Andy Warhol on Race and Ethnicity

Whether we examine Warhol’s work from a Marxist viewpoint or through the lens of queer studies, what has been sidestepped in nearly every discussion is his relationship to race and ethnicity.

YauAugust 29, 2020

Andy Warhol, “Mao” (1972) (image via Flickr)

Andy Warhol is widely credited as the artist who broke down the barrier between high art and mass culture. He demystified art and turned out products — his Campbell’s soup cans, his Marilyn Monroe — that were instantly legible. His genius was to employ silkscreen, a mechanical means of production, to churn out these aesthetic goods, closing the gap between oil painting and the machine-made item. Oil painting was, after all, a bourgeois craft, while silkscreen was an easily learned skill that did not require any special talent.

Warhol brought painting to its logical, historical conclusion by making it an obsolete practice. More importantly, he replaced making with thinking, helping art become a pure activity, as exemplified by Marcel Duchamp. This view, which is rooted in Marxism and the belief in historical progress, has prevailed for years. The problem is that it ignores the content of Warhol’s art.

For the first of two series of interviews, titled “What Is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters,” in the November 1963 issue of ARTnews, Gene Swenson spoke to Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, and Warhol. It was in this interview that Warhol famously said:

I think everybody should be a machine.

I think everybody should like everybody.

While some critics believe these statements reveal Warhol’s distrust of both art and feelings, others have pointed out that the answers were taken out of context in the published version of the interview, and what was removed was the queer content. According to Jonathan Flatley and Anthony E. Grudin, in an article that appeared in an issue of Criticism (Summer 2014) devoted to Warhol, his answer can be read as “making room for alternative, queer ways of feeling and of being with others in the world.”

Whether we examine Warhol’s work from a Marxist viewpoint or through the lens of queer studies, what has been sidestepped in nearly every discussion of it is his relationship to race and ethnicity.

In 1962, when Warhol stated — two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that “everybody should like everybody,” was he also supporting an acceptance of racial and ethnic difference? Or should we dismiss this subject and go along with Julian Schnabel, who opined in “Warhol: A Collective Portrait of Andy Warhol” (Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, 1989): “What Andy chose to select is as impossible to decipher as any of the great unfathomable mysteries, like the sky, the sand, or the wind.”

Andy Warhol, “Before and After” (1961) (image via Flickr)

In “Before and After” (1961), which many critics consider to be Warhol’s breakthrough painting, he silkscreened the image of a cheap newspaper advertisement for plastic surgery onto a large canvas. The black-and-white painting depicts two closely cropped illustrations of a woman’s profile. The one on the left shows a woman with a large hook nose — which racist stereotypes have historically aligned with “Semitic” racial types — while the one on the right has a smaller “Aryan” nose.

The myth that there is a distinctive “Jewish nose” dates back to Middle Ages, when it was used to single out Jews for persecution. In 1940, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, exploited it for the film The Eternal Jew, directed by Fritz Hippler; the posters show a man with a large hook nose, the same stereotyped, racist image of the Jew.

The nose is the physical symbol of otherness for Jews, as are slanted eyes for East Asians, and skin pigmentation for Black and brown people.

Presented under the guise of cosmetic surgery, the advertisement taps into a long history of anti-Semitism, a legacy that Warhol alluded to when he replicated the ad as a painting.

Was the choice of the ad completely impersonal? Warhol had plastic surgery to reshape his nose in 1958, when he was 29. Was he upset because the surgery did not help him fit in? Is he critiquing its failure to deliver on its promise?

Warhol’s subsequent paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood reflect the widely held opinion that beauty and fame were very important to him, that he wanted to live in the world of endless appeal, even if it was a white, make-believe world, stripped of ethnicity.

He made the four-panel painting “Race Riot” (acrylic and silkscreen on linen, in four parts, overall 60 by 66 inches, 1964) during the Civil Rights movement, and its assassinations, police killings, and riots. If, as many critics claim, Warhol had his fingers on the nation’s pulse, exactly which segment of the populace was he so sensitive to?

Andy Warhol, “Race Riot” (1964) (detail) (image via Flickr)

The painting’s top two panels are white on the left and blue on the right, while both bottom panels are red — the colors of the American flag. Each panel contains the same image: a Black man retreating from two lunging German shepherds — one biting him on the ass — held by two white policemen, while a group of mostly Black men stands on the sidewalk, seemingly uninterested.

According to Warhol, this is how viewers should look at him and his work:

If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.

What does the surface of “Race Riot” tell us? Why do the Black people on the other side of street, looking to see what is approaching them, remind me of spectators at a parade? Why aren’t they looking at what is happening in the middle of the street, directly in front of them, like the artwork’s viewers? If this is a parade, then what role is everyone playing?

Who or what is Warhol critiquing in this painting? The police? Warhol presents it as an us-them situation. What does it mean to be safely distanced from the crowd gathered on the other side of the street as you watch a parade pass by?

In the garishly colored paintings of Mao Zedong (1972-73) that Warhol made a decade after “Before and After” he superimposed a blue face with green lips, an off-white face with pink lips, and a bright red face with yellow lips, on Mao’s impassive, Buster Keaton-like expression. Was he being political in these works?

Andy Warhol, “Mao” (1972) (image via Flickr)

In 1986, more decade later, he made a portfolio of 10 prints, Cowboys and Indians, that includes images of John Wayne, General Custer, Annie Oakley, and Teddy Roosevelt, alongside Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and images of a Buffalo nickel and a “Mother and Child.” Does taking these figures out of context and flattening them into a hodgepodge of images become a critique of American history and its whitewashing by Hollywood? Or does it replicate the Disneyland version of American history that Hollywood also foisted on the public? It could be a whitewashed version of life that Warhol dreamed of becoming part of in the early 1960s.

Did Warhol’s thoughts about race and ethnicity evolve between 1962 and his death in 1987? Or did his desire to be loved and accepted motivate his choices all along?

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