"The Guns and Knives paintings from 1981-1982 are stark reminders of the violent society we lived in then and now. Having nearly been killed by a handgun Andy was able to make paintings of guns as iconic objects. In order to choose which guns he would use we made calls to friends who might know someone with a gun. A few scary people, with first names only, came by and let Andy take Polaroid's of their weapons. I remember him photographing a saw-off shotgun" (V. Fremont, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, New York, 2006, p.157).
Throughout his life Andy Warhol was obsessed with idea of death and at times was almost overcome by a paralyzing fear of dying. Worries about his own mortality are present to a greater or lesser degree in a large number of his works, but none demonstrate it so clearly as his Gun paintings from 1981-82. This large picture with its multiple images of a menacing revolver dominate the surface of the canvas. The repeated images of the pistol mimic the slow motion action of the gun being prepared for firing, becoming a fetishised object which conveys both power and death. Yet when viewed in the company of Warhol's earlier bold canvases from the early 1960s its sleek and shiny surface presents itself as another desirable consumer object, implying that Warhol has joined in the adulation of this product of industry and technology. The very process by which Guns has been created, through the transferal of a photographic source to silkscreen, illustrates Warhol's participation in a similar industrial process. This is an artform that is perfectly suited to the era of factories and capitalism; yet the cool, objective distance that Warhol maintained in creating Guns is itself ironic. Warhol appears here to engage in the entire visual language of weaponry, of the gun as a status symbol, as a tool that begets violence; which is all the more pertinent because Warhol, whose pictures often touched upon the subject of death, had deeply personal associations with guns.
Warhol's series of Gun paintings were created at the same time that he was also making pictures of knives. While the slick presentation of Guns implies a certain ambivalence and detachment on the part of the artist, he himself had been the victim of a shooting, as had his pictures. For, in an almost comic episode that curiously prefigured the later attempt on his life, four of Warhol's Marilyn pictures had been shot by a fellow artist, Dorothy Podber. A friend of Billy Name's, she had been in the Factory in 1964 and had seen these pictures stacked against a wall. She asked Warhol if she could shoot them; not taking her seriously, he agreed and was surprised to see her remove a gun from her handbag and take a shot that passed through the canvases. Initially, Warhol was shocked, though he subsequently renamed each picture, resulting in the so-called Shot Marilyns. Discussing Warhol's reaction, Ondine, one of Andy's Factory crowd, commented that "Andy really was playing with a loaded pistol in everything he did, but every time I saw him witness real violence he was completely surprised. He didn't expect violence on other people's parts and violence shocked him. He wasn't aware of it. He didn't have street smarts" (Ondine, quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 201).
This lack of anticipation of violence in others reached a tragic new level when, in 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. A feminist writer whose works included the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM was an acronym for "Society for Cutting Up Men"), Solanas hovered on the fringes of Warhol's Factory crowd, even appearing in one of his films. On June 3, 1968, she appeared at the Factory and, when Warhol appeared, shot at him and at his friends, also hitting Mario Amaya. Warhol himself gave an account of this incident that nearly ended his life,
"... as I was putting the phone down, I heard a loud exploding noise and whirled around: I saw Valerie pointing a gun at me and I realized she'd just fired it. I said "No! No, Valerie! Don't do it!" and she shot at me again. I dropped down to the floor as if I'd been hit I didn't know if I actually was or not. I tried to crawl under the desk. She moved in closer, fired again, and then I felt horrible, horrible pain, like a cherry bomb exploding inside me" (quoted in A. Warhol & P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Orlando, 1980, p. 343).
Warhol never fully recovered his health and bore extensive scars from the shooting and subsequent drastic surgery for the rest of his life. Therefore he was in a special, qualified position to understand the devastation that a gun can wreak. The seemingly inscrutable Guns therefore shows a subject that had incredibly profound associations for the artist. Victor Bockris, in his book The Life & Death of Andy Warhol, states that the gun used in this picture and its sister-works was the "the same snub-nosed .32 that Valerie Solanas had shot him with" (V. Bockris, Ibid., 1989, p. 453). This work is thus filled with the artist's poignantly acute awareness of the weapon's latent potential for destruction.
Warhol would continue to be fascinated by guns for the duration of his life. He was photographed in 1975 playing with Mick Jagger's gun when the singer had rented his Montauk estate for the summer. Yet while that episode and the glamorous appearance of Guns appears to show some aesthetic appreciation of the weapon, Warhol himself was at pains to distance himself from the perceived glamour of violence:
"Some people, even intelligent people, say that violence can be beautiful. I can't understand that, because beautiful is some moments, and for me those moments are never violent" (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 58).
Synthetic polymer and silkscreen inks on canvas
Signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1982' (on the overlap); stamped with the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc. stamp and numbered 'A117.962' (on the overlap)
Andy Warhol , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
56¼ x 80 1/8 in. (142.9 x 203.5 cm.)
Acquired from the artist
Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York
Susan Sheehan, New York
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 19 November 1997, lot 287
Private collection, London