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Critical Review

10 screenprints from 1983, Warhol’s Endangered Species portfolio was a project first commissioned by New York Gallerists and Environmental Activists. The series was intended to bring attention to the world’s endangered animals. It features the Bald Eagle, Black Rhinoceros, African Elephant, Orangutan, Grévy’s Zebra, Bighorn Ram, Giant Panda,Pine Barrens Tree Frog, San Francisco Silverspot Butterfly and the Siberian Tiger.

Warhol’s artwork refreshes the viewer’s perspective by bringing us into a new relationship with the object and its image. Supermarket products, news media, film stars and advertisements are all given the artist’s signature treatment: casting everyday subjects in kaleidoscopic colour and repeating images machine-like and in series. The artist’s Endangered Species is no different. The psychedelic luminous colours and energetic lines animate his subject. The threatened animals are represented in the same way as the artist’s film and TV stars: as cultural icons that are impossible to ignore.

Warhol understood the power of the image and his art. He donated a number of these works to raise funds and awareness. The artist was a lifelong lover of animals and nature. Nature and wildlife can be found throughout his work. His early illustrations featured cats and dogs, most notably in the children’s book Cats Name(d) Sam and One Blue Pussy created in collaboration with his mother Julia Warhola and published in 1954. Legend has it that the artist and his mother lived in a New York townhouse surrounded by cats that were all named Sam, apart from one called Hester. Warhol went on to own dogs and paint dog portraits. His love for animals can be seen in the way he photographed and painted these canine companions. Animals and nature appear in other later significant bodies of work, including Flowers and the Cow and Fish wallpaper pieces.

Why is the Endangered Species series important?

Warhol once famously stated, “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.” The artist was true to his word, owning a beachfront property in Montauk, Long Island and undeveloped land in Colorado. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts donated Warhol’s 15 acres of outstanding protected beachfront in Montauk to the Nature Conservancy in 1992. The purpose of the donation was to promote the visual arts and preserve this environmentally important site. Warhol voiced his interest in ecological issues such as beach erosion in conversation with prominent collectors and activists Ronald and Frayda Feldman, leading to the Endangered Species commission. In 1986 Warhol went on to collaborate with Kurt Benirschke on Vanishing Animals, a book combining art and science in an effort to bring attention to lesser known endangered animals.

Endangered Species reveals a little about the artist’s more personal interests and passions. The series also speaks powerfully to a contemporary moment in which our natural environment faces ever increasing threats from climate change, pollution, deforestation, the illegal wildlife trade and loss of biodiversity. By applying his signature Pop Art aesthetic to the representation of endangered animals, Warhol demands that the viewer take notice. The artist’s vigorous application of colour and dynamic use of line celebrates the majesty and splendour of these rare and precious creatures.

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