Cow 12A is a screenprint on wallpaper by Andy Warhol from 1976. Before the Cow series, Warhol’s oeuvre primarily focused on subjects clearly tied to consumerism or celebrity culture. In the mid-1960’s, legendary art dealer Ivan Karp suggested that Andy Warhol experiment with recognizable but more universal subjects. He suggested Warhol depict cows, noting that they were “wonderfully pastoral” and, “such a durable image in the history of the arts.”
Here, Warhol uses the pop-culture aesthetic to depict a long-standing subject of art history. He demonstrates that Pop-Art is unique not only for its subjects, but for the style in which they are depicted. In the end, the manner of presenting subjects becomes an equally compelling component of the movement. Cow 12A is the last image in this series, which represented a turn for Warhol’s movement. Though Warhol is most well known for his depictions of commodified subjects, the Cow portfolio is an example of Warhol commodifying a universally recognizable subject by the way in which it is represented.
Warhol’s choice to depict an image universal to the “history of the arts” separates this portfolio from much of his other work. The Cow thus stands out from his works that generated controversy for their depiction of nontraditional subjects like soup cans or Coca-Cola. But, even as the subject changes, Warhol’s trademark style does not. Using electric backgrounds and bold contrasts, Cow 12A pops as much as any of Warhol’s renowned celebrity portraits. The result is the absorption of a non-market symbol into the Pop Art canon. Such an absorption proves that Warhol’s philosophy goes beyond traditionally recognized subjects of consumerism.
The Cow portfolio, by depicting a universal subject, succeeds in making Warhol’s style universal. The Cow needn’t be a brand, a celebrity, or a mascot. Once subjected to the Warhol Factory treatment, it becomes a part of Warhol’s entrepreneurial art oeuvre. Thus, Warhol produces a commodity out of anything art could conceivably depict.
The Cow portfolio also demonstrates a new chapter for Warhol in that it was his first wallpaper project. These would eventually become an indispensable part of his work, as he would hang wallpapers for most of his shows. When guests attended the first show lined with Cow wallpaper, the first thing they saw was a brightly-colored cow against an eye-popping background.
The loud contrasts that define Warhol’s work usually utilize complimentary colors, but Cow 12A creates the Pop-Art effect by making both the foreground and background bright and aggressive colors. The result is that the print feels playful, even chaotic, without a jarring juxtaposition between the foreground and the background. The feeling of the print, ultimately, is engaging and humorous. Cow 12A seems to give the viewer the impression of a cow on an acid trip.