Warhol’s “Birmingham Race Riot”: Referential or Simulacral?

 

Andy Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964) is a black and white screen print made for Sam Wagstarr, curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, as a part of his exhibition Ten Work By Ten Painters[1]. The photograph, taken from the photo essay, “They Fight A Fire That Won’t Go Out” in Life Magazine by Charles Moore [2], depicts a nicely dressed African American man being attacked by two police dogs on leashes while many on lookers, only one white, are hurried along, Although very similar to the original, the screen print is more pixilated and has a higher contrast, which blurs the details and eliminates most of the grey scale. Besides these two aspects, however, it seems that the only other thing that has been altered from the original is that Warhol has flipped and cropped the image[3] so that the viewer is more focused on the action than the environment around it. This was not the first of Warhol’s riot works, in fact he created a series of Alabama race riot color prints, appropriately in patriotic red white and blue, for his “Death in America“ series, his international solo debut in Paris in January 1964.[4] However, he was not the only one taking notice of American culture during this period of art history. Artists such as Robert Frank, had become fascinated with America as the subject for their series of photographs depicting every day scenes in America while “identify[ing] the forces shaping the growing dominance of American consumer culture and anomic society.”[5] While Frank and Warhol both tended to focus on American’s consumer culture, in this piece Warhol turned to the more political aspects, recording one of the most fascinating parts in our history.

America during the 1960s was in a state of upset due to the fight for civil rights for African Americans led by Martin Luther King and its opposition. Although civil rights action was being taken all over the south, Birmingham, Alabama, where the original photograph was taken, was one of the central locations for many civil rights protests. In 1963 alone there were “anti –parades”, “marches” and luncheonette sit-ins which led to police violence and attacks by the Klu Klux Klan.[6]  The riots in the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, which are pictured in Warhol’s work, were “notorious across America”[7] as the civil rights movement was coming to its climax. This particular moment that Moore, the photo journalist, captured was a riot following a luncheonette sit in at one of the segregated lunch counters in Birmingham: protesters were attacked by dogs, sprayed with water hoses and Martin Luther King was arrested along with many others.[8]  The civil rights movement came to a victorious ending in 1968.[9] Nevertheless, Warhol’s piece was said to “commemorate the tensions in American popular life” and in some even believe it “illustrates the distance of the arts from such events.”[10]  However, this last statement is questionable: are we as observers entirely sure that Warhol was commenting on how American society was structured at this time?

There have been many debates over whether this piece of work should be considered referential, “tie[d]” into these “thematic issues” or simulacral, “desymboliz[ing] the object.” [11] There are many obvious signs of referential art in this work. Within Warhol’s techniques, the pixilation and high contrast create an allusion of blurriness, blurring the faces of the African American onlookers, while keeping the faces of the white policemen in great detail. This small element of the print reflects the feelings of white society during this time: African American men and women are unimportant and don’t deserve a distinct identity. In addition, in the center of the photograph between two onlookers, there is a white space between the trees that almost resembles an evil face. This white face within the negative space could represent white supremacy that was a constant presence in southern American society during the Civil Rights Movement. Anne Wagner, a history professor at University of California at Berkeley, makes several valid points on why this piece should be considered referential art. She mentions that in retrospect, the way this piece has been edited and displayed “expose[s] the shoddy mechanics of both contemporary art and society…he reveal[s] the hypocrisy of the social system and the absurdity of its culture”[12] Our society today, sees photographs like these and feels shocked and ashamed at the ridiculousness of what we, as a country, believed in. Wagner also describes this picture from a new perspective “it freezes black and white together, with the lunging dog to link the two” [13] This point of view is particularly enticing because it allows the viewer to interpret what the dog could represent: violence, the government, society?  She states plainly that there is “never any confusion in representation about the matter of race in America” and that this piece displays, even in these more modern times, the “white male master, black victim: the standard drama of race.”[14] Even years after slavery has been outlawed, a scene between the races can still represent a struggle that was started years ago and continued through the civil rights movement, this kind of representation can create a powerful reminder of the initial struggle that African Americans faced in our country.

