Andy Warhol's Love Affair with the Wild West
Unveiling the Iconic Charms of the American Frontier

A screenprint by Andy Warhol depicting a Native American mother and child in bright colours, set against a white backgroundMother And Child (F. & S. II.383) © Andy Warhol 1986
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Beyond his renowned depictions of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's Soup cans, Warhol's lesser-known foray into Western icons reveals a profound connection to the rugged frontier. From early encounters with Western film stars to cross-country road trips, Warhol’s passion for the West permeates both his art and personal life. Warhol's unique perspective within the Cowboys And Indians portfolio reshaped perceptions of Western art and demonstrates the lasting allure of these iconic symbols in the modern era.

The images selected for Cowboys And Indians include iconic western American figures and subjects that in the hands of Warhol become important comments on the contemporary understanding of the mythology of the West. Warhol was influenced by the myths of the American West conveyed to him primarily through film and television, similar to a majority of his young American peers, children who grew up waiting to see what Gene Autry or Roy Rogers would do next Saturday on the silver screen. In some ways he never grew out of that fascination, wearing cowboy boots most days. Though inspired by the stories and legends of the West and travelling there possibly a few dozen times, Warhol generally imagined western people and places from his studio in New York. His time in the West was often spent attending art openings and conducting business in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas, including Dallas, Houston, and Seattle.

Warhol's Cowboys And Indians Print Portfolio

Warhol’s 1986 Cowboys And Indians series-consisting of 14 screenprints, includes 10 edition prints that were released in the final portfolio, four additional trial proofs, and related paintings of at least three subjects, representing an important milestone in both the artist's career and the history of western American art. Among the last major projects he completed prior to his death, Cowboys And Indians received little critical or public attention at the time of its release and remains one of the most understudied aspects of the artist's career.

Gun-Wielding Elvis

Andy Warhol was drawn to the lore and lure of the American West throughout his life. In 1963, early in his career as a pop artist, Warhol appropriated a publicity photograph from a western film of a six-gun-wielding Elvis Presley for use in a painting. Appearing nearly life-size, Warhol's images of Elvis boldly confront viewers with the legends of the West. Warhol's foray into blending western subjects with contemporary style did not stop there; he continued to revisit western iconography within the body of his work in the decades that followed. In addition to repeating the image of Elvis as a cool western cowboy 95 times, resulting in 36 unique paintings, Warhol went on to create portraits of several other western movie stars. He was friendly with and painted several western and Native American artists. He painted a Native American activist emblematic of modern-day civil rights for American Indian people. He made at least two westerns as a filmmaker. He depicted wildlife of the American West and created a large series of sunset images.

John Wayne: Reimagining the Western Film Icon

Warhol's portrayal of John Wayne in his Cowboys And Indians series encapsulates the enigmatic allure of one of Hollywood's most enduring symbols of rugged masculinity and Western heroism. In this series, Warhol, known for his exploration of fame and celebrity culture, turns his gaze to the legendary actor, cementing Wayne's status not just as an actor but as an American icon.

The prints, part of Warhol's fascination with the intersection of myth and reality in American culture, showcases John Wayne in a stance typical of his Western roles. Warhol's choice of Wayne is particularly significant; he embodies the archetypal cowboy, a figure deeply ingrained in American folklore and synonymous with the Wild West. Warhol’s depiction goes beyond mere celebrity portraiture; it delves into the essence of what John Wayne represented to the American public and the mythos of the American West.

“Each time you look at John Wayne you’ll feel something new. Part of the essential art experience is that it gets you back to your last trip to the American Southwest or even inspire you to visit the region. Or you could recall a classic John Wayne film you’ve enjoyed, such as John Ford’s The Searchers. Regardless, this unique version of John Wayne will plug you into Warhol’s appreciation of American popular culture - which is what his Cowboys & Indians series was all about.”
Richard Polsky

Warhol employs vibrant colours and bold outlines, a stylistic choice that both modernises the image and imbues it with a sense of timelessness. Particularly within the unique iteration of the print, which gives the subject a new green scarf, the palette of the John Wayne prints have a great visual impact on the viewer. As Richard Polsky explains, “the green garment creates a bit of a ‘sugar rush’ which grabs your attention and makes you crave a longer look.”

Annie Oakley: The Sharpshooter’s Legacy in Warhol’s Vision

Warhol’s screenprints of Annie Oakley stand out as a compelling homage to one of the most iconic figures of the American West. Oakley, renowned for her sharpshooting prowess and a pivotal figure in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is reimagined through Warhol's distinct pop art lens in this piece.

