Andy Warhol - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Death and Disaster: Vincent Fremont on Andy Warhol’s Clairvoyant Vision of American Violence

    Vincent Fremont—who was the executive studio manager of Warhol’s Factory and later the co-founder of the Warhol Foundation—discusses Warhol’s afflicted exploration of mortality in his Death and Disaster series. Still relevant today, Warhol’s ‘Gun,’ one of the most prominent works from this series, will be offered in our 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York this fall.

  • Provenance

    The Estate of Andy Warhol, New York
    The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York
    Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London (acquired from the above in 1997)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1999

  • Catalogue Essay

    Andy Warhol’s Gun, 1981-1982, offers the viewer a monumental memento mori of the modern age. In a corpus revolving around celebrity, death and tragedy, it takes a critical position amongst the car crashes, race riots and electric chairs of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series from the early 1960s. It was through the lens of detachment that Warhol approached the existential subject of mortality, here isolating and monumentalizing the object depicted locked and loaded in his 1963 Elvis silkscreens. Taking on the scale of a grand history painting, the present work depicts the gun in three-quarter view, silkscreened in black over the white canvas like an X-ray. As part of Warhol’s larger Gun series 1981-1982, of which examples reside in Tate, London, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, this work demonstrates Warhol's unerring, almost prophetic ability to select, isolate and transform a single image into a provocative icon as he here zooms in on the instrument, rather than the act of violence. Revealing the breadth of Warhol’s investigation of the theme of violence and death, Gun offers a striking argument for the continuum between his early and late work as is currently being revisited with the current Whitney Museum of American Art’s Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, the first Warhol retrospective organized by a United States institution since 1989.

    Gun was created a little more than a decade after Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas, the occasional Warhol film actress and self-styled member of the revolutionary feminist group SCUM ("Society for Cutting Up Men"). The near-fatal assassination on June 3, 1968 at the Factory both physically and psychologically scarred Warhol. This traumatic event undoubtedly reverberates in Gun, which depicts a similar 0.22 revolver to the one that Solonas handed to the police along with the 0.32 automatic which she used for the crime. Fearing that Solanas, who served only one year in prison due to mental instability, would attack him again, Warhol became consumed by an intense phobia of death – even foregoing a gallbladder operation for fear he would not survive. Following Warhol’s return to painting after a self-imposed hiatus to focus on filmmaking between 1964 and 1972, this pervasive sense of mortality came to the fore again in his Skulls of 1976. Around the same time he was making these works, the artist stated: “I can’t say anything about [death] because I’m not ready for it” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, New York, 1977, p. 162).

    Whether or not Gun was informed by the 1968 shooting, it nevertheless presents a continuation of Warhol’s longstanding fascination with a theme that had given rise to his aptly titled Death and Disaster series. Warhol’s thematic treatment of death began in 1962 with 129 Die in Jet, which was based on a tabloid page covering an airplane crash taking place just two months before Marilyn Monroe’s death. Car crashes, suicides and electric chairs followed. His celebrity images convey a latent sense of fatal tragedy, whether that be more obliquely in his portraits of Elvis, or more explicitly in that of Jackie and, of course, Marilyn. As Warhol noted of the Marilyn images he conceived in the aftermath of her suicide, “I realized that everything I was doing must have been death” (Andy Warhol, quoted in Gene Swenson, “What is Pop Art?’’, Artnews, no. 62, November 1963, p. 60).

    Warhol, who had burst onto the art scene with images of American consumer staples like Campbell's Soup and Coca-Cola, was unflinching in turning his gaze to the dark underbelly of American life. In doing so, he clearly set himself apart from his Pop contemporaries. None other than Peter Halley highlighted the radical nature of his preoccupation with themes of death and disaster: “Warhol defined himself as an artist operating on a truly ambitious stage, willing to take on the big issues of human existence – mortality, the randomness of life and death, and the impersonal cruelty of state power. By so doing, he created a link for himself to not only the pessimistic humanism of Goya and Picasso, but, more importantly, to Abstract Expressionism and its existential and metaphysical concerns – concerns which had been mostly abandoned by the artists of the 60s” (Peter Halley, “Fifteen Little Electric Chairs”, Andy Warhol Little Electric Chair Paintings, exh. cat., Stellan Holm Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 40).

    In some ways, one can consider Gun as the 20th century incarnation of Goya’s The Third of May 1808, acknowledged as one of the first paintings of the modern era. Gone is all the heroism and glorification of traditional war painting as Goya made no attempt to soften the unvarnished brutality portrayed within its execution scene. Irreverently taking this to conclusion, Warhol hones in on the very instrument of violence: the rifle is updated to a handgun, magnified to epic scale as it hovers across the white canvas like a forensic object.

    Warhol here appears to be extending his very ambition of having his Pop images become “a statement of the symbols of the harsh, impersonal products and brash materialistic objects on which America is built today…” (Andy Warhol, quoted in “New Talent USA”, Art in America, 50, no. 1, 1962, p. 42). In contrast to his 1960s work that which was based on mass media imagery, however, many of Warhol’s work in the 1980s took as his point of departure Polaroids he had taken himself. As then studio manager Vincent Fremont recounted, “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” (Vincent Fremont, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 157). Ultimately, however, he decided to use a print advertisement of guns as his source imagery – turning his attention to the most easily accessible of these objects.

