Georg Frei, “Hammer and Sickle – A Painterly Manifesto,” in Exh. Cat., Zurich, Thomas Ammann, Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, 1999, n.p.
As time goes on, Andy Warhol emerges as one of the very few historically known artists who have profoundly changed our understanding of the ways in which artistic subjectivity defines itself and its relationship to the world, to artistic tradition, and to society.
Boris Groys, “In Search of Suspended Time,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, 2006, p. 29)
Incontrovertibly arresting in its monumental scale and viscerally charged imagery, the extraordinary Hammer and Sickle from 1976 is among the most historically potent, culturally significant, and incomparably iconic paintings from the inimitable oeuvre of Andy Warhol. Bristling with the explosive energy of communism’s universally recognizable motif, Warhol’s emphatic rendering of one of the Twentieth Century’s most familiar and symbols confronts the viewer with a provocative bravura that rivals that of the artist’s quintessential Pop images of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe. A superb example from the acutely limited number of large-scale Hammer and Sickle canvases, the present work is one of the only paintings executed in the eruptive red-on-red ground seen here; in testament to its singularity and outstanding quality, the present Hammer and Sickle is the first of thirty-seven paintings from the series to be listed in the catalogue of the seminal exhibition Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle at Thomas Ammann Fine Art in 1999. The striking arrangement of the present work – a resounding parallel to the arrangement of the hammer and sickle emblazoned upon the Soviet flag—is echoed precisely in only four other works from the limited corpus exhibited in the Amman show, two of which are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum Brandhorst, Munich. Significantly, the present work was acquired by Warhol’s close friend, the renowned gallerist and founder of the Dia Art Foundation Heiner Friedrich, in the year following its execution; as a striking testament to the friendship between the two men, Warhol personally inscribed Friedrich’s name on the canvas’s reverse. In a searing blaze of incandescent scarlet pigment and crisply delineated shadows, Hammer and Sickle enacts a captivating conflict between the propagandistic fervor of communist Russia and the quintessentially American production of the artist’s Pop oeuvre, transforming the blazing logo into an ironic Warholian emblem par excellence.
Warhol’s subsumption and subsequent re-appropriation of communist symbolism into his legendary Pop vernacular – both physical, as in Hammer and Sickle, and metaphorical, as in his renderings of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin – profoundly refocused the artist’s ground-breaking aesthetic energies on the political realities of his time. His inspiration for the contentious Hammer and Sickle series came in 1975, as the artist was touring Italy for the opening of his Ladies and Gentlemen exhibition at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. Upon viewing the radical Italian left’s ecstatic embrace of his portraits of African and Latin American transvestites, Warhol wryly remarked, “Maybe I should do real Communist paintings next. They would sell a lot in Italy.” (Bob Colacello, Holy Terror, Andy Warhol Close Up, New York, 1990, p. 228) Indeed, in the mid-1970s, the communist emblem of a blunt hammer superimposed on the razor-sharp arc of a sickle was the most conspicuous graffito in the streets of Milan and Rome; despite the establishment of Italy’s democratic government following World War II, the instantly legible symbol still enshrined an anti-establishment fervor and anti-capitalist ideology. Upon his return to the Factory, Warhol charged Ronnie Cutrone, a trusted studio assistant, to track down a suitable source image of the motif 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, n.p.) Cutrone and Warhol then arranged the objects on a horizontal surface, taking photographs in various compositions and lighting arrangements before Warhol, satisfied with their results, selected the twelve best photographs to serve as source images. The artist then began his trademark process of projecting the source photograph onto a background and painstakingly tracing its contours in pencil, before returning to render the contours in red acrylic. In a second step, the artist silkscreened the same configuration in black onto the existing picture-plane, therein creating the multi-dimensional shadows and optical illusions dramatically articulated in the present work. In the catalogue for the 1999 Thomas Amman exhibition of the series, critic Georg Frei notes, “In some the pictures, the objects and their respective shadows are clearly distinguishable; in others the shadows are unrelated to the shapes and cannot even be identified...Warhol intervenes and manipulates the objects more than in any other series made at that time; he duplicates the play of shadows and additionally enhances the ambivalence between objective/nonobjective.” (Georg Frei, “Hammer and Sickle – A Painterly Manifesto,” in Exh. Cat., Zurich, Thomas Ammann, Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, 1999, n.p.) Frei goes on to note that only occasionally would Warhol use additional colors or, even more rarely, render the composition in multiple shades of red. One of only two such paintings included in the Ammann exhibition to be executed in two shades of scarlet pigment, the present work is the only example in which Warhol emblazoned the motif upon an entirely saturated ground of blood-red pigment; the unique and impenetrable opacity of the crimson canvas instills the painting with a singular aura of zealous civil fervour and profound visual gravitas.
Famous for his droll ambiguity and characteristic preoccupation with artifice, Warhol, in his Hammer and Sickle paintings, once again effortlessly straddles the seemingly antithetical poles of superficiality and penetrating social commentary. Ideologically inverting his infamous consumer symbols in the Campbell Soup Can and Coca-Cola paintings, it is the audacious irony of Warhol, the arch-capitalist, appropriating communist iconography that places Hammer and Sickle at the top tier of the artist’s mature practice. Running parallel to the poignant political import of the imagery in the series, however, lies an underlying challenge to canonical art history's most conventional and traditional genre: the still life. By artfully positioning the purchased hammer and sickle upon a draped white surface, re-arranging and re-lighting with exacting precision, Warhol wryly invokes the precariously balanced compositions and mesmerizing trompe l'oeil of eighteenth-century still life painters. Remarking upon this remarkable tension in the Hammer and Sickle paintings, Frei notes, “The present series takes a less direct and more complex stand by showing the logo of the American manufacturer and thus marking the tools as products of a free market economy. The representation takes a different tack: the once political emblem has been dismantled into its original components. As in a classical still life, the objects have no secrets, no ulterior meaning: a hammer is a hammer, a sickle is a sickle. Created long before glasnost and perestroika, these works seem to us today almost like a prophetic prediction.” (Ibid., n.p.) In the present work, the brand name of the manufacturer and model--"Champion No. 15 by True Temper"--is screened with remarkable clarity, thereby emphasizing the status of these objects as consumer products and distancing them from the purely symbolic shapes rendered in the iconic Communist image. The hammer and the sickle, in Warhol's hands, is not an abstraction but a manufactured product that simply reverberates with a highly charged symbolic potency. Here, the most archetypal symbols of socialism are demoted to consumerist objects, dispersing the explosive political charge of the imagery while concomitantly locating it within a broader art-historical and critical framework. A truly magnificent work from Warhol’s most politically potent and indelibly totemic series, Hammer and Sickle is a profound and enduring testament to Warhol’s legacy as the consummate history painter of the modern age.
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