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How Warhol Did Not Murder Painting but Masterminded the Killing of Content

By Francesco Bonami

“If empathy defines what it means to be human, then one day androids will be given this ability. If to be human means to have a sense of the sacred, then they will believe in God, will sense his presence in their souls, and with all their circuits firing will sing his praises. They will have feelings and doubts, they will know anguish and fear. They will express their fears in books that they will write. And who will be able to say whether their empathy is real, whether their piety, their feelings, their doubts, and their fears are genuine or merely convincing simulations?” —Emmanuel Carrère

Avoiding any revision of art history, can we ask ourselves, “Was Andy Warhol an android?” Androids are those “people” described by Philip K. Dick in his sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? made world famous by Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation, Blade Runner. Looking at Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings, it is logical to question his empathy for the subjects he selected for his canvases. Warhol never pretended to be a social critic; in fact, he was proud to be a socialite. His doubts, feelings, fears, and anguish were not about the society he was living in but about his place in society. We could go along with Warhol’s attitude and still enjoy his amazing work, his capacity to extract from the drama of the world the best possible images, transforming them into icons. We could still go along with the surface and the superficiality and stick with his role in the art world and art history.

We could go along with this simulation and his simulation, but … Yes, there is a but, even for the supernova Andy Warhol, because history has changed and forced us to look at these works through the lens of our time. In the last few years a few forgotten names have been brought back from the past: names like Edgar Ray Killen, the man who instigated the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964; Byron De La Beckwith, who killed Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963; and Thomas Blanton Jr., who participated in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young girls were killed. For more than forty years we believed in a simulation of justice, until these people were dragged out from their darkness in a series of atonement trials in which they were finally convicted for their crimes. It was not about truth and reconciliation, because nobody was able to say the truth or to be reconciled with that past, but it was about the final closure of an open wound within American society.

In the years of the civil rights struggles, Andy Warhol was pillaging the chronicles to build one of his most important bodies of work. Did he care about what was going on in his country? Did he care about the outrageous reality that was unraveling under the feet of American democracy? My guess is that he did not, as many other New Yorkers did not, committed to the swinging rhythm of the roaring sixties. He did not look the other way—in fact, he looked very carefully at what was happening—but he was able to neutralize and purify of moral content anything he could see as possible subject matter for his paintings. Jacqueline Kennedy’s sorrow at JFK’s funeral and the violence toward civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham had for Warhol the same aesthetic weight and social value. Does this attitude make him guilty of something? In theory not, and I don’t know of anybody who has raised this issue, has questioned whether we can still accept Warhol’s genius without questioning his moral and political detachment from the dramatic events that were reshaping a society in which he, as an artist, was living and prospering.

I know that this sounds moralizing, but what we would have done if an artist working in the 1980s had exploited the imagery of the AIDS crisis simply for its aesthetic value, voided of its political and social implications? Warhol was spared the nightmare of political correctness, but that is not a justification for not taking a second look at a body of work that used issues without addressing them. People were killed, lynched, burned, and discriminated against, and Andy was painting, Andy was dreaming of electric sheep, Andy was composing history using its music and discarding its screams. He was doing all of this almost in real time. On May 17, 1963, three photographs by Charles Moore of civil rights demonstrators being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, were reproduced as a double-page spread in Life magazine. By the end of June 1963 Pink Race Riot, Mustard Race Riot, Race Riot, and other variations were coming out of Warhol’s studio.

There is a disturbing synchronicity between the events that were unfolding in the southern United States and Warhol’s artistic production. His hand seemed to dig into reality while it was still hot but with no fear of being burned. He was extremely alert to the images pouring out from the news but totally detached from their implications. He was no Théodore Géricault. The latter made clear his sorrow and indignation over the tragedy of the Medusa, in which a group of sailors were abandoned to their destiny in the middle of the ocean following a shipwreck, an event that created a scandal in the French government. Géricault painted his masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819), without sparing the viewer any of the emotional implications of the event, and his work provoked the ire of the authorities. Warhol did the opposite, offering the viewer simply the beauty of horror, a very dangerous concept often applied to images appearing from the hell of the Holocaust (for example, photographs of mountains of shoes or of bodies in mass graves). The seduction of repeated images, their balanced composition, the archaic stillness of the German shepherd in the foreground, act in conjunction to erase the humiliating vision of another dog biting the back of a black demonstrator, transforming the tragic document into a sort of slapstick.

I don’t think that Warhol was at all aware of the effects of his technique and creative talent on the material he was using. He was dramatically and desperately sincere in his renunciation of any political or social critique. He didn’t like what was happening, but he could not help liking what what was happening revealed. Images of death, disaster, and violence make news and mesmerize people, and that is what Warhol was interested in. Average people like fame and fame by default, that is, death. Andy Warhol was an average person and was proud of it. Until trouble reaches them, average people don’t like to be mixed up with it. Eventually trouble caught up with Warhol, through the delusional rage of Valerie Solanas, head of the one-person organization SCUM, but it was too late to transform him into an activist.

The reaction to Warhol’s first show in Paris in 1964 at Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery—which included Pink Race Riot, together with other Death and Disaster paintings—was mixed. The American poet John Ashbery, who served as the Paris-based art critic for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that the work “marks a turning point in the Pop movement.” He continued: “From the beginning there has been a polemical element in Pop art, but it is one thing to poke fun at supermarkets and TV commercials, and another to use art as a means of confronting us with the raw terror of so much that happens today. … With Warhol … his latest work is unmistakably polemical, or as the French say, engagé. And he brings all his tremendous talent for meaningful decoration to the task of putting his message across. His show shakes you up.”