Annie Oakley (F. & S. II.378), transcends mere representation, delving into the complexities of myth and reality that define American cultural icons. By choosing Oakley, Warhol not only acknowledges her as a quintessential symbol of the Wild West but also highlights her unique role as a woman excelling in a traditionally male-dominated domain. This choice reflects Warhol’s interest in figures who both shaped and transcended their cultural contexts.

The screenprint features Oakley in a stylised manner, typical of Warhol’s approach, with vibrant colours that contrast sharply with her historical black and white imagery. This juxtaposition serves to modernise Oakley, presenting her not just as a historical figure, but as a timeless icon, relevant to contemporary audiences. The use of repetitive imagery, a hallmark of Warhol's style, emphasises the idea of the celebrity and the commodification of fame, which Oakley experienced in her lifetime.

Sitting Bull: A Symbol of Native American Heritage in Warhol’s Portfolio

Moreover, Warhol's depiction of Sitting Bull stands as a poignant and complex portrayal of Native American heritage and its representation in popular culture. Sitting Bull, a revered leader and a symbol of resistance among the Lakota Sioux tribe, is captured through Warhol's unique Pop Art style, which both venerates and questions the narratives surrounding iconic figures.

In this screenprint, identified as F&S II.376, Warhol chooses a historical photograph of Sitting Bull, transforming it with his signature bold lines and vivid colours. This artistic intervention serves to recontextualize Sitting Bull’s image, known primarily through the lens of 19th-century photography, into a contemporary art form. Warhol's use of colour and repetition not only revitalises the image but also comments on the commodification and repeated reinterpretation of Native American images in American culture.

This piece resonates with deeper implications about the portrayal of Indigenous leaders in American history and popular media. Warhol’s choice of Sitting Bull, juxtaposed with figures like John Wayne in the same series, invites a reflection on the dichotomies of heroism and villainy as traditionally portrayed in Western narratives. It highlights the contrast between the Hollywood fabrication of the West and the historical reality of Indigenous peoples.

Warhol's Westward Journeys

In 1963, Andy Warhol embarked on a cross-country road trip, making his way to Los Angeles to attend an art opening, marking one of his early encounters with the American West.

Five years later, in 1968, Warhol turned his lens to the West, filming Lonesome Cowboys at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, Arizona, and at the iconic Old Tucson set, known for its role in numerous Western films. His connection to the West was further cemented when he acquired 40 acres of land near Aspen, in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Diary entries reveal that he frequented Colorado, capturing snapshots of his travels, often engaging in skiing and snowmobiling, all documented by his friends and associates.

Warhol's artistic magnetism didn't stop at the West Coast; he felt the allure of the artist's haven in Taos, New Mexico, and held a romantic fascination with Texans and their homeland. At one point, he even suggested that a museum dedicated to his career would be more fitting in Texas than the urban settings he was accustomed to in Pittsburgh and New York.

Warhol & The Western Art Tradition

This affection for the American West extended to his collecting habits. Warhol curated a remarkable personal collection, including Western landscapes by artists like Albert Bierstadt and Maxfield Parrish, contemporary paintings by Fritz Scholder and R. C. Gorman, and a striking oil painting featuring an Indian on horseback.

The genre of Western art typically encompasses a representational style that captures the essence of the region beyond the 100th meridian. Early Euro-American explorer-artists documented the awe-inspiring yet "exotic" Western landscapes and its Native inhabitants. While authenticity and detail often served as key criteria in evaluating Western American art, many artists, including Warhol, portrayed the region as a picturesque and romantic realm.

Pioneering artists like Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, and John Mix Stanley documented Indigenous peoples, although they believed these cultures would vanish within a generation or two. This misconception was later reflected in Edward S. Curtis's photographic Native American encyclopaedia. Such stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings have persisted for centuries and can be found in Warhol's work as well as in historical Western art examples.

Over time, these artistic works, combined with the contributions of writers and filmmakers, created the legendary West, filled with iconic and mythical imagery, strengthened by the power of repetition. Authors William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann argue that this tradition continues to shape Western art, as contemporary artists willingly replicate archetypes, subverting the conventional demand for absolute originality in art.

For art historian Patricia Broder, it's only natural that pop artists like James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein found inspiration in Western icons. These artists perceive the modern West as the birthplace of mass culture, paying homage to the Indian and cowboy as quintessential American symbols. While the artistic world of yesteryears may belong to history, contemporary artists find new avenues to express the aesthetic richness of the modern West.

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