At the Warhol exhibit at The Whitney, in a glass case at the end of a wall, towards the end of the exhibit and surrounded large and both well-known and less known pieces, is a group of small, gray, low contrast photographs. These were produced to be made into larger silk screen ‘paintings’. Of these, one photograph landed as possibly my favorite piece in the show; a photograph of hammer and sickle with a Big Mac. (There was also a related one of a hammer and sickle with a loaf of wonder bread). The paintings made from these photographs have been written about and are more familiar, however somehow these small photographs feel like they have more impact and are funnier.
As somebody who gives primary value to the visual experience it’s surprising to me that I should respond to something so dull in appearance. At the time that this work was made the US and USSR were still locked in the embrace of The Cold War. That this image is so blunt and undramatic stands in stark contrast to the high stakes of potential nuclear annihilation.
What struck me though is that this image can be seen as prophetic. I’m not claiming clairvoyance on the part of Warhol; however, from where we stand the inclusion of these actors on this still-life stage, in this way, makes me consider how these two countries have become more alike than could have been expected, and not in a good way. Hegelianly speaking the opposing theses of Democratic Capitalism and Communist Totalitarianism have synthesized into a paradigm of Totalitarian Capitalism. Certainly that seems to be the direction we’re moving as Russia and The US take on the worst qualities of the other. This, though not the image, makes me think of one of the opening passages from Macbeth, describing an ongoing battle in terms of two spent swimmers grappling together and so both drowning.
This reflection brings the piece in line with the morbid aspect of Warhol, which runs underneath the dominant layers of humor, irony, distance and shallowness. For all that snarky humor and distance, and all that I may be projecting too much into this piece, I can’t shake this odd little image and with it, grief for the present and future that we have collectively created.