The Cow series demonstrates a divergence from Warhol’s depictions of cultural touchstones like celebrities and brands. It was inspired by Ivan Karp, an instrumental art dealer in the 1960s, who once suggested to Warhol, “Why don’t you paint some cows? They’re so wonderfully pastoral and such a durable image in the history of the arts.” (POPism: “The Warhol Sixties,” 22). Cow 12 is a break from depicting commercially recognizable subjects in favor of a universal one. Warhol thus demonstrates the breadth and versatility of what the pop art aesthetic can represent. Warhol’s 1971 Cow 12 runs with this with bold, high contrast colors, giving a universal symbol a unique and vibrant character.
With Warhol known for breaking and redefining the rules of art, the Cow series may seem puzzling. One wonders how a “durable image in the history of the arts” fits into a movement known for flipping art on its head. But the Cow series uses the unique pop art aesthetic to create a new feeling out of the familiar image, demonstrating that pop art could redefine the old just as readily as it could introduce the new.
Gerard Malanga, one of Warhol’s printers and collaborators, selected the image for the series. Afterwards, Warhol colored the image – an example of his collaborative process and assembly-line approach. But Warhol’s coloring decisions are what give the Cow compositions their character. The bright yellow contrasted with the electric blue background make the cow an exciting, even humorous subject. An animal traditionally associated with the “pastoral” has come to be exciting and modern.
In Cow 12, we witness pop art’s ability to transform a historical artistic symbol into something new and exciting. The humble Cow portfolio is really a Warholian triumph of the marriage between commodity and art. By incorporating the cow into the pop art aesthetic, Warhol demonstrates the far reaching boundaries of his art. His work was never at the mercy of the contemporary cultural moment. Rather, it is able to incorporate more permanent archetypes and symbols.
The Cow series was also Warhol’s first wallpaper project, which would become a part of his creative repertoire. Warhol used this wallpaper to line his exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966, 5 years before Cow 12 was printed. The coloration of the cow evolved over the course of ten years. Warhol experimented primarily with bright colors against pastel backgrounds.
Cow 12 falls in the middle of this timeline, and its electric blue is one of the more vibrant backgrounds of the series. The sharp contrast with the cow’s yellow face gives this piece an undeniable sense of energy. The Revolver Gallery also owns variations of the Cow prints, including Cow12A and a rare version of Cow 11A.