‘I’m doing knives and guns. Just making abstract shapes out of them’ – Andy Warhol
After largely avoiding representational imagery during the late 1970s, in 1981, Andy Warhol abandoned his abstract paintings for his series Guns and Knives. Initially drawn to daggers and épées, Warhol had planned to photograph the collection of blades owned by the musician Chris Stein, but after printing the preliminary photographs, he decided to use ordinary kitchen knives. Created in 1982, Knives features a shadowy pile of menacing chef knives, set against a shimmering silver ground. Printed through a screen, the flat forms of the knives are blurred, their soft outlines recalling the artist’s earlier abstract compositions. Indeed, the capacity for misregistration by the silkscreening process greatly appealed to Warhol, and he actively exploited every distorted impression and blotch. If the mechanised image negates the details of the knives, it heightens the painting’s ominous tones, by mimicking the mass production techniques used by newspapers and magazines. Evidence of an uncommitted crime, the work screams out for a headline. Indeed, Warhol saw the simple household tool as symbolic of America’s sinister underbelly, a paranoia that perhaps developed following the attempt on his life by Valerie Solanas in 1968; in the aftermath of the shooting, representations of violence, death and mortality became a leitmotif for the artist. By transforming such dangers into high art, Warhol gestured towards the paradoxes of contemporary life in which aesthetics routinely anesthetize provocation and violence. As his former assistant, Vincent Fremont, observed, the work remains a ‘stark reminder of the violent society we live in, then and now’ (V. Fremont, Cast a Cold Eye: The Late Work of Andy Warhol, New York, 2006, p. 157). Knives is both a blunt threat and emblematic of Warhol’s fascination with death and disaster.