Although there are many indications that this piece should be considered referential, there are also aspects that would suggest this work is simulacral.  One of the techniques that Warhol is best known for is his use of repetition in order for the image to lose its effect on the viewer. Although not used in this piece specifically, the work that he derived this from was repeated in a four times as part of his artwork. This artist history could indicate that he did not have any interest in making a political statement within his work on this topic but instead was hoping to take away its meaning. Continuing on the theme of repetition, other sources state that with this piece Warhol is “establishing irregular patterns of repetition, cropping to undermine their narrative coherence…overlapping impression in one work to further emphasize the effects of confusion and blur.”[15] This manipulation does create a sense of “confusion and blur” but this feeling does not necessarily create a meaning for the work or cause it to symbolize something. Wagner also makes an interesting point about the “blur” in this photograph, “Warhol seems to lose sight of distinctions among perpetrators and victims and causes-about the agents and objects of history”[16] She is claiming here that Warhol has used his blurring effect to the extent that the viewer loses the context of the painting and therefore if the context is gone, the artist is desymbolizing the object. Art Historian, John Blakinger, takes Wagner’s argument a step further by stating “Warhol graphically ruptures previously operational images-photographs that succeeded in fulfilling a performative function within life’s pages- and thus aims to destroy their original content.”[17] According to Blakinger, Warhol has stripped this photograph of all possible meaning making it simply a picture on the wall, which would definitely suggest this piece is simulacral. Although the painting originally symbolized the struggles the African American population had to endure, Warhol’s techniques for this work has taken away all meaning causing the piece to be simulacral.

However, Blakinger states there is a third way of looking at this work. According to him this piece “operates as both simulacral and referential mediating effect by screening viewers from it and providing access to it”[18] Furthermore, Blakinger suggests that Hal Foster’s theory of Traumatic Realism uses both referential and simulacral aspects by “point[ing] less to a blank subject than to a shocked one who takes on what shocks him as a mimetic defense against this very shock.”[19] Looking back on the subject of this print, I do believe it emotes a feeling of shock and so many other conflicting emotions that viewers are unsure how to react especially if the viewer is seeing these kinds of images for the first time. The piece “inevitably permits interpretive ambivalence.”[20]

In reviewing all three arguments, I believe this piece was not made in order to bring up themes of political controversy (referential) or to have these images of our past become devoid of meaning (simulacral), instead I think the piece is meant to make viewers feel unsteady as is indicated in Traumatic Realism. “Birmingham Race Riot” forces the viewer to be shocked at first, but quietly allows them to reflect on our past as a country, to realize how far we have come and form our own interpretation on what the meaning of this piece is. Blakinger says there will be no “coherent reaction” [21] to Warhol’s “Birmingham Race Riot”; our country and its past means something different to every individual. Despite this original difference, or perhaps because of it, we realize that in our individuality there is the coherence of being an American.


[1] Frei, Georg and Neil Printz, eds. 2004. Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969. Vol 2A of The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2002-.

[2] Anne M. Wagner, “Warhol Paints History, or Race In America”, Representations 55 (1996) : 105

[3] “’Birmingham Race Riot’ Andy Warhol” Tate Organization, Accessed: February 14th, 2014 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-birmingham-race-riot-p77809/text-display-caption

[4] John R. Blakinger, 2012. “Death In America and Life Magazine: Sources for Andy Warhol’s Disaster Paintings” Artibus et Historiae, 32 (66): 470

[5] Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004) 469

[6] “50 Years Ago: The World in 1963” The Atlantic, Accessed: March 15th, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/02/50-years-ago-the-world-in-1963/100460/

[7] “’Birmingham Race Riot’ Andy Warhol” Tate Organization, Accessed: February 14th, 2014 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-birmingham-race-riot-p77809/text-display-caption

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] “’Birmingham Race Riot’ Andy Warhol” Tate Organization, Accessed: February 14th, 2014 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-birmingham-race-riot-p77809/text-display-caption

[11] Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004) 487

[12] Anne M. Wagner, “Warhol Paints History, or Race In America”, Representations 55 (1996): 101

[13] Ibid 108

[14] Ibid 111

[15] Frei, Georg and Neil Printz, eds. 2004. Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969. Vol 2A of The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonne. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2002-.

[16] Anne M. Wagner, “Warhol Paints History, or Race In America”, Representations 55 (1996):110

[17] John R. Blakinger, 2012. “Death In America and Life Magazine: Sources for Andy Warhol’s Disaster Paintings” Artibus et Historiae, 32 (66): 271

[18] Ibid, 270

[19] Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004) 486

[20]John R. Blakinger, 2012. “Death In America and Life Magazine: Sources for Andy Warhol’s Disaster Paintings” Artibus et Historiae, 32 (66): 271

[21]John R. Blakinger, 2012. “Death In America and Life Magazine: Sources for Andy Warhol’s Disaster Paintings” Artibus et Historiae, 32 (66): 271

 

Sara Guernsey, Wesleyan Class of 2015

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