1. “Dead Stop” is one of Andy Warhol’s earlier paintings, finished in 1954. It is done on Strathmore paper with ink and wash, and is 19.5 inches by 23 inches. It is one of Warhol’s earliest adaptations of an object that is found in popular culture – the diamond-shaped traffic sign. Rather than render it in its traditional yellow, he has chosen to keep this work monochromatic, with everything running in black, white and gray. Also, the terminology on the usual sign is “DEAD END,” not “DEAD STOP,” and so the adaptation here clearly has a metaphorical purpose that is more explicit than what would appear in the more vivid forms of pop art that he would later create (Foster). Here, the “dead stop” could be taken to refer to any number of ideas. The dark, shadowy lines that move from the sign to the cars undulate and take on a number of forms; one in particular, rising from the hood of the car on the right to the sign, looks like it could be the shadowy soul of one of the dead.
The shadowy lines rising from the cars allow for considerable interpretive freedom. The artist’s decision to use black and white gives the work a more somber look, which is more appropriate given the subject. The theme is the absurdity of random, unexpected death in modern society. In the 1950’s, there was a great deal of optimism in society; even though the specter of nuclear war hung over the world, there was also a great deal of economic growth that kept Americans focused on the things they could acquire (Davis). The use of the automobile collision takes the idea that America was a highly mobile, highly autonomous society and shows how all of that freedom can come to a halt with one crash.
The power of art, in many different genres, is that successive generations can often find meaning in it that people contemporary to the work missed. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, died in poverty; his paintings later went on to be considered masterworks, and if one appeared on the auction block at Sotheby’s today, it would bring in millions of dollars. Each person who steps in front of a work of art brings his or her own semiotic nexus of experiences that serve as a filter through which that person sees the world. As Roland Barthes wrote, “a photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see” (6). Instead of seeing the image on paper, the viewer sees the interaction of his own mental network of experiences with that image – and that mixture means that each viewer will come away with a different impression of the image on the screen. Indeed, the impression can change even when the viewer comes back after a period of months or years, after experiences have altered the way that the viewer sees the world. When Janaro and Altshuler argue that “[t]he final product is an addition to reality, not simply a way of reproducing it,” one can also argue that the product itself is the combination of the subject being depicted in the art, along with the semiotic nexus of the person who created it. Edvard Munch and Rembrandt, for example, could see the same person standing on a bridge; their creative processes, engaging their semiotic networks of experiences, would end up producing two markedly different paintings.
Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
Davis, Ryan. Double exposure. A Journal of Performance and Art 34/2: 46-55.
Foster, Hal. Test subjects. October 132: 30-42.
Warhol, Andy. Dead Stop. Ink and wash on Strathmore paper.