Race Riot, 1964
Oil and silkscreen on canvas
76.2 x 83.5 cm (30 x 32 7/8 inches)
The Albert Pilavin Memorial Collection of 20th-Century American Art 68.047
Pop artist Warhol is best known for his playful Campbell soup cans and celebrity portraits, yet his work also explored the dark side of American culture. The Race Riot series reproduced 1963 press photos depicting police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. These “death and disaster” paintings were part of a larger meditation on death in America. This topic emerged in tandem with Warhol’s technical innovation of screenprinting directly onto a primed canvas, now recognized as a turning point in art history. Painting with mass-printing techniques questioned the relative value of “original” as opposed to “commercial” art and yielded a distinct new aesthetic, key to this painting’s content. Race Riot’s flat screenprinting and enhanced contrast abstract the photographic image, heighten the distinction between black and white, and present a news item as a moment in history worth preserving.
Race Riot features a photograph of a police dog attacking a peaceful civil-rights protestor in Birmingham, Alabama. The photo was taken for Life magazine in 1963 by photojournalist and activist Charles Moore, who explained in a 2005 interview, “I don’t want to fight with my fists. I want to fight with my camera.”
The removal of this image from its original news-oriented context significantly changes our understanding of it. By cropping and silkscreening Moore’s image, Warhol distorted it and introduced emotional distance, commenting on how mass-media exposure desensitizes us to troubling events. Race Riot used a photograph of a current event to create a work of art that timelessly reflects on racially motivated conflict and the abuse of power.
The Albert Pilavin CollectionTwentieth-Century American Art. Bulletin of Rhode Island School of Design Museum Notes
Contributions byRobbins, Daniel
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1969
TypeExhibition CatalogueSelected Works
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and CollectionsCrisis ResponseAn Exhibition of Art created in Times of Conflict and Castastrope from the Assisination of JFK to 9/11
Edited BySingsen, Judith A.
Contributions bySchoonover, Karl
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, 2002
About the work
By using and transforming a press photograph originally published in the popular magazine Life as the source image for this work, Andy Warhol challenged traditional artistic ideas about originality and quality. Race Riot, a screenprint on primed canvas, is one work in the series of silk-screened paintings Warhol based on Charles Moore’s photographs of the 1963 Civil Rights demonstrations in Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama.
While Warhol retains elements of the original photograph, certain decisions, such as his use of materials, places this work somewhere between mass-produced art, commercial products, and high art. Warhol’s early training in commercial art, making drawings for advertisements, originally led him to experiment with combining commercial and fine arts. In the 1960s, silkscreen printing was a mass-printing technique associated with commercial art and advertising, whereas primed canvas was associated with oil painting and fine-arts culture. By combining these materials, Warhol heightens the tension already evident in the event depicted.
Warhol appropriates Moore’s photograph, but he also changes it: through screenprinting techniques, Warhol retains and accentuates the contrast of the original photograph. The image is enlarged compared to its original context on the page of the Life photo essay. This change in size and the way the image is printed magnifies the image’s grainy texture, making certain parts of the painting difficult to read. The contrast between the black and white areas contributes to this tension; as a result, the painting has less clarity than the original photograph.
Artists including Géricault, Goya, Manet, and Picasso made works of art about urgent social and political events of their times. Works such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937) clearly express positions or critiques of the events they represent. In contrast, it is difficult to pinpoint in Race Riot any particular stance or viewpoint. The syndication of Charles Moore’s journalistic images in Life magazine brought what was happening to non-violent civil-rights protestors into households across America and, according to U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, “helped to spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Warhol, on the other hand, made his series for an exhibition in Paris rather than for an American audience or context; in France, the work drew attention for its artistic innovations of appropriation and screenprinting rather than for any social or political analysis of the events shown. It would be a few years before the American art world was ready to see painting as a medium for addressing social and political awareness.
What clues are there to suggest that this is an image from an actual event?
Ask students to look closely at what is happening in the scene and to consider how the composition is cropped or framed.
Why do you think Warhol decided to reproduce another artist’s image instead of creating something completely new?
Describe the arrangement of forms in the composition. How does the placement of figures and connection between the foreground and background affect the emotional content and possible meaning of this work?
How does the title of the work, Race Riot, relate to what is actually happening? How does the title affect your understanding of the moment? What are some other titles Warhol could have given his piece?
Race Riot was made by silkscreening a photographic image onto a primed canvas. Discuss the ways in which changing the medium also changes the work’s meaning.
How does this image suggest that this is one scene within a larger narrative? To reflect upon the larger plot and the emotional and political impacts of this work, have students study the positions of the figures and their relationships to one another. Ask students to take the poses of the figures to get a better sense of their movement. Then have students make predictions about what might happen next as well as what might be happening outside the edges of the composition.
Show students the original photograph by Charles Moore and the entire photo essay in Life magazine here. Ask them to observe the work closely to determine what qualities they think exist in the original photograph and what Warhol has changed in his painting. How does viewing a sequence of different images as opposed to a single image contribute to our understanding of what is happening?
To get a feel for appropriating images from different contexts and reworking them, have students use existing images they find in newspapers and magazines to make a collage or a transfer print. Have them discuss how meaning can be changed by making subtle adjustments to the medium or by introducing new juxtapositions. Instructions for how to make a photocopy transfer print are available here. You can learn more about the screenprinting process here.
To encourage your students to think about their relationship to the world in which we live, ask them to write about one critical need or issue in their community, city, and/or country. If they were to make a work of visual art to address their issue, what medium would they use and why? What impact would they like their work to have? How do they imagine that their composition and creative choices impact their viewer? Would they include text with their image?
Francesco Bonami. “How Warhol Did Not Murder Painting but Masterminded the Killing of Content.” http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/2012/francesco-bonami-andy-warhol-killed-content. Essay commissioned as part of the 2005–2006 exhibition ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964.
Molly Donovan, ed. Warhol: Headlines. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2011.
Appropriation and Manipulation of Journalistic Media, The Andy Warhol Museum: http://www.warhol.org/education/resourceslessons/Death-and-Disasters—Newspaper-Activity/