Gun unites two of the obsessions that characterize Pop legend Andy Warhol’s oeuvre: Americana and death. In this silkscreened rendering of a handgun’s slick form, mass consumption, mechanical reproduction, and violence elegantly intermingle. The painting belongs to a series depicting firearms that was produced by Warhol from 1981 to 1983, at a time when the artist’s critical success reached even more immense heights. In these late years in his life, Warhol engaged with a new host of ontologically loaded imagery, most notably guns, knives, and crosses. Enmeshed with notions of American democracy, glamour, and tragedy, guns are wielded by Tinsel town stars, Average Joes, and criminals alike. The latter category was at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the time of Gun’s creation just one year after John Lennon was assassinated and the same year that an assassination attempt was made on President Ronald Reagan. Gun violence was also a profoundly personal topic for Warhol, who suffered a traumatic shooting at the hands of feminist writer, Valerie Solanas, when she attempted to murder him in June of 1968. Thus Gun, bold and graphic, is at once a depiction of a detached and decontextualized symbol and also a deeply personal, cathartic working-through of a trauma that colored the last two decades of Warhol’s life. As with Warhol’s most compelling work, Gun leverages the superficies of American cultural icons to puncture real human depths.
In the present work, a handgun is rendered as an iconic and highly evocative object. Its arresting red coloring could just as easily allude to blood as to Coca-Cola cans. The pistol is tilted to provide a three-quarter view, which allows the viewer to peer down the gun’s barrel. The gun has been depicted with meticulous detail; its sleek barrel reads “HI-STANDARD .22 CAL.,” a label that could be viewed as detached, imposing, or threatening or alternatively as providing a sense of safety and security. The pistol’s white highlights and bold black outlines evoke newsprint, calling to mind contemporaneous depictions of guns in tabloid stories and print advertisements. In the present work, the artist has overlaid two screens in a hallucinatory effect. This aesthetic reads like a blurred film still, calling to mind Warhol’s earlier homage to film noir in his 1962 paintings of a handgun-sporting James Cagney (based on a still from gangster movie Angels with Dirty Faces) as well as the artist’s 1963 Triple Elvis [Ferus Type]. The “double-vision” at work also alludes to the artist’s psychic discombobulation after having been shot by Valerie Solanas. As Warhol told The New York Times in late 1968, “Since I was shot, everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know what anything is about” (A. Warhol in conversation with J. Leonard, “The Return of Andy Warhol,” New York Times, Nov. 10, 1968).
Of course, death and violence were not new topics for Warhol; these were distinctive and recurrent themes that ran through his oeuvre. When in 1963 poet John Giorno asked Warhol what he was working on, the artist pithily deadpanned back: “Death” (A. Warhol in interview with J. Giorno, 1963, in ed. K. Goldsmith, I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 25). The artist became obsessed with news reports of violent deaths in the early 1960s. In an attempt to both exorcise the tragic and disturbing images that dominated the media cycle and paint a psychological portrait of a nation always hungry for the next tragedy, Warhol commenced his Death and Disasters series. These works depict decontextualized, repeating car crashes and suicides among other morbid imagery in a cool silkscreen style. Around the same time, the artist was making paintings in tribute to Marilyn Monroe, who had died in 1962; these works sought to both canonize her and deconstruct her celebrity persona in the wake of her death.
In the 1970s on the heels of the 1968 attempt on his life, Warhol produced a series featuring repeating images of a human skull in a contemporary take on the memento mori as represented in 17th century Spanish and Dutch Vanitas paintings. The cheerful high-key coloring of these works puts them at odds with their macabre content. At the time that he was making these works, the artist said opaquely: “I can’t say anything about [death] because I’m not ready for it” (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York, 1977, p. 162). Decontextualized and somewhat abstracted depictions of knives, guns, and crosses—what has been referred to as an unholy trinity—were to follow in the 1980s. To the artist, these emblems were deeply embedded in the American psychology at that time; in particular, Warhol viewed the handgun as a distinctly American object. Warhol’s personal diaries from the period revealed an increasing preoccupation with dying, referencing in their dry, anxious tone both death in the news and death among figures in his personal life. “Had a death threat,” the artist wrote on May 4, 1981 (A. Warhol, P. Hackett (ed.), The Andy Warhol Diaries, n.p.).
While the gun featured in the present work is made to appear anonymous or generic, it is in fact the snub-nosed model that Valerie Solanas—the feminist author of the 1967 SCUM Manifesto (“Society for Cutting Up Men”)—brought to The Factory on June 3, 1968 when she made an attempt to end Warhol’s life in response to a spat over her play. Two of her bullets punctured Warhol’s left side, hitting key organs; the emergency surgery that followed left both irreversible psychological damage and severe scarring that would criss-cross the artist’s torso for the rest of his life. There was a level of unreality or detachment in the shooting for Warhol, a cartoonish onomatopoetic element that finds its visual expression in Gun. He described the event, “I heard a loud exploding noise and whirled around: I saw Valerie pointing a gun at me and realized she’d just fired. I said ‘No! No, Valerie! Don’t do it!’” (A. Warhol, quoted in A. Warhol and P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando, 1980, p. 343). The anxieties that emerged from the shooting for Warhol may have been reignited by a death threat that the artist received in 1981. An unknown musician had delusions that Warhol had stolen the Rolling Stone song “Miss You” from him and passed it along to Mick Jagger. The threat made Warhol extremely anxious and led him to hire a security guard and seek out increasingly impenetrable disguises for himself.
While guns personally affected Warhol at the time of the 1968 assassination attempt and 1981 death threat—both events that likely inspired the making of Gun—firearms were simultaneously at the fore of the contemporary collective American consciousness. In 1963 in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was assassinated using a mail-order gun; this tragic event prompted citizens to question the nation’s firearm regulatory policies. Subsequent assassinations of major figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X made congressional action a necessity, and the Gun Control Act, which regulated interstate gun sales, was passed in 1968. The 1980 assassination of John Lennon and the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in the nation’s capital led to the amending of the 1968 Gun Control Act with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms. Gun regulation has remained a hot-button issue in the United States. At the time of Gun’s creation, the gun debate was as au courant as it is today; Warhol is nothing if not eternally contemporary.
On one level, Gun captures the simplistic American glamour of guns. A seductive and streamlined prop, the red firearm echoes Hollywood culture and Warhol’s early depictions of it in such seminal works as Cagney and Triple Elvis. Yet on another level, Gun is the work of a mature Warhol. It is a testament to an artist traumatized by personal experiences of gun violence—threats on his life—and affected by the impassioned national conversation surrounding firearms that followed a series of high-profile assassinations. At the same time, the cool, impassive work doubles as a documentarian effort to capture the 1980s American consciousness. Like a bullet, the loaded Gun ricochets between detachment and engagement, between superficiality and depth, never quite settling on one, forever drolly ambiguous: definitively Warholian.