A resounding exclamation of the notorious hammer and sickle motif - loaded symbols that for more than half a century were the totem of a philosophy and way of life that governed entire peoples - and painted in a palette of vibrant red, white and black readily associated with the propagandistic posters of the Soviet era, Andy Warhol's non-partisan work both dissembles the poignant political import of the imagery while concomitantly locating it within a broader art-historical and critical framework of the still life genre.
Monumental in scale, this is among the largest works of a series that Warhol had conceived of during a trip to Italy for the opening of his Ladies and Gentlemen exhibition at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara in 1975. At the time, the symbol of the hammer superimposed on the sickle was the most conspicuous graffito in the streets of Milan and Rome. In Italy, a democratic country since the end of the Second World War, the instantly legible symbol enshrined an anti-establishment fervor and anti-capitalist ideology, a repost to the increasingly ubiquitous insignia of American consumerism and brands such as Coca-Cola which had become so commonplace across Europe. Just as he had done in the 1960s with the most quintessentially consumerist emblems such as the Coca-Cola bottle and Campbell's soup can, here Warhol decided to adopt the logo of communism as a subject for his art, transforming it into a Warholian emblem par excellence.
Despite disavowing any political ties to his work, Warhol, the archetypal Pop provocateur, could not paint a series of images of the hammer and sickle in the cultural environment of the Cold War without inviting politicised glosses from his critics. By the late 1970s, the relationship between the American and Soviet Union Superpowers was strained, characterized not by military combat but by a climate of tension and mutual perceptions of hostility between East and West, communism and capitalism. The hammer and sickle were unilaterally recognised as the symbol of international communism, adopted as the official emblem of the Red Army in the 1920s and later set in gold upon the Red Flag of the Soviet Union. Symbols of the industrial proletariat and the peasantry, the hammer and the sickle together symbolised the unity between industrial and agricultural workers under the aegis of the State, the core principle of communist ideology.
On his return to the Factory, Warhol charged his studio assistant Ronnie Cutrone to track down a suitable source image from Soviet paraphernalia. As the latter recounts, he searched through New York's Red bookshops but could not find anything appropriate: "They were too flat or too graphic. The answer was to go down to Canal Street, into a hardware store, and buy a real hammer and sickle. Then I could shoot them, lit with long, menacing shadows, and add the drama that was missing from the flat-stencilled book versions... It always amused me that Andy, the ultimate Capitalist, and me, the ultimate Libertarian, could be suspected of Communist activity." (Ronnie Cutrone cited in Exh. Cat., New York, C&M Arts, Hammer and Sickle, 2002)
It is this brilliant irony of Warhol, the arch-capitalist, engaging with communist iconography, which lends the present work its potency. Unsurprisingly, in Warhol's hands these symbols of socialism are demoted to consumerist objects, like Coca-Cola bottles, Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup cans, thus paradoxically branding the tools as part of a free market economy and radically destabilising their ostensible political connotations. Yet running parallel to any political gloss is Warhol's challenge to the canon of art history's most conventional and traditional genre: the Still Life. By placing the objects on a draped white surface, he mimics the practice of eighteenth-century Still Life painters of precariously balancing knives on a table edge to demonstrate their bravura at creating trompe l'oeil effects with their brush. The Still Life genre has always reflected the age in which it was painted; here Warhol's 'still life' reflects an age where religious, moral and political values have grown subordinate to superficial commercial imperatives – translated onto billboard scale using his levelling silkscreen process it smacks of an era of American promotional advertising where consumerism has triumphed. A landmark work in Warhol's mature oeuvre, its sardonic comment on the capitalist/ communist dichotomy shows Warhol to be the ever pertinent historical commentator of his day.