Andy Warhol's obsession with the subject of death is one of the most important and compelling themes in his oeuvre. This obsession clearly manifests in the series of Guns that he executed from 1981 to 1983.
The range of scenes showing violent death is far-reaching in Warhol's works, from the first in 1961 with his handpainted 129 Die in Jet to his silkscreened images of The Last Supper made in 1986, one year before his own death. Furthermore, in his Death and Disaster paintings of the early 1960s, Warhol depicts images of car crashes and suicides where people are facing imminent death. The subject of death permeates other pictures even when the subject is not treated overtly, in such series as Electric Chairs, Most Wanted Men, Atomic Bomb the Tunafish Disasters, the portraits of Marilyn Monroe after her suicide, Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband's assassination or of Elizabeth Taylor shortly after her near-fatal illness.
Warhol's fascination took a personal and grisly turn when, in 1968, he was shot by Valerie Solanas, an amateur actress and author of S.C.U.M, a manifesto calling for the destruction of the male sex. Warhol was hit by two bullets that entered the left side of his torso and ricocheted through his chest and abdomen. His survival after the shooting intensified his preoccupation with death. In the 1970s, Warhol painted a series of Skulls, the traditional image of vanitas. And during the 1980s, he created a series of Knives and Guns, to which the present painting belongs.
Stripped of any personal or cultural context, Guns is unexpectedly beautiful. The serial repetition of the guns in black, red and gold recalls the multi-screen Self Portrait series from the 1970s. The gun brings an extreme range of connotations to mind, of murder and warfare or of childhood toys and the banality of violence in American culture. The multiplicitous nature of the image of the gun appealed to Warhol's penchant for ambiguity. This painting was acquired from Warhol by Tommy Mottola, the President of Sony Records, along with a second, black and white composition (shown opposite). Despite being a complex allegorical motif, Warhol treats the gun formally, removing emotion from the composition and thereby encouraging the viewer to project their own as part of the experience.