The Cow series, which Warhol worked on from 1966 to 1976, subverted expectations. However, it wasn’t the Pop artist’s first time using an uncanny subject. Through soup cans, passenger tickets and electric chairs, Warhol expressed a desire to shake up the art world. In addition, his Flowers series displayed the wide range of his capabilities. If flowers could be Pop, why not cows? Still, the art world associated Warhol’s work with star power and commercialism rather than the natural world. He composed Cow 11, one of five prints in the series, during the final days of the Whitney Museum’s Warhol exhibition in 1971.
In the early 1960’s, Warhol and his close friend Ted Carey visited the Leo Castelli Gallery. There the pair met art dealer Ivan Karp. After introducing them to one of Roy Lichenstein’s paintings, Karp agreed to come by Warhol’s apartment to see his work. He loved Warhol’s straightforward pieces while Warhol appreciated Karp’s laid-back style of art dealing. “I had a very good rapport with Ivan right away,” Warhol said. “He was young, he had an ‘up’ attitude to everything.” Karp later inspired Warhol’s Cow series.
Warhol often asked his friends what he should paint to get an outside perspective. Karp suggested cows, calling the subject a “wonderfully pastoral…durable image in the history of the arts.” Warhol accepted the suggestion, but not without putting his own spin on the idea. “I don’t know how ‘pastoral’ [Ivan] expected me to make them,” Warhol quipped, “but when he saw the huge cow heads—bright pink on a bright yellow background…he was shocked.” Highly committed to his focus on repetition and production, Warhol even printed the image on wallpaper. In one of his gallery shows, he papered the walls with the cows.
“They’re super-pastoral!” Karp exclaimed after he gathered himself. “They’re ridiculous! They’re blazingly bright and vulgar!” Like the print he saw that day, Cow 11 radiated fluorescent pink and yellow to startle the viewer. Warhol’s printer Gerard Malanga took the up-close shot of the cow turned towards the camera. What may have been a conventional image, Warhol made unconventional. His use of vivid color made Cow 11 as recognizable as any print in his Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s Soup series. Further, for Warhol, cows were just as fascinating as celebrities or commodities on a shelf.
By and large, Cow 11 is a testament to Warhol’s talent for doing the unexpected. His creations surprised viewers, encouraging them to see something familiar from a new perspective. Like in his Flowers collection, Warhol selected an image from nature and gave it commercial appeal. The Cow series could be printed on wallpaper over and over again without ever being boring.