Birmingham Race Riot (1964), Andy Warhol

Warhol’s ability to represent the intensity of the riot lies in the color, content, and mysterious quality of the image. His decision to maintain the black and white nature of the photograph (unlike Red Race Riots)[1] reiterates the contrast between black and white, both in art and in society. The black faces are obscured, blending into one another and the background: an apt portrayal of their treatment in an inequitable society. The white men, however, are easily identifiable by their crisp, white uniform, marking their established, respected role within the community. Furthermore, the centrality of the German shepherd viciously biting the pants of a protester emphasizes the inhumane ways in which these riots were quelled and its protesters harmed. When Moore witnessed the fierce dogs, he declared, “I don’t think anything appalled me more and I’ve been to Vietnam:”[2] an expression of shock and horror the image itself elicits. Lastly, the grainy, unpolished touch achieved by the printmaking process injects the image with a sense of chaos and imperfection. The lack of refinement echoes the gritty, raw nature of Birmingham, while simultaneously emphasizing the confusion inherent in mass protests. Warhol’s appropriation and adaptation of Moore’s photograph serves justice to the mood and atmosphere of this impassioned Civil Rights riot.


[1] John Yau, In The Realm of Appearances The Art of Andy Warhol, (New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1993), 104.

[2] Jan Gardner, “Stories His Images Told: Charles Moore,” Nieman Reports, http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102670/Stories-His-Images-Told-Charles-Moore.aspx (accessed 16 Feb 2014).

 

 

Warhol’s employment of print making, a technique often associated with repetition, appropriation, mass production, and minimal artistic skill, hinders this image’s ability to be viewed as a representative work of the Civil Rights Movement. The multiple copies of this image make it difficult to view this as an original piece of art, which appears incompatible with the irreproducibility of the moment captured. One could contest that the numerous copies exposed the public to the protesters, their ambitions, and the resistance they encountered. However, ultimately, the repetition creates a “barrier between the viewer and the event”[12] by undermining the individualistic, fleeting nature of the precise moment captured. Furthermore, Warhol’s use of Moore’s photographs, which Moore later sued Warhol for,[13] creates an ambiguous sense of ownership. Warhol’s dependency on Moore’s photograph generates a sense of dissonance with the image itself, as the protesters depicted were advocating for their right to be autonomous individuals. Furthermore, printmaking’s methodological qualities remove Warhol from the work itself, since a sense of personal, visceral engagement with the paper is largely absent. The image’s emotional, humanistic qualities require a stronger connection among the artist, his work, and its context.

 

 

[12] John Yau, In The Realm of Appearances The Art of Andy Warhol, (New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1993), 104.

[13] Anne M. Wagner, “Warhol Paints History, or Race in America,”Representations, no. 55 (1996), 106.

This entry was posted in Student Research on Davison Art Center Objects. Bookmark the permalink.