October 2018 | Aurora Garrison
Warhol, ever the animal-lover, was asked to illustrate the dire straits of nearly extinct animals around the world. Get ready to enter Andy’s ark.
Andy Warhol was a closet conservationist.
His advocacy for the preservation of open spaces, natural resources and endangered species is little known. Yet, upon closer inspection, Warhol’s interest in nature is obvious in both his art and the environmental subject matter of his art works.
From his Cow, Fish, to numerous images of birds, cats and dogs, Warhol had a special fascination and love for animals, culminating in Warhol’s Endangered Species (1983), a series of 10 silkscreen prints that are some of the most important socially and culturally works of his oeuvre.
Andy Warhol, “Edangered Species Full Suite,” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1983, Edition of 150, signed and numbered in pencil, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
“In a series of 10 paintings that echo each other in the use of bright colors and are standardized in terms of size but are not multiples of the same image, Warhol draws attention to the rarity of these animals and gives each the “star” treatment. Warhol referred to his collection as “animals in makeup”, is the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s description of Warhol’s endangered species works. Located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming the National Museum of Wildlife Art acquired the Endangered Species as a prime holding.
The Wildlife Museum philosophically recognizes Warhol’s groundbreaking series as, “a compelling result. Warhol employed the same silk-screening process that he used for his celebrity and pop art paintings – paintings that ask us to consider the commodification of fame. In an interesting twist, when Warhol applies this to endangered animals, animals most likely at risk because they sit in the crosshairs between profit and nature, the result is an acute awareness of what we stand to lose – if we don’t pay attention and act on behalf of the environment.” (www.wildlifeart.org)
Worldwide concern for preservation of endangered species emerged in the 1960s, but became more urgent in the 1980s, as dramatic declines in several species were reported due to international trafficking, loss of habitat, and mishandling of toxic wastes.
New terms in the American lexicon highlighted the newly emerging loss of species on earth from: “endangered species” to “vulnerable” to “functionally extinct” to “extinct.” Warhol, in an early response to the endangered species world-wide crisis, responds through his art. His art takes on the role and purpose of environmental activism by building public awareness of the plight of these endangered species.
Warhol Goes Green
Following environmental conversations with Warhol about his concerns about beach erosion and the loss of natural resources, New York City art dealers, husband and wife team Ronald and Frayda Feldman, commissioned Warhol to create the Endangered Species series. The project was comprised of screen prints of 10 endangered species from all over the world: the Siberian Tiger, Grevy’s zebra, Orangutan, Pine Barrens Tree Frog, Giant Panda, Bald Eagle, Bighorn Ram, African Elephant, the San Francisco (Callippe) Silverspot Butterfly and the Black Rhinoceros.
“Siberian Tiger (FS II.297),” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1983, Edition of 150, signed and numbered in pencil, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
The Endangered Species series has Warhol’s unique Pop Art style and spin. Completed in 1983, the series is conceived and executed similar in fashion to the iconic treatment Warhol gave to Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth, Mao, and numerous others in portrait commissions throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This was in contrast to the abstracts Warhol made in the 1980s.
In the fourth decade of his career, Warhol produced works of Abstract Expressionism such as Oxidation Painting (1978) and Rorschach (1984). But for Endangered Species series, Warhol went to the heavy guns in his Pop Art arsenal. This was a war to protect endangered species. Warhol was pulling out all his artistic talent and experience to stem the tide of the war on animals. Building public awareness and passion for the animals was Warhol’s first step.
By returning to the screen print methods that were his iconic style, Warhol awakens interest in his work with a new generation. Following Endangered Species, Warhol began his collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, which spanned two years between 1984 and 1985, and made Warhol relevant with a younger audience. Warhol is artistically inspired with this environmental cause.
With the artistic and environmental successes of Endangered Species, Warhol collaborated with Dr. Kurt Benirschke of the San Diego Zoo. The book is Vanishing Animals.
In 1986, Warhol contributed a series of animals in danger of extinction for Vanishing Animals. Warhol provided 15 illustrations of species (screen print over collage) on the brink of extinction that included: Galapagos Tortoise, California Condor, Mouse Armadillo, Whooping Crane, Puerto Rican Parrot, Komodo Monitor, Paraguayan Peccary, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sommering Gazelle, Okapi, and the La Plata River Dolphin.
The Andy Warhol Museum exhibited these Vanishing Animals illustrations, along with the Endangered Species series in its 2002 exhibit, “Silent Spring: Warhol’s Endangered Species and Vanishing Animals”.
“Bighorn Ram (FS II.302),” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1963, Edition of 150, numbered in Roman numerals, 1 BAT, 30 TP, signed and numbered in pencil, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
Warhol’s elevation of endangered species to celebrity status helped raise awareness of these endangered animals as well money for their protection. Warhol printed multiple sets of the Endangered Species series and donated the prints to conservation groups for their fundraising efforts.