The French critic Gérald Gassiot-Talabot, however, writing in Art International, questioned the paintings’ validity as art, focusing on the technique rather than the content: “Warhol and his peers demand that we radically revisit the criteria for aesthetic appreciation—insofar as these artists assert, with often delicious cynicism, a conceptual and technical laziness whereby they prefer the methods of automatic reproduction to the vagaries and tiresome aspects of traditional craft. Unfortunately, so long as the definition of art presupposes personal, voluntary intervention by the painter, Warhol will reside in that indistinct fringe of creative depersonalization where the refuse collectors of Nouveau Réalisme … have erected a whole swath of current artistic practice, while possessing a human note that Pop does not.”

The French and other Europeans did not seem to interpret this body of work as condemning the United States as a violent, racist society. Instead they seemed to accept Warhol’s paintings as another manifestation of what they felt was the biggest threat to their monopoly on contemporary culture, engineered by the crassly commercial New York art world. Ashbery’s response notwithstanding, I don’t think that political awareness was yet dominating the discussion in any part of the art world. A few more years needed to pass in order to see visual art become an outlet for the counterculture and radical politics. The civil rights struggle was a marginal and faraway event for the European intelligentsia.

As Gassiot-Talabot’s comments suggest, the outrage in the art world at the time was not about politics, but about the disruption of the idea of painting. The silkscreen technique was transforming the canvas from a surface into a screen. Warhol—along with Robert Rauschenberg, who in the summer of 1964 became the first American to win the grand prize at the Venice Biennale—was jeopardizing the future existence of those painters who were still discussing color and form rather than content. The civil rights movement, compared with the crumbling of colonial empires in places such as Algeria and Vietnam, was probably for Europe simply a footnote from a childish society with a few growing pains. Andy Warhol’s art confirmed this idea of a childish society. The revolutionary aspect was confined to its aesthetics, not its ethics.

Today it is not easy to accept the kind of flirtation with the repetitive patterns of tragedy that Warhol transformed into some of his signature pieces. At the same time the detached commentary of the Race Riot paintings and similar works placed Warhol in the very limited realm of great artists who have portrayed the events of their day—a realm populated by names like Velásquez, David, Géricault, Delacroix, Goya, Picasso, and, I’m afraid, very few others. It is perhaps a kind of natural aloofness, irresponsibility, or superficiality that allows a great artist to represent history as a work of art and not simply as a cold document. Warhol walked a tightrope over the gorge of frigid documentation, but his selection of background colors and balancing of negative space saved him from falling. The background color became a kind of beautiful screen, mitigating the harshness of the subject matter, transforming the images into dreamlike visions rather than documents. Whether motivated by cynicism or some mysterious philosophical bent, Warhol grasped the possibility that history and its tragedy are nothing but wallpaper for our identities and souls.

In saying this, I may be granting Warhol more credit than he deserves and a depth that he never dared to dip into. Among the painters who have succeeded in creating great works addressing momentous events, I deliberately left out Gerhard Richter, who perhaps produced the last great cycle of historical canvases with October 18, 1977, which commemorates the deaths of members of the Baader-Meinhof group, militant political activists who were part of the Red Army Faction. Whereas Warhol was frigid toward his subjects, Richter has the remoteness of depression. His methodical way of painting and the murkiness of the images, as well as his selection of subjects, suggest the slowness of memory and forgetfulness. In fact, he began painting the October 18, 1977 cycle eleven years after the event, when the facts were on the verge of fading from the collective memory. This gap of time gave him a credibility that spared him some of the accusations of exploiting a national and human tragedy. Richter never painted images of the Holocaust, carefully avoiding any confrontation with his latent guilt as a German individual. But his method, like memory, does not allow for any atonement or closure. All of Richter’s images are trapped in a limbo between feelings and reality, while Warhol’s bulimic capacity to swallow the moment and spit it out as another image helped the Deaths and Disasters to escape both feelings and reality and transform themselves into pagan icons, devoid of any moral weight.

In Philip K. Dick’s book, the main character, Rick Deckard, belongs to a quasireligious cult that uses a ritual instrument called an empathy box. In Dick’s future, people need this because they have lost the normal capacity to feel emotion. This small appliance allows its users to identify with another person by making them imagine that they are sharing the suffering of Wilbur Mercer, a legendary figure on whom the cult is centered. They hallucinate images of Mercer climbing a mountain, experiencing fatigue, rest, sadness, joy, and so on. We find out at the end of the novel that this instrument is based on a fraud. Mercer is exposed by the talk show host Buster Friendly as a pathetic Hollywood actor fallen on hard times. Mercer appears to confirm the scam, yet that doesn’t change a thing, he says, “Because you are still here and I’m still here.” Warhol could have owned an empathy box; he could have been, and probably was, a sort of a fraud. Yet that doesn’t change a thing. Today we could not accept Warhol’s superficial, apolitical positions, but—yes, there is another but—we are still here, and luckily so are his paintings.


This essay originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, published by the Walker Art Center in 2005.

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Race Riot and Pink Race Riot, both 1963

Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Race Riot, 1963

Photo: Gene Pittman

Spread from the May 17, 1963, issue of LIFE magazine with photographs that served as source images for the Race Riot paintings

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Marilyn Diptych, 1962, at left, and Sixteen Jackies and Nine Jackies, both 1964, at right

Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Twelve Electric Chairs, 1964/1965, in foreground

Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Lavender Disaster, 1963

Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with a selection of Warhol’s car-wreck pieces from 1963

Photo: Gene Pittman