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Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians Series Shines a Light on American Western Legends

What could be more American than Cowboys and Indians? Andy Warhol surely knew this and created his Cowboys and Indians series, which includes famous (and infamous) figures and symbols from the Great American West including Geronimo, John Wayne, Mother and Child, Teddy Roosevelt and the Northwest Coast Mask.

Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians portfolio was created in 1986 and is said to have been his last series before he died a year later. Warhol was fascinated by characters of the American west and wanted to document them as legendary figures more than historic ones.

Rather than portraying Native Americans and Cowboys in a historically accurate setting, Warhol chose to portray a popular, romanticized version of the American West. The West that he chose to represent is familiar to everyone and can be seen in novels, films, and TV series. Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians Suite is an ahistorical representation that mirrors a popular interpretation of the American West.

While Warhol could not possibly use preliminary photos for his Cowboys and Indians prints, he used what he could to portray the most widely recognizable version of the figure. For example, in creating his John Wayne print, Warhol used a publicity photo from the 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. He also used the image of an American Indian, derived from the image on the US five-cent piece, for the Indian Head Nickel print. The subject is said to be a composite portrait of two Native American men, Iron Tail and Two Moons.

Warhol’s decision to portray his Cowboys and Indians in an ahistorical context confronts the viewer with a glaring omission: cowboys and indians were known enemies and fought to the death over American soil, which is undetectable in any of his images. Only in Warhol’s fantastical world could Cowboys and Indians occupy the same space in civility. This series presents a controversial image of American history and touches upon themes such as exploitation, war, power and rightful ownership.

Far away from Warhol’s usual world of glamour, consumption, celebrity and luxury is the rugged old American West where Cowboys and Indians inhabited expansive lands occupied with horses, tumbleweeds and outlaws. Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians may not be glamorous but they are just as iconic and celebrated in American history as any movie or rock star.

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