Andy Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot

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.

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


[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

[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

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