Ivan Karp, renowned Pop Art dealer of the 1960s, inspired Warhol's Cow works after a flippant conversation about Warhol's subject matter. As Warhol recollected, “another time he said, ‘Why don't you paint some cows, they're so wonderfully pastoral and such a durable image in the history of the arts.’” Under Karp's influence, Warhol inserted his unnaturally coloured cows into this art historical lineage.
For his 1966 exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery, Warhol had an entire room of the gallery covered in a wallpaper of his pink and yellow Cow. From floor to ceiling, the screen printed image was repeated over and over to create a dizzying kaleidoscope of cows. The concept bordered on the absurd, but showcased Warhol's penchant for screen printing which would come to define him as an artist.
Though Karp had convinced Warhol to depict cows for their ‘pastoral‘ appeal, Warhol worked to make his Cow as unnatural as possible. Though Karp was shocked when he first saw Warhol's conception, Warhol remembered, “after a moment he exploded with: ‘They're super-pastoral! They're ridiculous! They're blazingly bright and vulgar!’ I mean, he loved those cows and for my next show we papered all the walls in the gallery with them.”
Like the majority of Warhol's mass-media inspired oeuvre, Cow is a work of art which demands no context. By representing the big brands, celebrities and current affairs of his time, Warhol created a genre of art which could be read and understood by the masses. Cow is a perfect example of Warhol's commitment to making art that is universal and engaging.
Warhol's psychedelic and whimsical Cow prints, like the majority of his printed works, were created using a pre-existing photograph. The original photograph of Warhol's sedate cow was chosen by his printer, Gerard Malanga. The series is therefore testament to the importance of collaboration in Warhol's work.
Warhol had a particular fondness for animals, and created multiple animal portrait series throughout his career. While his favourite animal was perhaps the cat, as we see in his sentimental Cats Named Sam series, he rendered a selection of Endangered Species in 1983 to raise awareness of their extinction.
In the same year that this series was created, Warhol declared that painting was ‘dead‘. Warhol turned his back on tradition, and committed himself to creating his art primarily via screen prints. Warhol's unprecedented and revolutionary approach forced his contemporaries to reconsider what ‘art‘ actually is, and broke the distinctions between what was regarded as ‘high‘ and ‘low‘ visual culture.
Published in November 1976, Warhol's Pink Cow On Purple Background was the last iteration of his Cow. Produced for an exhibition at The Modern Art Pavilion in Seattle, the colourful work was printed as an edition of around 100, all signed by Warhol in black felt-tip.
Though the subject matter of this series was atypical of Warhol, the Pop Art Cow is one of his most revered prints. The work also marks a significant point in Warhol's career, as he fine-tuned his method of screen printing that would come to define the entire genre of Pop Art.
Quickly reproducible and allegedly ‘vulgar‘, Cow encapsulates the traits of mass media and pop culture that inspired Warhol's oeuvre in its entirety. After he produced his first Cow in 1966, Warhol turned his full attention to screen printing and catalysed the ‘print boom‘ of the 1960s.
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