Birmingham Race Riots - Andy Warhol

1964.

Screenprint on Paper

       Pop artist, Andy Warhol, used notions of the American flag to critique the injustice of American democracy. Birmingham Race Riot, 1964, was part of Warhol’s Disaster Series, a mediation on death in America. During the early 1960s, Warhol used images from magazines and newspapers that chronicled catastrophes, conflict, and death. He made multiple silkscreen paintings of the Birmingham Race Riot, and the picture used was taken directly from a newspaper -changed only in size and color.

     Each silkscreen was red, white, or blue. These colors evoked those of the American flag and the democracy that it stood for. By using these colors, Warhol made a sarcastic statement about the injustice occurring in the South, where African Americans were largely considered to be second-class citizens. Thus, these colors represent the hypocrisy in American life. Despite the fact that the country was founded on democratic ideals, it remained clear that in the 1960s democracy had not been extended to all of its citizens.

       Despite the criticism inherent in Warhol’s use of color, the Birmingham Race Riot silkscreens are presented in the same way as his famed soup cans and celebrity stills. They project a similar lack of emotional resonance. By multiplying images almost like wallpaper, Warhol emphasizes the flattening effect of mass media. Thus, the multiplying of images creates equally attractive yet meaningless patterns. This flattening and distant effect commemorates the tensions in American popular life at the time, and forcefully illustrates the distance of arts from such events. By painting with mass-printing techniques, Warhol questioned the relative value of “original” as opposed to “commercial art, which became key to the painting’s content. The flat screen-printing an enhanced contrast of the photographic image, heightened its distinction between black and white, and presented it as a moment worth preserving.

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Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger - Faith Ringgold
1969. 
Oil on canvas,
ACA Galleries, New York, NY.
    Jasper Johns’ Flag continued to be a source of inspiration for other artists, and its influence can be directly seen in Faith Ringgold’s painting, Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969. The mood of the piece, made at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, is in direct contrast to Johns’ Flag. It is politically charged and incredibly explicit, opposing the ambivalence and ambiguity present in Johns’ work. Here the critique of America is unavoidable, and the goal of the piece is more than to just generate thought in the viewer. 
      The message is meant to be both vulgar and confrontational. When asked why she inscribed the words “die” behind the stars and “nigger” behind the stripes Ringgold responded, “It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story. I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America.” Thus for Ringgold, the American flag could never be looked upon with ambivalence. The violence and racism imposed on her life was unavoidable and she communicated this message explicitly to her viewers.  


 

Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger - Faith Ringgold

1969.

Oil on canvas,

ACA Galleries, New York, NY.

    Jasper Johns’ Flag continued to be a source of inspiration for other artists, and its influence can be directly seen in Faith Ringgold’s painting, Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969The mood of the piece, made at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, is in direct contrast to Johns’ Flag. It is politically charged and incredibly explicit, opposing the ambivalence and ambiguity present in Johns’ work. Here the critique of America is unavoidable, and the goal of the piece is more than to just generate thought in the viewer.

      The message is meant to be both vulgar and confrontational. When asked why she inscribed the words “die” behind the stars and “nigger” behind the stripes Ringgold responded, “It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story. I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America. Thus for Ringgold, the American flag could never be looked upon with ambivalence. The violence and racism imposed on her life was unavoidable and she communicated this message explicitly to her viewers.

 

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Flag -Jasper Johns

1962.

Oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood

Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

        The American flag has been used to criticize notions of American democracy. First appearing in Jasper John’s, Flag, it continued to be used by other artists to represent their own experiences as Americans. Created in a time of political turmoil, including the height of the Cold War and the beginning of the African American Civil Rights Movement, the piece was meant to evoke question in the viewer.  

        Using the encaustic technique used by ancient Egyptians, John painted through a mixture of pigment and molten wax. These formed a series of lumps and smears that made the newspaper scraps underneath the stripes visible. Along with its forty-eight stars, the scraps of newspaper could be seen as the debris of American political life, giving this icon historical specificity that spoke to a narrative of America          

        However, it is important to note that Johns’ work retains ambiguous and ambivalent qualities that do not offer direct criticism or protest. Viewers of Flag walked up to the piece with various experiences of American life, and thus the work held a different meaning to each viewer. Much of the protest artwork of the 1950s offered only critiques of American life on a larger scale. Protest works, such as Johns’, were less explicit in their criticisms than the ones that arose in the 1960s.


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