A razor-sharp chorus of beauty and menace, Knives (1982) is a monumental work from one of Andy Warhol’s most important late series. A trio of kitchen knives is silkscreened nine times in vibrant colour against a deep, black ground. Violet, green, lilac, orange, turquoise, yellow, blue and a vivid, bloody red light up the blades like fireworks in a night sky. Created towards the end of Warhol’s life, the knife pictures were made alongside his iconic Gun works, and witness an artist increasingly preoccupied with mortality. The present work debuted with a suite of Gun and Cross paintings in Warhol’s first solo show in post-Franco Spain, at Madrid’s Fernando Vijande Galeria in 1982. ‘This group of paintings spoke to the world about violence and religion’, writes Vincent Fremont. ‘Andy was Catholic, as were many of the people who worked for him’ (V. Fremont, quoted in Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, exh. cat. Gagosian, New York 2006, p. 157). In concert with the Crosses, the knives’ cruciform echoes would have been striking. In their bright tones and grid-like repetition, they verge on becoming abstract motifs; indeed, the almost two-metre-high canvas has the scale of an Abstract Expressionist painting. As their forms become clear, however, the work takes on a scintillating danger. At once blank icons and threatening weapons, the knives are suspended in ambiguity, pushing to the limit Warhol’s deadpan claim that ‘The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel’ (A. Warhol, in A. Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando 1980, p. 50).
For all their otherworldly glow, Warhol’s knives are as domestic and universal as his Coca-Cola bottles or Campbell’s Soup cans. ‘At the beginning’, remembers his studio manager Vincent Fremont, ‘Andy wanted to photograph exotic knives and daggers. We knew that Chris Stein from Blondie collected handmade knives and unusual daggers. Chris brought some to the studio for Andy to photograph. But after reviewing the pictures, Andy asked Jay Shriver, his new art assistant, to buy some ordinary kitchen knives from a Bowery restaurant supply store. Jay came back with some Galaxy 8-inch slicers and, of course, a receipt. Andy photographed the ordinary knives in various formations and they were chosen’ (V. Fremont, ibid.). The ‘ordinary kitchen knives’ were a choice of typical Warholian brilliance. Their familiarity creates a jolt of recognition, gesturing to a peril latent in the most everyday of settings. At the same time, Warhol conjures a startling grandeur from the mundane utensils, his serial chromatic treatment transforming them into spectacular dance of colour. Shining like neon crucifixes, the knives might even be objects of worship.
In 1968, Warhol had survived an assassination attempt by the writer Valerie Solanas. His injuries were life-changing, and the last two decades of his work increasingly shadowed by death. His Skull still-lifes of 1976 reimagined the vanitas on a vast scale; his wry homage to Hamlet, Self-Portrait with Skull, followed two years later. The Guns and Knives were completed in the reflective years of the early 1980s, at the same time as Warhol was looking back on his career in his Reversal and Retrospective works. ‘Before I was shot,’ he said, ‘I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there – I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it's like watching television – you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television’ (A. Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), San Diego 1977, p. 91). This sense of numb unreality pervades the Knives paintings, which regard their subject with a dispassionate, dissociated eye. It is as if Warhol is testing the power of the image: as flat shapes on a black screen, can the knives be emptied of their symbolic content? For an artist who had endured real bodily violence, there is perhaps a catharsis in Warhol’s reducing these weapons to impersonal patterns of colour and form, attaining a sort of solace through surface.
For Warhol, fame and calamity had always gone hand in hand. He created his 1962 portraits of Marilyn Monroe in the weeks immediately following her death, and silkscreened Jackie Kennedy’s image after her husband was assassinated one year later. Even before his first screenprint, his early Pop paintings like 129 Die in Jet! (1962) paid keen attention to the ghoulish obsessions of print media, where starlets and plane crashes alike make front-page news. His 1960s Death and Disaster series, which depicted electric chairs and fatal car crashes, were unflinchingly morbid. A film-noir sensibility runs through Warhol’s entire career, yoking together the glamour and darkness of the American dream. The Knives epitomise this duality, their macabre overtones packaged in alluring, Technicolor splendour. Celebrity or not, death comes for us all: Warhol turns his gaze on a commonplace object and electrifies it with seductive, ambivalent potential. As Vincent Fremont has written, ‘Kitchen knives never looked more interesting and beautiful’ (V. Fremont, ‘Galaxy 8” Slicer,’ Andy Warhol: Knives, exh. cat. Jablonka-Galerie, Cologne 1998, p. 21).