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13 Feb 2020

Western Lit: A New Book Examines Andy Warhol's Western Art—and How It Failed to Address Racism

Written by  Jeremy Lybarger, High Country News

In 1986, the year before he died, Andy Warhol produced Cowboys and Indians, a portfolio of prints commemorating the American West. Featuring almost-psychedelic silkscreens of Theodore Roosevelt, George Custer, Geronimo and others, the series puts a historical spin on Warhol’s trademark celebrity fixation.

Warhol skewers some heroic, heteronormative myths, offering a more satiric, queer interpretation. But he fails to fully address the mythological frontier’s racism—or his own appropriation of Indigenous iconography.

A recent exhibition and book, Warhol and the West (University of California Press), revisits Cowboys and Indians, exploring Warhol’s lifelong fascination with the region. The book also suggests that Warhol’s entire Western oeuvre—three decades of films and prints—is an exercise in paradox: Even as he enshrines his subjects’ nobility, he can’t resist fluorescing them into campy icons. It’s an approach that perhaps only an outsider—a gay artist from New York City—would attempt. The result challenges typical Hollywood notions of masculinity and the West, even as its naive romanticism furthers the exploitation of Indigenous peoples.

Essays in the book’s first section trace Warhol’s interest in Western themes—the artist wore cowboy boots almost every day—while grappling with his appropriation of Indigenous art. The second half reproduces Warhol’s Western work, along with brief responses by artists, academics and curators. The result is a kaleidoscope of thoughtful, erudite and sometimes-personal commentary about an artist whom I thought had long ago exhausted fresh takes.

Warhol’s appropriation of Indigenous iconography comes under particular scrutiny. A senior curator at Oklahoma City’s American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, heather ahtone (Choctaw/Chickasaw), situates the artist in a long tradition of white men who misrepresent, exploit or otherwise caricaturize Indigenous peoples. Photographer Edward S. Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930, is a prime example. Warhol’s Western prints, ahtone observes, cater to “a society that wants a credible history that it can now own, even at the expense of those whose bodies are now fodder for visual commodification.”

Cowboys and Indians was commissioned by a New York art dealer and an investment banker, and its commercial roots lend it an uncomfortable dissonance. Gloria Lomahaftewa, a project manager for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, and Daryn A. Melvin, who works for the vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe, note that Warhol’s vivid, almost-electric prints of katsina dolls fit into a pattern of sacred tribal objects desecrated by non-Native artists, who paint the dolls “with bright colors, effectively erasing and/or distorting the figure’s meaningful and sacred origin.” Today, the Hopi Tribe asks that any institution planning to manufacture or display materials related to Hopi culture consult with it first. In 1986, though, Warhol depicted katsina dolls without tribal oversight, selling the sprint as part of a larger portfolio that retailed for $15,000.

But Faith Brower, a curator at Tacoma Art Museum, notes that Warhol offers a template by which one can critique colonialism, mass culture, sentimentalizing nostalgia, racism and injustice. In one of the book’s most intriguing essays, she surveys the influence that Warhol and Pop Art have had on Native and non-Native artists, including Duke Beardsley, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Maura Allen, Billy Schenck and Alison Marks.

If Warhol and the West offers an overdue critique of Warhol’s appropriation and commodification of Indigenous cultures, it’s less rigorous in connecting his sexuality to his subversion of macho Western tropes. The 1963 print “Triple Elvis,” for example, has an obvious homoerotic subtext: Elvis stands with legs apart, pointing a gun, the ultimate phallic symbol, at the viewer, his triplicate legs intertwined, and his free hand suspended in an almost-masturbatory gesture. Likewise, in Warhol’s rendering of John Wayne, the openly homophobic actor cradles a gun cocked toward his mouth.

Warhol’s films, also discussed, are perhaps more unabashed in their queering of Western clichés. In Lonesome Cowboys, an ultra-low-budget 1968 film, a gang invades a frontier town on horseback, wreaks havoc, and then splinters apart. Shot on location in Tucson, the movie features Warhol superstars Viva, Taylor Mead and Joe Dallesandro gamely improvising anachronistic dialogue. (At one point, two cowboys resolve to quit hell-raising and start a family before World War I.) The movie ends with two desperadoes riding off into the sunset, bound for California, where they plan to become surfers. “The production of Lonesome Cowboys allowed Warhol and his cast to play out a fantastical idea of life on the Western frontier unfettered by social constraints—to be heroes in a world in which they were decidedly outcasts,” the critic Chelsea Weathers writes in Warhol and the West, implying that Warhol’s own queerness underlies his revisionism.

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see,” Warhol once wrote. Warhol and the West suggests that the artist’s rendition of history was unabashedly queer—and, despite its colorfulness, unmistakably white.

Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Warhol and the West

By Various Authors

University of California Press

140 pages, $24.95

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