Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013
Hartfort, Wadsworth Atheneum, Andy Warhol/Matrix 50, May - September 1979, n.p., illustrated
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, June 1999, n.p., no. 34, illustrated in colour
Executed on an immersive and impressive scale, the present work is one of the best examples from this pivotal series. The sharp contrast of the black silkscreen with the sanguineous red underpainting points to the consummate skill of an artist at the peak of his abilities, while the tight juxtaposition of the blade of the sickle and the head of the hammer lends anchor to the composition. Conceptually rigorous in its political implications and visually arresting in its colourful and carefully balanced composition, Hammer and Sickle is an enduring testament to Warhol’s position as one of the most considered and intelligent painters of the modern era.
The symbol of the hammer and sickle itself requires some analysis in order to fully grasp the extent of Warhol’s sabotage. Introduced following the Russian revolution in 1917, the two objects symbolised not only the industrial and agricultural worker, but their international unity. Later it took on gendered meaning, with the hammer associated with men and the sickle with women. As an ensemble, it represented the unity of the Socialist message against the disparate forces of Capitalism and Western democracy. The composition of the present work, however, one of 12 variations that Warhol used for the series, sees the two objects divorced from one another; their symbolic weight as an emblem of unity is thus entirely eliminated. As a corollary to this, Warhol’s sly inclusion of the branding of the sickle, appropriately titled ‘Champion No. 15’, implicitly celebrates the superiority of American consumerism against Russian Communism. This superimposition of American excess onto a symbol of non-hierarchical, anti-consumerist equality, changes the function of the image altogether. As Georg Frei astutely comments in his introduction to the seminal exhibition of works from the series at Thomas Ammann Fine Art in 1999, in which the present work was included, following the dismantling of the symbol into its constituent parts, “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” (Georg Frei, ‘Hammer and Sickle – A Painterly Manifesto’ in: Exh. Cat., Zurich, Thomas Ammann, Andy Warhol: Hammer and Sickle, 1999, n.p.).
The inspiration for the Hammer and Sickle paintings came after Warhol exhibited works from his Ladies and Gentlemen series in Ferrara in 1975. Images of black and Latin American transvestites appealed hugely to the Italian left, who saw the works as a radical political statement and an entirely novel form of political portraiture. This sentiment was borne of an influential swathe of Socialist sympathy in Italy, which resulted in a peppering of hammer and sickle graffiti on the walls of municipal buildings in the major Italian cities. This attitude to Communism was quite unlike the preponderant reaction of the American public, prompting Warhol to remark to Bob Colacello: “Maybe I should do real Communist paintings next. They would sell a lot in Italy” (Andy Warhol cited in: Bob Colacello, Holy Terror, Andy Warhol Close Up, New York 1990, p. 228). Notwithstanding the irony of Warhol’s immediate commercialisation of the Communist symbol, the distinction that Warhol implicitly draws between the European and American attitudes to Socialism is significant. After all, the Hammer and Sickle works, even if engineered to appeal to a European audience, were widely shown in America. As one journalist observed on the occasion of their debut at Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York in 1977, in which the present work was also featured, although “the hammer and sickle themselves are objects of beauty,” and Warhol does much to prevent any ulterior meaning being attached to them, “politics cannot be banished entirely from this image” (John Russell, ‘Art: Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle’, The New York Times, 21 January 1977, online). Given the concerted campaign of fear-mongering foisted upon the American people for the preceding decade, ranging in its outlets from children’s books to news bulletins to television specials, the lingering political significance of this symbol cannot be underestimated. The Hammer and Sickle was the placeholder for a malicious power, the only credible threat to American hegemony, and was, fundamentally, a threatening and terrifying emblem. Quite unlike the images employed earlier in Warhol’s career, such as the Five Deaths or Marilyn series where repetition of the image deadens its emotional effect, the power of the Communist icons – Mao, Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle – was amplified by their repetition. Warhol relished the fear that this image would instinctively instill, and the power that he was able to wield by co-opting and altering it. Indeed, by changing the aesthetic of the symbol, Warhol places himself in a position of ultimate authority over Soviet representation of itself.
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