PRINT May 1978

Problems “Relating to” Andy Warhol’s “Still Life 1976”

ANDY WARHOL’S STILL LIFE 1976 measures 72 by 86 inches, or approximately 6 by 7 feet. It consists of acrylic pigment painted and silkscreened onto canvas. In some sections the acrylic lies underneath the silkscreened hammer-and-sickle image; in others it is painted on top and in sections (largely) separate from the silkscreened image. The basic colors are red and black (with gradations from light gray to solid black).

The image is a reproduction of the real. That is to say, here, a hammer, given as such, a sickle, given as such, reproduced—re-imaged. The referent for this image, this painting, is a hammer from a hardware store, and a sickle from same. The signified, on the other hand, is a rather more complex matter. Obviously Communism is the concept signified by a hammer and sickle, but that is by adducing a system from the specific to the general. What I mean is that Communism is signified by a hammer and sickle when hammer-and-sickle is a general concept, when it is no longer the specificity of such a hammer and such a sickle, as here reproduced.

Moving from the specific to the general is the first step toward social meaning (the abstract). It is also the first step toward the theoretical: taking a momentary perception and moving that toward knowledge. Only when the immediate, specific perception is abstracted—only when it is constructed with a view to a possible knowledge or as a possible position in social meaning, in a social space of operation—can one move on from the ideology of spontaneity which sees meaning as residing only in immediate perception (the empiricist fallacy).

Meaning is not only always constructed; it is always already constructed. So it isn’t just a matter, then, of consuming meaning, but of replacing it as a pregiven construction in ideology. This is not to say that meaning can somehow escape the ideological, but, on the contrary, that meanings must be placed and seen in their ideological locations without the repressive mechanism which would give them a timelessness, an essence-of-truth value, outside their specific historical construction—outside their specific ideological moment . . . in the interests of (someone).

Every meaning is in the interests of. Every value is created toward something. Every immediate perception is the effect of something else: thus the emphasis on effect (without denying affect). To see an image, to accept (or not accept) a meaning, as if not produced as a specific effect but as a happenstance, is to deny the positioning of each signifier—each image, in this case—inside a chain of transformations, transformations which, each in their turn, effect, and are effects of, a process of meaning-construction. The point I am thus getting at is that the concept Communism is already a specific effect of transformation from the general image hammer and sickle, of a process of meaning-making and relativization which (re-)moves this specific reproduction of a specific hammer and sickle into “hammer and sickle.” This (re-)move, I am also positing, is a step (though one only) from perception (the immediately physiological) to knowledge (knowledge here not meant to signify mere scientific knowing of that which is represented, i.e. that it is such and such a hammer, such and such a sickle, in such and such a formal arrangement, but knowledge of the (necessary) processes and structurings involved to create (produce) a certain determinate effect, the certain determinate meaning which is created (produced) by “the image.”

To backtrack, and as to formal arrangement: without getting into a polemic on formalism (the meaning of which has radically changed since Russian Formalism), the form of the piece must be designated. And I am also here avoiding for the moment the form of the form, and the form of the content, and the content of the content, and the content of the form. I am speaking, more simply, of what we generally mean by the formal arrangement: how the hammer and sickle are set up for the first step of the process of reproduction into a photographic image. The hammer is standing “on its head,” the weight thus (from our knowledge of the physical laws of the real) in a noncontradictory position. We know such a hammer could in our lives be placed that way (on a table, on the floor, etc.). The sickle, on the other hand, is in an impossible position. It is in impossible balance, held at one end by nothing and at the other end by the unseen, out of frame. There is nothing within the image to give it a rationale for its physical positioning. It would fall over except that the frame edge allows precisely for the absent presence of a stabilizer, something to allow for the physical impossibility of the seen.

Thus offscreen space (as frequently in Warhol’s films) is, firstly, given in its very absence; it is, secondly, given as both problematic and nonproblematic. The offscreen space is given as nonproblematic because it allows for the possibility of a rationalizing inside the reproduction (the “real”), i.e. for the possibility that the image of the sickle is “true,” i.e. the documentation of a true state of physical position. The offscreen space, on the other hand, is given as problematic because there is no evidence of it. The right frame edge functions as the limit of the knowable, without clues as to the probability of such suppositions as given above. Thus the balancing of the sickle is within a construct of our not yet knowing of such information being possibly present (in absence). This creates an obvious tension vis à vis the real, vis à vis the possibility of documentary truth in the reproduction that is given in this image. Its constructedness is foregrounded, its procedure of construction—of nongivenness—is foregrounded. We are presented with certain forms, or signifiers; they are presented rather than used. This differentiation between presentation and usage is fundamental in an art which is aiming toward a materialism.

