‘They retain the hand-done look and varied surface textures that characterize his early paintings and demonstrate that Warhol’s initial thinking about printmaking technique was closely linked to his painting’ (R. Bernstein, ‘Warhol as Printmaker’, in F. Feldman and J. Schellmann, Andy Warhol Prints: Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1985, p. 10).
In the early 1960’s, at the same time that Warhol was making his breakthrough photo-based silkscreen works on canvas, he simultaneously created a small group of black and white works on paper including Cagney, Suicide, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), and the present works, Race Riot, and Ambulance Disaster. Warhol had a direct and personal involvement with their creation, primarily hand-printing each one himself. The prints were inked in monochromatic tones and screened in a method that retained the graininess and immediacy of the primary sources from which they were based. Warhol intervened with this raw imagery, however, through his purposeful cropping of the image, which in many respects served at once to further objectify the scene and heighten its anonymity. In addition, these prints display the range of ink saturations possible with the silkscreening process, a technique he was captivated by for its ability to ‘get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it’ (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ‘60s, New York 1980, p. 22). Warhol adopted a casual approach to screenprinting, combining conscious intent with accidental results, tendencies which belie his stance of total detachment from the process. By subverting the mechanical aspect of the medium through uneven and off-register printing, he exploits the mechanical and commercial implications of silkscreening to challenge the romantic notion of the ‘artist’s hand’. In this way, one can see Warhol working through the possibilities of the medium in these breakthrough screenprints, developing some of the major themes that he would explore for the rest of his career. These small imperfections from the silkscreening processes play a critical role in Warhol’s art: it is through the sheer volume of repetition of images that these unique attributes lose their conspicuousness.
This parallels Warhol’s own belief surrounding the shocking imagery presented by the mass media on a daily basis. ‘When you see a gruesome picture over and over again’ he said, ‘it doesn’t really have any effect’ (A. Warhol, quoted in ‘Interview with Gene Swenson’, Art News, New York, November 1963). The mechanical process of replicating the image and the monotonous repetitive application of the screen desensitizes the viewer to tragedy. Constant repetition deconstructs the meaning of an image and reveals its true artificial nature as merely a banal abstract surface. Through the flat, impersonal anonymity of the silkscreen-painting technique, the artist’s presence and authorship remains seemingly absent or indifferent. The exploration of the desensitizing of the audience and the nullification of meaning through repeated imagery is ultimately what most distinguishes Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. As Swenson notes, ‘Warhol’s repetitions of car crashes, suicides and electric chairs are not like the repetition of similar and yet different terrible scenes day in and day out in the tabloids. These paintings mute what is present in the single front page each day, and emphasize what is present persistently day after day in slightly different variations. Looking at the papers, we do not consciously make the connection between today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s “repetitions” which are not repetitions’ (G.R. Swenson, The Other Tradition, Philadelphia 1966, p. 36).
With his Race Riot paintings, Warhol turned his attention to one of the most contentious subjects in contemporary politics. The haze of newsprint dots coalesce into the formal constructs of positive black ink and the negative space of the white paper, creating an initial reading of the surface as a pattern of contrasting areas of light and dark; as details come into focus, patterns coalesce into a single harrowing image. Contour, light and shadow are all conveyed in the gradient of black and white, recalling the graininess of the photographic reproductions to call attention to its origin as a found image. Created in the spring of 1963, Warhol’s Race Riot paintings were an immediate and perhaps impulsive response to a feature that Warhol saw in Life magazine entitled ‘The Dogs’ Attack is the Negro’s Reward’ which appeared on May 17 of that year. The images taken by Charles Moore of policemen with dogs attacking civil rights protesters on the 3rd of May caused a national outcry in response to the now visible struggle for civil rights in the United States, which suddenly exploded into full public view. All at once, it seemed, stark and disturbing images of young American black men, women and children under assault by fire-hoses and police attack dogs on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, began appearing across the world’s media engines when a peaceful organized mass protest against Southern segregation laws turned violent and ugly.
When Warhol was asked for the reason he had chosen to paint such loaded, provocative and contentious imagery however, he responded with a shocking but also with typical indifference, saying that the Life feature was just something that had ‘caught my eye’ (A. Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 154). The specifics of the conflict almost certainly mattered little to Warhol. Talking to Gene Swenson in November 1963, Warhol referred to these works as ‘the dogs in Birmingham’. Similarly in a sketch for his later series of ‘little Race Riots’, he referred to these images incorrectly as ‘Mongomerty (sic), dog, Negro’. Indeed, what was important from his point of view was not that these images documented a watershed moment in American history, but that they represented a pervasive mood of crisis which had consumed the nation.
The Race Riot paintings again reveal Warhol’s unerring, almost prophetic ability to select, isolate and transform a single image into a provocative and quizzical icon that stands as a symbol for an entire area of contemporary culture. Seeming to encapsulate the whole concept of violence and injustice in one unforgettable image, Warhol’s Race Riots are in fact portentous icons of the entire cycle of protest and political violence into which 1960s America was later to descend. It was a cycle that would lead to the increasing politicisation of America’s youth throughout the decade and which would spill over into the tragic violence of 1968 culminating in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and indeed, (within his own small circle), with the near-fatal shooting of Warhol himself.