Toni Clayton, American Pop & Modern Specialist
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Through his use of blank, white background, Warhol removed his cowboys and Native Americans from their original context. In doing so, Warhol mimicked the reductive approach of mass media and Hollywood in their treatment of the American West. The series confronts the romanticism and distortion of history by exaggerating the media's rose-tinted perception of colonisation.
In preparation for the creation of this series, Warhol ventured to New York's National Museum of the America Indian to inspect significant Native American objects. The photographs he took of these objects informed some of the prints in the series, like Buffalo Nickel. By stylising these objects in his typical screen printed style, Warhol emphasised the fetishisation of Native American culture maintained by the media.
Though Warhol died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest in 1987, his Cowboys And Indians series appears like a retrospective of a subject which had fascinated him throughout his life and career. The series is testament to his childish fantasies, after watching many Hollywood Westerns, and also to his desire to learn more about the true, un-glamorised history of Native America.
Warhol was so fascinated with Western movies that he made two himself: Horse and Lonesome Cowboys. The latter of which was the last film Warhol directed himself, and is renowned for a scene that is so violent that Warhol was placed under FBI surveillance for a year. Warhol's Cowboys And Indians series is a testament to his fascination with the genre, but also his critique of the hero/villain dichotomy shaped by colonial precedents.
Within this series, Warhol subverts the hero/villain dichotomy perpetuated by Hollywood Western movies. In the Cowboys And Indians series, Warhol highlights the true heroes as Native American icons, and the villains as white American colonisers and war leaders. His representation of General Custer, for example, highlights the individual largely responsible for the destruction of Native America. Custer appears like an emblem of colonisation, and Warhol strips him of his glorified accolades with his application of gaudy colour.
In his mixture of portraiture and objects, Warhol created a series which was not only visually innovative, but also historically and politically challenging. The breadth of subject matter in the series is testament to Warhol's research into Native American history, rather than aligning himself with a romanticised vision sustained by Hollywood.
Within this series, Warhol spotlighted the overlooked icons of Native America to 'superstar' status. His representation of Geronimo, for example, focuses on the historical legacy of this Native American figurehead. Geronimo himself was highly respected in his community, but was captured and held as a prisoner of war by the United States. The print champions this historical figure of Native America.
By removing all of his subjects from their landscapes, and his use of a clinical white background, Warhol allowed individual characters to speak for themselves in Cowboys And Indians. His representation of Theodore Roosevelt Jr is unidealised and unflattering, with his stony portrait rendered in monotone. Through this cool colouring, Warhol makes the former president appear almost un-human, speaking to his role in the exploitation of Native Americans.
Though the Cowboys And Indians series is historically and politically challenging, Warhol still conveyed his fascination with celebrity culture. Through his application of colour to the portrait of Annie Oakley, Warhol pronounced her star-studded repertoire. The iconic snap-shooter starred in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and Warhol treated her portrait with his typical 1980s Pop aesthetic to pronounce her celebrity status.
Action Picture is the only instance in the series where cowboys and Native Americans are pictured together. The image is typical of a Hollywood Western still, and therefore captures and critiques the mythologisation of Western America.