Andy Warhol was deeply committed to environmental conservation throughout his life, and frequently used his art to elevate the defenceless animal to so-called 'superstar' status. Endangered Species shines the bright Warhol spotlight on the species on the brink of extinction, and remains a relevant and poignant portfolio in our own times.
Warhol's Endangered Species series was executed 10 years after the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law. Under the presidency of Nixon, the 1973 Act listed the species threatened by extinction, and prioritised conservation for these particular species. Warhol represented the following animals from this list: African Elephant, Bighorn Ram, Black Rhinoceros, Siberian Tiger, Sea Turtle, San Francisco Silver Spot Butterfly, Pine Barrens Tree Frog, Bald Eagle, Orangutang, Grevy's Zebra, and Giant Panda.
Risk-taking New York gallerists and dealers Ronald and Frayda Feldman collaborated with Warhol throughout the 1980s. During this intensive period of partnership, they worked together on some of Warhol's most acclaimed series: Ten Portraits Of Jews Of The Twentieth Century, Myths, Ads, Moonwalk, and Endangered Species. The Feldmans were also well-known philanthropists, and Endangered Species was born out of a conversation with Warhol about their shared passion in environmental conservation.
With his archetypal method of screen printing, followed by retouching by hand, Warhol rendered each of these animals with the same attentiveness to detail as his human subjects. By focusing on their portraits alone, and representing them in such eye-catching colour, Warhol thus transformed these endangered animals into his so-called 'superstars'. In doing so, he shone a spotlight on these threatened species, showing them to be just as worthy of our attention as Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor.
In the same year of Endangered Species' creation, Warhol also worked on other animal-based projects to philanthropic end. With San Diego Zoo's pathologist, Kurt Benirschke, Warhol produced a series of prints for a book titled Vanishing Animals.
Throughout his life, Warhol strove to be environmentally conscious in his own life, as well as creating artworks to support environmental causes. As the Pop Artist once said: "I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could want to own." This was a legacy that continued after Warhol's death, not only in his art but also in the donation of Warhol's 15 acres of protected beachfront in Montauk to the Nature Conservancy in 1992
Given its indelible ties to popular culture, the media, and the everyday, Pop Art is inevitably political. Warhol paved the way for other artists to use their Pop Art in the service of socio-political activism, and these artists used their craft to promote varying causes. Jean-Michel Basquiat championed the Black celebrity and achievement, particularly in his Daros Suite series. Likewise, Keith Haring utilised his Pop to defend LGBTQ+ rights, and campaign for visibility and research during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Each of the endangered animals in this series is rendered with vibrant and unnatural colour. Perhaps this was Warhol's attempt to draw immediate and unwavering attention to these species, and highlight exactly what the world would lose if these animals did indeed become extinct.
Endangered Species is a special instance in which so-called 'high-art' was used in the service of philanthropy. After his initial creation of the series with the Feldmans, Warhol donated 100 copies of the entire portfolio to raise funds and awareness. Since the creation of the series, the Bald Eagle and the Pine Barrens Frog have been taken off the Endangered Species list. While this cannot be owed to Warhol, the awareness raised by the series and Warhol's financial sponsorship might have helped to facilitate this.
In recent years, environmental consciousness has become more important than ever before. The climate crisis is becoming a more and more pressing issue in our times, and activist groups urge us to make changes to our lives to curb the catastrophe. The art world has a salient part to play in this endeavour, since it is a world of decadence and over-consumption. Artworks like Warhol's Endangered Species series, however, remind us that art can propel this vital cause and illicit powerful change in our habits and our minds.
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