Along with his images of Chairman Mao, Warhol's series of Hammer and Sickle paintings was his most important artistic statement of the 1970s. It was a decade of social decadence for Warhol, partying each night at Studio 54 with Jackie O and Bianca Jagger, and painting commissioned portraits of the international rich by day. How perverse and provocative he must have felt dedicating a new series to the symbol of the Soviet Union and worldwide socialism, at the very height of the Cold War and communist paranoia.
The idea that his rich patrons would hang such politically loaded imagery in their Fifth Avenue apartments certainly would have amused Warhol. He had been inspired however by a trip to Italy together with his dealer Lucio Amelio, where he had seen hammer and sickles graffitied over the walls of Naples by the Italian Communist party. "The drawings were so commonplace that they seemed to him almost Pop, having lost their intended meaning through repetition and functioning as decoration instead of political statement" (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 354).
Warhol initially wanted to base his series on the Soviet emblem itself, but he found that the graphics were too flat and lacked the desired impact when converted to silkscreen images. Instead he asked his assistant Ronnie Cutrone to buy a real hammer and sickle from a hardware store. Cutrone then arranged the objects in various interlocking compositions and photographed them, lighting them to create strong shadows. These were then enlarged and converted to silkscreen. Warhol used a sponge mop on the floor to paint the red and white backgrounds, producing a more expressionist surface. He silk-screened the image of the tools and shadows in black on top.
The bold restrictive coloring, ironically the same as that used on his famous soup can paintings, was inspired by the colors of Russian Suprematist paintings by Kasmir Malevich and El Lissitzky. The red had multiple connotations - blood, anger, passion, communism. The dark long shadows added a menacing quality and have a presence and prominence that rival the solidity of the objects themselves. Warhol had become interested in the effect of shadows in the late 1970s and it was also a major feature of the Skull paintings that he was working on at the same time as the Hammer and Sickle pictures. "A shadow is perceptibly actual and physical, but at the same time relatively evanescent and insubstantial, with a phantom-like and illusory presence that he found intriguing." (ibid. p.372)
Some critics have interpreted the apparent disarray of the hammer and sickles in Warhol's compositions as an ironic comment on the Soviet Union economy. But the political iconography overshadows their status as traditional still lives. It was under the generic title of Still Lives that the paintings were exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1977, and if one puts aside its symbolism, the present work can simply be understood as a studied arrangement of interlocking shapes and colors. "Chardin is the forbear, not Lenin, " writes Robert Pincus- Witten. (Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, C&M Arts, exh. cat., New York 2002, n.p.). Ronnie Cutrone concurs. "For Andy, they were also an extension of the classic still life. For years I have been photographing "still lives" for Andy. He loved to experiment and update classical themes. For him, it was the best part of making art." (ibid, n.p)
c Ronnie Cutrone
c Ronnie Cutrone
Andy Warhol and Victor Hugo at Leo Castelli Gallery opening for Warhol's Still Lifes, January 11, 1977 c Allan Tannenbaum