebel, to cross the line, to deviate from the exigent command. In the 1962 composition, Fragile, Andy Warhol tempts the viewer with an invocation to perceive something that is delicate, breakable, but above all, valuable. A message that is usually found on precious cargo undergoing a dangerous voyage becomes both evocative of this state of precariousness, yet is also rendered moot through its use on a flat canvas. Part of his early pursuit to develop his unique style and voice in the newly emerged Pop Art world, Fragile marks a shift in Warhol's career in which he was not only toying with concepts of popular imagery and cultural references, but also envisioning an entirely new way in which to produce his art.
The emergence of what would become Warhol's signature silkscreen technique occurred at a time when the dominance of Abstract Expression was beginning to wane, and a new zeitgeist in American art was palpable. In his description of the changing tides in the American art world, Clement Greenberg noted that there was "a sudden collapse, market-wise and publicity-wise, of abstract expressionism," which was being notably replaced by the new tendency towards the use of everyday objects, either actual or painted, in works of art (C. Greenberg, quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, New York, 2009, pp. 94-95). Although not exactly an unknown in the New York art world at the time, Warhol was struggling to distinguish himself from the new wave of artists making their way onto the scene, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein. Each artist approached this new Pop Art sentiment in a different way, but all seemed to be channeling the proliferation of consumer products in the American home, the rise in print and televised media, and the advent of the "New American Dream-er," who was free to experience the upsurge of post-war American free market consumerism.
The emerging Pop artists, including Warhol, all felt a similar desire to appropriate the popular image of consumer objects in their work and experimented with different ways of accomplishing this. While Lichtenstein created canvases that perfectly replicated the Ben-Day dot comic book style, and Rauschenberg combined actual photographs with painting, Warhol painted recreations of advertisements, newspaper clippings, dollar bills and eventually his Campbell's Soup cans. While he was beginning to successfully convey what he wished, even employing the use of rubber stamps in order to create an effect of multiplicity, as is evident in his preceding Airmail and S+H Green Stamps series, Warhol still longed for something that pushed his work beyond painting, closer to the automated and mechanical nature of the America he observed around him.
Seeking something that was further removed from hand-painting or stamping, the artist began to employ the use of small silkscreens that he could use to create the repetitive effect as seen in his shipping label series. For Fragile, Warhol started with a pencil sketch to create a precise hand-drafted template from which to create the silkscreen that perfectly mimicked the size of an actual shipping stamp. He then systematically silkscreened each "label," one after the other, moving the screen as he went. "The rubber-stamp method I'd been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect" (A. Warhol, quoted in T. Scherman and D. Dalton, op cit., p. 107). The silkscreen was the answer to Warhol's search, both in terms of the aesthetic he was pining after, as well as being immediately relatable to the actual source.
Fragile is one of two silkscreen paintings from the series that utilizes the "fragile/handle with care" label repeatedly over the entire canvas, and represents one of the best examples available from this short period of rapid discovery at a crucial point in Warhol's career. Between March and May of 1962, Warhol produced three series of silkscreen prints that included the shipping labels, Martinson Coffee can labels and Coca-Cola bottles. All three of these series were characterized by Warhol's use of hand-drawn images from which he created a silkscreen template. It was only a few months later that Warhol began using actual source material to create silkscreens, further mechanizing his technique. Warhol moved on quickly from these series, moving further from the handmade to the more mechanical forms of reproduction, something that he saw as indicative of that moment in time. "Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we're getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine...the reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine" (A. Warhol, interview for Art News, November 1963, reproduced in A. Oliva, Andy Warhol: The American Dream, Porto Cervo, 2013, p. 15).
The emergence of this mechanical repetition in the artist's work is what began to truly differentiate what Warhol was doing from the other imminent Pop artists. While Johns, for example, also began to use a silkscreen technique in his work, his compositions tended towards a confluence of abstract gestural painting overlapping with silkscreened images. Warhol was in fact the one who shared the technique with Johns and who, after showing one piece from his shipping labels series, allowed the other artist to borrow the silkscreen that he later incorporated in his 1963-1964 painting, Arrive/Depart. The silkscreen was ideal for the repetition in Warhol's early 1960s works, as the mechanical mode of production adopted a basic procedure and neutrality toward the chosen motif. Warhol was not alluding to popular brands or products to comment on their meaning or implications, but was duplicating what he saw as the popular image of the product rather than the product itself. Fragile is unique as it is not a replica of a product advertisement, as with the artist's Campbell's Soup cans, but a signifier of something precious, yet never revealing what it is. While fragile objects are meant to be handled with care, they also allude to a certain level of exclusivity and uniqueness. When served to the viewer en masse, as with Fragile, the words of caution and care lose their resonance and serve as a larger indicator of massive movements of goods transported in large quantities from port to port. In this way, the work becomes more about the repetition of gross mechanical production.
Fragile represents a bold moment when Warhol is at the brink of surrendering the gestural hand of the artist in favor of the mediated, mechanical effect of the silkscreen. Although differing greatly in subject matter, the continual use of repetition and multiples throughout his oeuvre had the powerful effect of simultaneously multiplying and commodifying the meaning of Warhol's subjects. While on one hand, the serial imagery of a commercial project, such as a Coca-Cola bottle or Campbell's Soup can, alludes to its aspect of consumerism and conveys the sense of a conveyor belt, Warhol is also inflating this commercial product to high art status. Rather than the rash and exuberant or almost violent brushstrokes invoked by his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Warhol demonstrates extreme delicacy, care and machine-like precision with his materials, while maintaining the unique and one-of-a-kindness in the paint rendering of each "fragile" stamp.