There is one other “possibility.” The sickle could, by leaning against the hammer, hold itself and the formal arrangement adequately. In that case, the right frame cutoff would not play the conflictual role which I’ve outlined, but instead the hammer’s position would be “out of sync” or “unreal”—outside the necessary convention of a first stage of acceptable veracity, of duplication. It would imply a weightlessness of the sickle vis à vis the hammer which our possibly incorrect “knowledge” from the real would belie; precisely what can be called an antidocumentary tension would thereby be created, one that, in other words, questions the legitimacy of what we perceive in terms of the categories of what we know. This antagonism, this contradiction, propels thought through the workings of the mechanisms which (this) painting, this image, is. Thus it is placed—and we are placed—inside a materialist procedure that disallows the simple apprehension/consumption of the meanings of one set of images (this specific painting’s) as if they were covered, cohesive, and closed by another (imaginary) set of images—the referents in the “world.”

Already what constitutes “the image” here, in the 6-by-7-foot painting called Still Life 1976, is a mechanism, an apparatus, a series of constructions in certain interests. The “material” which goes to make up such an image is given as construction, not the happenstance “capturing” of the real. The concept of the real is thus censored and not given its usual seamless, unproblematic reproduction and availability.

The whole series of constructions I have so far spoken of is built, of course, on the fact that the reproduction here of hammer and sickle is not simply such; it is constantly, in our viewing of the image, not such, but a reproduction inseparable from the painted—the acrylic application (through brush, or whatever) onto, and under, “the image.” For without that basis there would be simply (simply!) a photograph (color or not), and the foregrounding of the work’s constructedness would obviously give way to merely photographic veracity or the photographic documentation of an (however balanced or unbalanced) object or series of objects which then becomes the ostensible subject of a picture.

To get back to the painting: the image of hammer and sickle is inseparable in two ways from painting’s material: the image of hammer and the image of sickle, in themselves, are painted under, over and added to, thus not acknowledging, for instance, a privilege of the part that is purely photographic reproduction to hold onto the image as “its.” What I am getting at is that the ownership of the meaning is thereby separated from that of the strict photographic reproduction. The hegemony of the “true document” and the meanings that come with it are combated by disallowing “hammer” to mean “photograph of hammer” or sickle to mean “photograph of sickle.” Hammer instead is given to mean and to be produced as “hammer-as-constructed,” and sickle, similarly. And thus the acrylic “outlines”—the forms which in the end include the photographic reproduction of objects in the real but are not limited by them and are not fulfilled by them—are “the real.” The real is thus now redefined as the material operation which constructs the processes of meaning and image in and for this specific reproduction Still Life 1976.

Now the “next” step: the shadows. They might seem to be the shadows of the objects given, in such and such a figuration. But these shadows give themselves away (although there is no proof) as the specific effects of several light sources, conflicting positions for light outside of the deep-space frame “in” which “the objects” (in the first instance) are situated. One light source is set low, creating the shadow as sized greater than the object (a device common in Expressionist cinema, Nosferatu being one example); one light source is set high, creating the broad horizontal shadows that fill the lower right-hand area of the picture. In fact, the arrangement is more complex than these two light source descriptions suggest. The low left light would produce the tall shadow of the hammer handle, the left high light and the right high light would produce the horizontal shadow filling the lower right of the picture; the right medium-level light would produce the sickle’s shadow slightly below the strictly photographic sickle. Together, these shadows create an other image set, one which takes the deep space of the reproduction of the “original” hammer and sickle as photographed, and flattens that out into a painting, procedurally transforming that into something, breaking it, rupturing the surrounding space, breaking the coherent singularity of the final image we are constantly set up for (in this case, this one) and that is set up for us. Because we are not constructed in a single, unquestioned space as viewer-subjects. And the painting is even, in its final form, never really given its “final form” as a final form of anything other than its own material construction, thus repeatedly negating concepts like “final,” with their attendant meanings: the finished, the complete, holding meaning, binding itself cohesively to a teleology which, retrospectively, we can retrace as having been reached.

Let me explain. Shadows give themselves as the specific effects of light sources, light sources in this case outside the frame yet producing these effects inside the frame or reproduction. Conventionally, one is located, as viewer, in identification with a singular position inside ideology, the imaginary. That is to say: the all-knowing/viewing subject has complete unfragmented knowledge, in immediacy, of the real—the subject who creates the world through consciousness: “I think therefore I am, therefore it is.” This unquestioned solidity of the viewing subject (posited as a male inside a patriarchy) as all-seeing/knowing, in a superior position that permits apprehending in immediate perception, is an ideological construct that denies precisely the ideological pattern otherwise being constructed. Such a mode of consumption is inculcated exemplarily in antimaterialist work by the unceasing attempt to affirm the passive consumer of (pre-)given meanings, the undivided viewer who makes up (determinately) his “own” mind. These meanings are never given as determinate effects, but are taken as symptoms without cause, as givens, religiously. This, given, additionally, as the male, the rational, the maker of meaning—as opposed to the hysterical, “emotional,” labile other (the female)—is inseparable from such an ideology of viewing, and meaning-consumption. The repression of the specific values created, of the fact of exchange, of an economy of meaning and an economics of reproduction, of a teleology: all this is in certain interests, interests that are repressive not only of desire but also of a politics (of representation, the real, the psychoanalytic subject, the formation of textual and contextual meaning). And it works on behalf of the power to hold you in a position of consumption and to abolish for you the process of specific productions and constructions having the end in sight of changing such power relations. This confirms the established positions for the viewer-subject, the collapsing of perception and knowledge, the visions of unified, uncontradictory, complete phallic centers, in a constant regression into (infantile) fixations/fantasies at the expense of the alternative.

