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. The movie from which he appropriated the Elvis image was titled Flaming Star.
Warhol went on to create the portraits of several other western movie stars, including Dennis Hopper. 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 painted wildlife of the American West and a large series of sunset images. And he amassed a large collection of Native American and western art, objects, and photographs.
His 1986 Cowboys and Indians series—consisting of fourteen screenprints, including ten edition prints that were released in the final portfolio, four additional trial proofs, and related paintings of at least three subjects—represents 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. 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, although he only occasionally set foot in the West.
In 1963 Warhol went on a road trip across the country to attend an art opening in Los Angeles. In 1968 he filmed Lonesome Cowboys at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, Arizona, and at Old Tucson, the setting for many important western movies. He had a particular affinity for the Colorado Rockies and bought 40 acres near Aspen. According to his diary entries, he visited Colorado half a dozen times after buying his property. On these trips, Warhol created Polaroid snapshots of his travels. Exploits of him skiing and snowmobiling were captured by his friends and associates. He clearly enjoyed his time exploring the vast and varied western region.
Warhol also was not immune to the powerful forces that have drawn creative souls to the artists’ mecca of Taos, New Mexico. In addition, he had a romantic view from afar regarding Texans and their home state, at one point suggesting that a museum documenting his career belonged there more than in the familiar urban settings he knew in Pittsburgh and New York. He felt Houston was a fitting location but it should look more like Nieman Marcus than any museum he had visited.
His affinity for the West extended to his collecting habits. One whole day of the 10-day estate auction at Sotheby’s was devoted to his collection of Native American artifacts and photographs. While many of Warhol’s western subjects derive their power from nostalgia and familiarity, an exhibition at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University asked a significant question: “How should Americans feel about themselves and their country when confronted by Warhol’s images in Cowboys and Indians?” She then goes on to answer her own question:
For this series of images prompts us to ask whether such representations glorify westerns and the presumed leadership qualities that enabled non-Indian settlers to appropriate, more often than not unfairly, Native people’s lands or whether they serve as artful commentaries on just such self-satisfied presumptions on the part of citizens who know nothing about the Native peoples who have been displaced in order to foster the ideals of “progress” supported as a national American vision.
Pop art was hailed during its heyday as purely American—notwithstanding that the term and the movement originated in England—and Warhol regularly told interviewers that he was as American as they come, and few things are more uniquely American than the West. Determining Warhol’s intent or social commentary in any facet of his art is difficult, if not impossible, with the artist always insisting that the surface was all there was. His work is a surface, as he suggests: a self-reflecting mirror that looks wryly at American culture—the good, the bad, and the ugly. But despite Warhol’s statement, his art goes deeper; it is nuanced and layered in complexities. One of the critics who knew the artist best, the former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, provided a fitting summary for any analysis of Warhol’s work by posing a series of questions one might prudently ask: “Is he being cynical? Is he kidding? Is he simple? Does he think we’re simple? Are we?”
Warhol was notoriously vague in providing details about his work. His casual, detached posturing makes it difficult to interpret the artist’s intent. With regards to the West, we are left to wonder: Is Warhol elevating his subjects as American heroes, portraying them as vintage kitsch, or commenting on their has-been status? We may never know, or at least never be sure. What we can be sure of is Warhol’s profound ability to find subjects that continue to hold relevance and meaning today, reminding us that the American West and its myths have influenced and inspired people through a turbulent past into a dynamic present and a shared future.