Interviews, images and video: 'Warhol and the West' brings pop-art icon's Western art to OKC's National Cowboy Museum
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Thursday's Life & Style section of The Oklahoman.
'Warhol and the West': National Cowboy Museum hosts exclusive exhibit examining the pioneering artist's Western work and influences
Given his reputation, it's not surprising that Andy Warhol's shoes often drew attention.
But the type of footwear the iconic artist favored might be unexpected.
"Interviewers who interviewed him later (in life) when they described what he was wearing just about always said he was wearing cowboy boots. There are 27 pair of cowboy boots at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; most of them have significant wear. And if you look closely at these, most of them have paint all over them," said Seth Hopkins, pointing to a case displaying Warhol's boots inside the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
For all that has been written, reviewed and studied about the pop-art pioneer, Warhol's love of the West has not been widely disseminated: The Pittsburgh native often visited Taos, New Mexico, where he and actor Dennis Hopper reportedly ran an American Indian art store together; he owned property in Colorado, where he was photographed skiing and riding snowmobiles; and he amassed an expansive personal collection of Western and Native American art, pottery and artifacts.
Shortly before his death in 1987 at the age of 58, Warhol completed the "Cowboys and Indians" portfolio, a colorful collection of iconic Western images from portraits of John Wayne, Annie Oakley and Geronimo to screen print recreations of the Indian head nickel and a Plains Indian shield.
"(It was) the last major project he finished before he died. That's an important point because it's really understudied, underwritten about, underappreciated because it happens so close to his death. It never really gets its full run, it's full publicity, critical acclaim. ... It really is forgotten about," said Hopkins, the executive director of the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.
"(It's) the culmination of all this interest and interaction with Westerners, with the Western wardrobe, with the Western way of life."
The "Cowboys and Indians" suite also is the centerpiece of the sprawling new exhibition "Warhol and the West," on view through May 10 at the National Cowboy Museum.
The National Cowboy Museum is the second of only three museums in the country to host "Warhol and the West."
"It's never really been talked about as part of the Western art history lexicon - and now it is. ... And it couldn't be more appropriate than to be here, dealing with what we do here about cowboy history and cowboy mythology," said Michael Grauer, the National Cowboy Museum's McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture.
The Oklahoma City institution partnered with the Booth Western Art Museum and Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, Washington, to organize the exhibit, which is believed to be the first museum show to explore the full range of Western imagery Warhol produced as well as the influence that Western popular culture and visits to the region had on his work.
"Warhol does my job for me in a lot of ways. We try to make Western art relevant to contemporary audiences: He has mined history, found fascinating images of the historical West and really makes them pop," said Faith Brower, the Haub Curator of Western American Art at the Tacoma Art Museum, where the exhibit is headed next.
"He adds this dynamic to it - and brings with it his household name - that really allows a lot of new audiences to question the myth of the West and to engage with it. So, we're thrilled that we could work with Seth on this project and Michael and the wonderful team here in Oklahoma City."
The exhibit begins at the beginning of Warhol's love affair with the West.
"Very similarly to the average visitor that comes here to the museum ... their happiest days were often going to the Western movies on Saturday morning, and Andy surely did that just about every Saturday," said Hopkins, who has spent 16 years studying Warhol and his Western work.
"There were more Westerns on TV then than there are reality shows today, if you can believe that. ... . And from the very beginning, he was over the moon about celebrities."
The exhibit includes items from Warhol's childhood like a Roy Rogers alarm clock and scrapbook of his favorite Western stars, one of the biggest being Gene Autry.
"One of the myriad reasons for the National Cowboy Museum to host this exhibition is because from the very beginning, Western celebrities were very much a part of the founding of this institution, not the least of whom, of course, was John Wayne, who rode a white horse from downtown Oklahoma City up here to cut the tape to get this process started," said Grauer, who is also the OKC museum's Curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art.
"Our Western Performers Gallery is just down the hall, and there's a significant portion devoted to Gene Autry, who was also one of the early founders of this institution. So, Western celebrities are very much a big part of what we do here ... so it's obviously in many ways significantly important that this exhibition is here."
"Warhol and the West" features the artist's distinctly kaleidoscopic depictions of Western artists R.C. Gorman, Georgia O’Keeffe and Fritz Scholder; of famed Native American activist Russell Means; and of Western wildlife like a bison, bald eagle and bighorn sheep. A portrait of Elvis Presley as a gunslinger and one of his screen tests of Hopper also are on view.
"If you showed up at his studio, he might put you in a chair with a film camera (with) about 100 feet of film in it, flip it on and walk away," Hopkins said. "I think it was one of his ways of putting people ill at ease or off their game or making them feel as uncomfortable as he did sometimes. ... There are hundreds of these at the Warhol Museum; from the guy who delivered the newspaper to the biggest celebrity you can name, they all got the screen test treatment."
The exhibit also delves into Warhol's experimental filmmaking, showcasing footage from his 1965 avant-garde film "Horse" and five minutes of carefully selected G-rated highlights of his 1968 feature-length satire "Lonesome Cowboys," described on its poster as "a cornucopia of nudity and sexual carryings-on that is - in combination - perhaps unprecedented."
"During his filmmaking career, Andy was shot," Hopkins said. "He suffered from the ill effects of being shot throughout his life after that, yet he comes back and does this piece 'Have Gun Will Shoot," which is very similar to the gun he was shot with."
Exhibited alongside a series of serigraphs that break down the silk-screen printing process Warhol used to create many of his signature works, the "Cowboys and Indians" suite is the focal point of the show. "Warhol and the West" includes all 14 original images, which were pared down to 10 for the final portfolio.
In addition to portraits of Sitting Bull, Teddy Roosevelt and Gen. George Custer, the series includes "Action Picture," a recreation of Charles Schreyvogel's well-known painting "Breaking Through the Line." The original painting, from Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum, is displayed alongside Warhol's reimagining.
"That's as classic Warhol as it gets, right?" Hopkins said. "The other cool thing about this exhibit is you get to see what Warhol was stealing - or in art terms, 'appropriating' - his images from. ... It's really cool to see what he worked with and what he did with it."
One irony of Warhol's "Cowboys and Indians" series is that it includes an actor, a sharp shooter, a Rough Rider and other iconic Western figures, but it doesn't include any actual cowboys.
"There are a couple of real Indians. ... Then you've got like three objects, two coins," Hopkins said. "So, it's really not a cowboys and Indians project at all. It's the myth of cowboys and Indians, the myth of the West."
"Warhol and the West"
When: Through May 10.
Where: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.
Information: nationalcowboymuseum.org or 478-2250.
Warhol and Wine paint night
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28.
Where: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.
Includes: Step-by-step instruction from a Wine & Palette teacher, art supplies, light hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.
Cost: $40 for museum members and $45 for general admission.
Reservations: Required by Feb. 25.
Information and registration: nationalcowboymuseum.org/