To return to the painting: in identification with the position from which this hammer’s and this sickle’s shadow can be seen one is constantly shfting from right to left and back, and from normal height to a “higher,” more theatrical, beam and a lower, uncomfortable, grounded one. The left low light would produce the tall shadow of the hammer handle; the left high light and the right high light, as mentioned already, would produce the horizontal shadow filling the lower right of the picture; the right medium level light would produce the sickle’s shadow slightly below the strictly photographic sickle: these series of shadows in their material inseparability “in” the picture, disallow an easy reading of the (merely) variously differently placed possible light sources inferred. Instead we are placed into a specifically constant shifting through the elicitation of a constant lack of knowledge, a constant unsureness, a constant ungivenness as to final cause, although always each effect is given as the determinate effect of a cause, never just given pure and simple. Thus the way the total image is constructed in Still Life 1976 forces the viewer into a constant shifting of identificatory subject-position.

By denying fulfillment, the mechanism of constant unease in an identification into something other (the imaginary, that which is not there but is phantasmed to be there for one or to be “in”) militates precisely against the repression of the time and the space of a piece. It militates against the repression of distance, within the picture, of its various relations, and between you and it as well. These distances cause specific, determinate effects, rather than evoking a unitary whole that could be identified into, as if the finished picture were mere stand-in for a character or a position.

This picture is, thus, unlike so many others, not an analog for some characterization of emotions or expressivity, which is then, in its turn, a double for a person(ality), for a series of humanizations and anthropomorphisms that lend themselves to being identified into. The whole concept of identification is problematic, as that force which impels a movement from one’s position in a social space of social meanings or a political space to and into a different human residence—another body or another figure—where the phantasms and fantasies, the realities of one’s projections, are enacted. Such projection-into is merely the obverse of introjection, that taking into oneself of pregiven meanings, positions, politics from the outside (interjecting the Laws of the Family, for example). The system of identification which ultimately reproduces the dominant codes of meaning and behavior, of sex position or of other “values,” is the basic support structure for precisely the telling of the (patriarchal) story, that recurrent search for the origin of truth, the Word, the Law, Power. Holding “oneself” in identifications and resisting breaks in them is precisely the apparatus of dominance, in which most cultural production operates (and some operates on it and some against it). Thus, the mechanism of producing constant unease in identification, of allowing no secure place for such, and of inculcated resistances and breaks, is at least an attempt at impossibility or an antagonism. The next step, of course, is to produce anti- and nonidentificatory works, combating the structure of identification as a “necessary” system.

Here the viewer is always in relation to a difficult text, in attempting to grasp the cause of its effects. But those causes are always outside; they are never given in “clarity,” even in their absence, and are not even closely opaque, precisely because the picture is a mechanism which propels the viewer into an analytical transformation that disallows an easy mechanistic reading back toward a retrospectively clear evolutionary beginning. Beginning is instead a denied, abrogated, final causality. The individual creator is absented from (this) text which is, then, like history, “a process without a subject” (Althusser). It is important to grasp this radical anti-humanism without falling into a mechanistic materialism that would see such painting as merely illustration of certain techniques, and also without falling into an idealism which would see such a painting as representing a full meaning and a full cohesive position “inside” the “consciousness” of an essential viewer.

The title, too, ought not to be forgotten: Still Life 1976. Not Opus this or that, not Abstract this or that, not Hammer and Sickle, even, but “still life.” A series of interpretations, all of them evident, could be offered here. Here are just some: a resolute determination to link this painting with “painting” in general, in which Still Life (dead life: nature morte) is the convention. Or “still,” with its attendant meaning: “yet,” “persisting,” “in the face of.” And the date “1976” within the title, giving it its historical time, rather than an eternal “timeless” metaphor, in which to find its context.

I have refrained from discussing any other Warhol paintings or films. I have not wanted, for instance, to consider those usages which unite them and those which do not, or to analyze, say, the way Warhol’s silkscreen technique differs radically from others (as it does). For the time being, I have not sought to speak of his work in the context of the work in the years 1960-1978. I have instead merely wanted to isolate beginning interests in relation to one painting.

Peter Gidal teaches at the Royal College of Art.