In the years that followed Endangered Species, the Bald Eagle and the Pine Barrens Frog have been taken off the Endangered Species list. The Giant Panda numbers have rebounded. Big Horn sheep, while still endangered, are increasing in number. The Silverspot Butterfly’s habitat continues to dwindle, primarily due to development in the San Francisco Bay area. Both the Black Rhinoceros and the African Elephant populations continue to decline due to poaching and illegal trafficking of horns and ivory.
“Giant Panda FS II.295,” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1983, Edition of 150, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
The Giant Panda conservation efforts have been particularly successful. In fact, Chinese scientists report that the conservation of the pandas has actually led to additional and unexpected economic value to the local communities that have hosted the panda conservation compounds. A recent report from the Chinese Academy of Sciences shows that panda conservation provides “great value for local people, culture and the environment, generating 20 times more money than the cost to conserve and maintain the cuddly bears”.
And this makes an important point: Warhol, by elevating an endangered species to star status with his signature style in the Endangered Species portfolio, propelled the conservation efforts forward. These images not only increase public awareness that the species requires protection, but also result in significant donations to conservation groups that provide that protection. Additionally, bringing the species under the celebrity spotlight persuades and pressures governments to assist in the species’ preservation. Here, Andy Warhol used his celebrity status to the benefit of the environment in countries all over the world.
In fact, China has capitalized on the world’s interest in protecting pandas and has established Giant Panda rental operations. An article in the scientific journal Environmental Practice states, “In exchange for political favors or for lucrative trade deals, the Chinese government offers countries around the world the opportunity to rent a giant panda. But this “opportunity” comes with a hefty price tag: panda rent can cost as much as one million dollars annually for a period of at least ten years. Add to that the cost of building a state-of-the-art zoo enclosure, which runs many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the annual cost to feed and properly care for pandas, which only eat bamboo, which can be as high as $500,000 or so each.” (“Buckingham, David, & Jepson, 2013”).
“Black Rhinoceros (FS II.301),” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, Edition of 150, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
“African Elephant (FS II.293),” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1983, Edition of 150, 10 numbered in Roman numerals, 1 BAT, 30 TP, signed and numbered in pencil, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
The Black Rhinoceros species, distinguished by its pointed upper lip and prominent horn, continues to be a victim of an unprecedented onslaught by poachers for its highly coveted horn that is used for “medicinal” purposes in the East. Long believed to be an especially potent aphrodisiac, thousands of these animals have been slaughtered by poachers for illegal trafficking to meet demand in Asia. As the street price for rhinoceros horn soared above the price of gold, traffickers became more greedy, aggressive, and violent. As a consequence of the unbridled demand for rhinoceroses’ horns, subspecies in Africa and southeast Asia are now extinct.
“Bald Eagle (FS II.296),” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1983, Edition of 150, signed and numbered in pencil, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
Another famed Pittsburgher, Rachel Carson, authored an important book, Silent Spring, that galvanized the nation to act to stop the degradation of the environment. Published in 1962, Silent Spring documented the poisoning of the world’s biosphere by synthetic pesticides. Although the studies and data presented by Carson had been known for some time, she was the first to present the case against pesticides for the general public.
Carson explained that once the chemicals entered the environment, they became part of the food chain, not only killing the targeted pests, but everything else, and would sicken people as well. Carson’s work brought to the public’s attention the especially harmful impact of pesticides on bird populations.
“San Francisco Silverspot (FS II.298),” Screenprint on Lenox Museum Board, 1983, Edition of 150, signed and numbered in pencil, portfolio of 10, Revolver Gallery, Los Angeles, California.
The San Francisco (callippe) Silverspot’s population collapsed due to the loss of habitat for its only host plant, the Johnny jump-up. The jump-up is an annual native in the San Francisco Bay area. Historically, the Silverspot ranged from La Honda in San Mateo County to the Twin Peaks neighborhood of San Francisco, as well as on the inland hill ranges of Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Once hatched, the Silverspot’s adult life lasts only three weeks in early summer. The adult butterflies feed on flower nectar and lay their eggs on the Johnny jump-ups.
However, development, recreation, and other uses have reduced the Johnny jump-up populations and consequently, the Silverspot range has been reduced. But south of San Francisco, in the San Bruno mountains, this beautiful butterfly can still be found.
Warhol’s Own Conservation Efforts
By presenting these animals in the same style as his other celebrity portraits, Andy’s animals acquire a cultural significance. This celebrity status not only draws attention to the poaching and loss of habitat that created the plight of these animals, but also results in a societal call to action.
As a savvy businessman, Warhol was able to put a significant amount of his personal wealth into acquiring property outside New York City. In 1972, Warhol purchased 15.1 acres of beachfront property in Montauk on Long Island that he kept in its natural state. Warhol arranged for this land to be donated to the Nature Conservancy by his estate after his death. The Andy Warhol Preserve, a gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, is now part of a larger land conservancy. Warhol believed that preserving nature was the most important work he could do: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.” Warhol also owned land near Carbondale, Colorado, of which he said, “I’m not going to build on it… It’s too pretty… Land is the best art.”