    Tightly cropping the image and blowing it up in the form of a silkscreen, Warhol has here overlaid two screens on the canvas with black paint. The resulting double image on the one hand evokes newsprint – particularly calling to mind the depiction of gun tabloid stories and print advertisements – but also conjures a blurred film still in a similar manner as the strobe effect in Double Elvis, 1963, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Whereas the barrel is rendered in crisp detail, the pistol grip is only a ghostly trace. The absence of a subject in Gun – both that of perpetrator and victim – ultimately heightens the gun’s status as an ambivalent symbol, one that has been equally glorified, sanitized and vilified in mass media and culture. Warhol remarked that he considered his Guns and Knives as abstract compositions, reflecting his overall preoccupation with abstraction at the time as evidenced in his Oxidation and Shadows paintings from the late 1970. As much as Gun speaks to Warhol’s formal considerations, content is not trivial in Warhol’s work.

    Indeed, beyond Warhol’s personal trauma, Gun presented a topical motif that held strong currency in American society in the 1980s. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X in the 1960s were still recent history when in 1980 John Lennon was assassinated and in 1981 President Ronald Reagan escaped an assassination attempt; the mandate of background checks on buyers of firearms as instilled by the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was still more than a decade away. Warhol was not unaware of the sectarian conflicts around the globe and the dawning of the neo-conservative Ronald Reagan era. In a diary entry dated July 16, 1980, Warhol expressed concern about the impending election of Ronald Reagan, who was campaigning with the slogan “Let’s Make American Great Again”, writing, “It does look scary” (Andy Warhol, 1980, quoted in Pat Hackett, ed., The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 2014, p. 312).

    It is not surprising that, although Warhol envisioned exhibiting his Guns and Knives alongside his Dollar Sign paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in January 1982, the guns and knives were edited out at the last minute. What would have offered the public an unsettling portrayal of American culture with the convergence of money, power and violence, ultimately was presented as a more readily digestible comment on consumerism. This must have been all too familiar for Warhol, whose Death and Disaster series were initially met with categorical rejection in the 1960s, above all in the United States. It is telling that the first exhibition of his Death and Disaster series was at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery in Paris in 1964 where they garnered favorable reviews. Their positive reception in Europe may have been due in part to its rich memento mori tradition, as seen in the Dance of Death murals and woodcuts starting in the 15th century or the tradition of vanitas still-lifes of the 16th and 17th century.

    Under Warhol’s seemingly affectless gaze and mechanized process of creation, the gun as a modern day memento mori suggests an ambivalent view of society – one that is countered by Warhol’s concurrent American Myths series, which put forth an idealized image of American media society featuring figures such as Superman and Mickey Mouse. In many ways, it presents the epitome of Susan Sontag’s description of Warhol as “that connoisseur of death and high priest of the delights of apathy” (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York, 2003, p. 101). The commonplace interpretation of Warhol’s paintings suggest detachment, yet in this there is also an ethical dimension. His attempt to achieve a machine-like demeanor, as Thierry de Duve has argued, can be considered a strategy of bearing witness: “To testify is neither to promise nor simple to expose; it is to attest to reality as it is, in the past or present” (Thierry de Duve, “Andy Warhol, or The Machine Perfected”, October, no. 48, Spring, 1989, p. 6).

    In many ways, Gun can be considered an heir to Warhol’s 1967 series of Electric Chairs that Hal Foster described as “a kind of modern crucifix” (Hal Foster, “Death in America”, October, vol. 75, 1996, p. 56). Death is only implied, and no longer depicted. Yet whereas the electric chair embodied a more sinister sense of foreboding and imminent death, the gun here has been wholly de-contextualized to a free-floating signifier not unlike René Magritte’s simulacra. In this sense, Warhol’s images, as Hal Foster observed, are both “referential and simulacral, connected and disconnected, affective and affectless, critical and complacent” (Hal Foster, “Death in America”, October, vol. 75, 1996, p. 39).

    Warhol’s strategy of ambivalence results in a continuous deferral of meaning as his works ricochet between detachment and engagement, superficiality and depth. This reflects what Roland Barthes theorized as the “Death of the Author”, whereby moving away from the question of authorial intent opens up a text to a multiplicity of interpretations: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, 1968, Image, Music, Text, New York, 1977, p. 148).

    If it is death that is implied in Gun, then by extension the playing field is opened up to the “birth of the viewer” in a way that directly implicates us. As curator Douglas Fogle pointedly put forward speaking of the Death and Disasters, though the questions equally applies to Warhol’s Guns: “What do they tell us about a culture in which disaster has become the staple of our televisual ways of seeing as the 24-7 coverage of tragedies on the cable news networks…become the equivalent of roadside accidents from which we can’t avert our gaze?” (Douglas Fogle, Supernova, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2005, p. 13). In a world where images proliferate to a degree that Warhol could only dream, it is clear that Gun remains as relevant now as nearly 40 years ago.

  • Artist Biography

    Andy Warhol

    American • 1928 - 1987

    Andy Warhol was the leading exponent of the Pop Art movement in the U.S. in the 1960s. Following an early career as a commercial illustrator, Warhol achieved fame with his revolutionary series of silkscreened prints and paintings of familiar objects, such as Campbell's soup tins, and celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe. Obsessed with popular culture, celebrity and advertising, Warhol created his slick, seemingly mass-produced images of everyday subject matter from his famed Factory studio in New York City. His use of mechanical methods of reproduction, notably the commercial technique of silk screening, wholly revolutionized art-making.

    Working as an artist, but also director and producer, Warhol produced a number of avant-garde films in addition to managing the experimental rock band The Velvet Underground and founding Interview magazine. A central figure in the New York art scene until his untimely death in 1987, Warhol was notably also a mentor to such artists as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.


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Property from a Private New York Collection

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stamped by the Estate of Andy Warhol and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., New York, initialed "VF" and numbered "PA15.055" on the overlap
synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas
70 1/8 x 90 1/4 in. (178.1 x 229.2 cm.)
Executed in 1981-1982.

$7,000,000 - 10,000,000 

Sold for $9,540,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018