Hammer and Sickle 161 by Andy Warhol is one of four screenprints from the artist’s 1977 Hammer and Sickle portfolio. Warhol became inspired to create the series after traveling to Italy in 1976. There, he noticed the omnipresent hammer and sickle graffiti that symbolized the proletariat union of the industrial and agricultural working class. Though the subject matter and imagery of the portfolio may be viewed as a political statement, Warhol was more interested in the repetition, popular use, and connotations of the imagery, especially during the context of cold war tensions.
Upon returning from Italy, Warhol asked his assistant Ronnie Cutrone to find him a hammer and sickle. Warhol wanted the tools to be as similar as possible to the original symbol in order to create an accurate source image. After Cutrone bought and photographed a hammer and sickle, Warhol used the photos as a compositional basis for the portfolio.
In Hammer and Sickle 161, Warhol depicts a line illustration of both objects placed against each other while set against a black background. The head of the hammer is balanced on the surface with the handle upright. The blade of the sickle leans against the handle of the hammer and is balanced by the end of the blade and the edge of the handle on the surface. Both the hammer and sickle contain strong shades of red. Warhol details the objects further by using line work to emulate the shadow cast by the objects.
Hammer and Sickle 161, along with other screenprints from the portfolio, depict the tools placed alongside or against each other, giving new perspective to the iconic communist symbol. Warhol uses red in the majority of the portfolio, staying true to the communist flag. The color is either featured among one or both objects or is in the background. Red became associated with communism after Soviet Russia implemented a red flag following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, later followed by other communist countries. With the color red frequently associated with blood, it has also been historically associated with sacrifice and courage, all elements tied to communist ideology.
Though Warhol was intrigued with the iconography behind the communism symbol, the Hammer and Sickle portfolio wasn’t the first or last time Warhol would use political themes as subject matter. He published the iconic Mao series 4 years prior, and the Lenin screenprints in 1987. Other non-communist political work of Warhol’s ranges from Vote McGovern to to Jimmy Carter.
Ultimately, Warhol opted to create a portfolio that depicted the hammer and sickle rather than the American flag to emphasize the discord that took place in the middle of the Cold War. Although works like Hammer and Sickle 161 were not meant to directly represent any political issues, he was aware of its symbolic relevance to the war. He used Pop Art concepts to bring new meaning to the feared symbol of communism. Warhol’s bold approach to addressing the political issues of the time showed that he was cognizant of political unrest and the importance of creating a statement through art. Contrasting the feared symbol of communism with the lighthearted nature of Pop Art, he evokes satirical commentary on the Cold War.
Warhol’s ability to decontextualize symbols of contemporary society and re-introduce them within an aesthetic framework was a fundamental aspect that aided his popularity. He does this through the series by illuminating the fine line that lies between propaganda and art. The Hammer and Sickle complete portfolio includes FS.161-164.