In the wake of the attempt on Andy Warhol's life by the radical feminist writer, Valarie Solanas (whose threats extended to cutting up every man with a six inch dagger), Warhol's art took a noticeably more menacing turn through the late sixties until his untimely death in 1987. Producing silkscreens of skulls, guns and knives, his lexicon of memento mori became all the more obvious. The supermarket equivalent of the skulls and tragic celebrities that constantly haunted his imagery, Warhol's Knives not only fills the familiar domain of the mortality, but also reflect his skill at translating ubiquitous objects into compelling images
Commanding a sinister respect, Warhol's ordinary eight inch kitchen knives are transformed into a violent weapon. Contrasted against an alarming yellow background, the graphic black knives evoke an ominous palette of warning signs and foreboding caution tape, giving Knives a mischievous edge. A powerful visual statement, the knives are grouped with their three blades overlapping, the metallic surfaces becoming larger as each progressive knife is placed atop the one below it. A carefully arranged cluster of blades, the multiplicity of the treacherous object resembles a more monstrous group of scissors--a wicked superweapon. The multiplicity of these lethal objects makes their presence even more fearsome, an embodiment of the vulnerability that we feel in the face of hidden violence.
Transforming reality into art, Warhol assembled and arranged a sextet of kitchen knives, took Polaroid photographs of them, and then recreated them in strangely ghostlike themes that belied their utilitarian character. Common to Warhol's art of the 1980s, positive and negative photographic images were intermixed with Warhol's inverse image giving the blades a fantastically lucid surface, nearly supernatural in their glow. Reconfiguring the knives as a weightless armature of free-floating patterns of light and dark elegant silhouettes, the sordid reminders of American crime, murder and brutality surface and then just as quickly disappear. "I'm doing knives and guns," Warhol explained "Just making abstract shapes out of them" (A. Warhol, quoted in V. Fremont, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 157).
"While creating an inventory of American superstars and supermarket favorites, (Warhol) also compiled an anthology of the American way of death, from car crashes and race riots to the electric chair itself," Robert Rosenblum explains. "And it turned out, too, that the most commonplace instruments of death, guns and knives...would eventually turn up in Warhol's art as isolated objects, as iconic in their spaceless environments as the famous Campbell's soup can that launched his international fame" (R. Rosenblum, Andy Warhol, Knives: Paintings, Polaroids and Drawings, February-April 2001, reproduced at www.speronewestwater.com). The allusion to the violent qualities of knives first surfaced in Warhol's work in the 1960s, when in the midst of preparing Fifth Avenue window displays and magazine illustrations, Warhol constructed a hand-drawn preview of his famous silk-screen newspaper front pages. Announcing the stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Harlem, this early reference foreshadows Warhol's later use of knives, singled out for the kind of isolated scrutiny with which he had earlier transformed such supermarket products as soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles into disembodied emblems of American culture.
Selecting his Knives in the same manner he chose to silkscreen his Guns, Warhol first began photographing exotic knives and daggers, which he gained access to through Chris Stein from the band Blondie. However, upon reviewing these photographs, Warhol asked Jay Shriver, his new art assistant, to buy some ordinary kitchen knives from a restaurant-supply shop on Bowery St. in New York. Jay selected a set of Galaxy 8-inch slicers. Drawn to the sheer malice of their immediacy and availability, Warhol's particular choice of knives reflects his devotion to the ubiquity and banality of certain images. Instead of photographing the eccentric blade, "he chose the common object, considered by most of us as nothing special, and elevat[es] it to art Kitchen knives never looked more interesting and beautiful" (V. Fremont, "Galaxy 8" Slicer," Andy Warhol: Knives, op. cit., p. 21).
Exhibited at the often cited solo-exhibition at the Fernando Vijande Galeria in Madrid, this infamous show, which paired Warhol's threatening Guns and Knives with his Cross paintings, was Warhol's first exhibition in post-Franco Spain. Speaking to the world about violence and religion, the unholy trinity of objects succinctly evoked a new way of interpreting one of Warhol's most recurrent themes, the dark side of life and ultimately death. Coming directly from this celebrated exhibition, it is no accident that Knives, like the Guns, could be exhibited the way they were in Spain, with the crosses, instantly conjuring up the kind of populist religious slogan, 'Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away,' that Warhol would in fact transcribe in a drawing in the 1980s, just one year before his own death.
Conjuring impressions of his early work, we find a thematic unity in his dark undertones: Marilyn Monroe, car crashes, electric chairs, knives, and many other subjects of Warhol's work all demonstrate his tendency towards tragedy. For, in the end, tragic images leave an indelible mark on the human consciousness. Their power is haunting, and their proclivity staying with us makes tragic images all the more suitable for immortalization in artistic form. Knives is a strict reminder that Warhol's work is firmly rooted in the facts of American life and death that never stop nourishing his documentary eye and visionary nature.