Howard on ahtone and Brower and Hopkins, 'Warhol and the West'

Heather ahtone, Faith Brower, Seth Hopkins
Rachel Howard

Heather ahtone, Faith Brower, Seth Hopkins. Warhol and the West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019. Illustrations. 140 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-30394-2

Reviewed by Rachel Howard (University of Chicago) Published on H-Environment (February, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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There is a photo, in the essay written by Seth Hopkins in the edited volume Warhol and the West, of a room in Andy Warhol’s house. Taken by Robert Mapplethorpe for the Sotheby’s auction that sold Warhol’s belongings after his death, the room is bursting with indigenous iconography and artifacts: woven baskets are displayed under a table heavily laden with jewelry, pots, blankets, statues, and masks. Directly behind the table is an oversized portrait of an indigenous warrior on horseback, leading others across a river. Hopkins notes that “more than 650 pieces of American Indian art ... including jewelry, baskets, textiles, beadwork, and other artifacts representing tribes from Mexico to Alaska” were put up for auction (p. 19). In the background, a four-foot-tall lawn jockey looks out on the scene. The editors include the photo and the description of the auction in order to showcase Warhol’s obsession with ephemera related to what they call the myth of the American West. This obsession was initiated by a childhood love of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Warhol, according to Hopkins, was injudicious when it came to his collection of indigenous artifacts and art, picking up whatever he could find on hours-long shopping trips.

Warhol and the West, an exploration of what the editors describe as a “new way to consider Warhol’s artistic legacy,” is a joint venture of curators from the Booth Western Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (p. 8). The text is a companion to the exhibit, which takes as a jumping-off point Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians project. As a result, the text is tasked with introducing its subject and providing a novel and critical perspective on Warhol, an American artist whose work, at this point, is almost as overdetermined as the fantasy of the American West that is at the heart of Cowboys and Indians. If, as Hopkins notes, “Warhol’s art has been compared to a mirror in which we see America,” then what does the current American moment say about how we see Warhol (p. 17)?

The perspective that this text and exhibit offer develops through foregrounding Warhol’s work with “western subjects.” The curators and editors identify these subjects as portraits of indigenous artists and activists; the Cowboys and Indians series, which includes portraits of indigenous artifacts like kachina dolls and a Kwakwaka’wakw mask (titled Northwest Coast Mask by Warhol), portraits of Teddy Roosevelt, General George Armstrong Custer, an indigenous “Mother and Child,” Dennis Hopper, Clint Eastwood, and others; the repetitive image of Elvis shooting a gun; a nonnarrative “western” film produced inside of Warhol’s New York studio; and images from the Endangered Species series. The introduction to the text announces that these artworks prompt “an unsettling question: How should we as Americans feel about ourselves and our country?” (p. 12). Three essays trouble this potentially universalizing framing by historicizing Warhol’s interest in western themes through biographical facts (Seth Hopkins); unpacking the “fantasy of American Indian presence” (heather ahtone, p. 28) that the art pieces perpetuate (and see “Sonny Assu and the Time-Traveling Canoe,” by Sonny Assu); and showing how Warhol’s pop art movement influenced other artists of the American West (Faith Brower). A third section of the text includes the plates and written contributions to the exhibition.

The scholarly essays bring focus to the Cowboys and Indians project, which was commissioned by investment banker Kent Klineman in 1986 and which was unfinished at the time of Warhol’s death. The essays describe how the project came to be, what difficulties Warhol and Klineman encountered in getting permission to use an image of John Wayne, and how Klineman arranged to have the project finished after Warhol died. The authors connect the genesis of Cowboys and Indians to Warhol’s long-term interest in art about the fantasy of the American West.

The writings that take seriously the way Warhol’s obsessions have (re)produced white America’s fantasy of indigenous life are particularly effective at offering a new read on Warhol as an artist. The essay “The American Indian and Warhol’s Fantasy of an Indigenous Presence,” written by ahtone, historicizes the use of indigenous imagery in Anglo-American art in order to show how “the images that Warhol constructed ... participate within a history of manipulation and construction that perpetuates a fantasy of American Indian presence” (p. 28). This fantasy is rooted in racist theories of the “noble savage” that erased indigenous people from modernity. In other words, the sorts of images that populated Warhol’s childhood, that were his inspiration for Cowboys and Indians and for his personal collection of indigenous artifacts, are ideologically determined by white American misconceptions and misunderstandings of indigenous life. Ahtone helpfully shows how photographer Edward Curtis’s project The North American Indian (1906), an ethnographic project meant to photograph and research indigenous populations across the continent (and funded by JP Morgan), created a “false historicity” by “manipulating the image of indigenous Americans beyond recognition in a contemporary setting,” ultimately creating “THE mythic Indian” (p. 32).

The discussions about the series American Indian (Russell Means) are particularly illuminating within the context provided by ahtone. Completed in 1970, the series is a repetitive portrait of indigenous activist and artist Russell Means that Warhol “denied ... was a poignant social commentary” (Hopkins, p. 20). The title of this piece is worth critique, in the way it turns Means’s name into a parenthetical, thereby flattening his work and activism into how white America sees him. The series American Indian (Russell Means) plays right into the figure of the “mythic Indian.” These contributions ask us to question how far the ironic distance is between white America’s production of this figure and Warhol’s reproduction of it. Perhaps because of this, rather than focusing on how “we as Americans should feel” about the West, the text prompted for me the question: what are the stakes of taking seriously Warhol’s attempt to sanitize a politics of representation through aesthetic repetition?

Gregg Deal’s discussion of The American Indian (Russell Means) adds to ahtone’s discussion of that piece. Deal argues that the “repetition of an already exploited image ... is symbolic of America’s need to see, recognize, and hopefully reconcile a modern indigenous person’s place in America.... On the other hand lies the consumption of the Indigenous image.... Warhol did indeed gain monetarily from Means’s image” (p. 71). In other words, this piece creates an erasure of both the individual Means and his art and work through intentionally meaningless repetition and further perpetuates exploitation of indigenous art and personhood through consumption on behalf of the white artist.

Most of the companion texts that accompany the images in the exhibit are biographical, like those for Howdy Doody, John Wayne, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull. Others, however, offer incisive critiques that contribute to the tension between Warhol’s work and his obsessions.

Lara Evans’s discussion of Warhol’s portrait of Luiseño artist Fritz Scholder is also instructive, further highlighting the tension between artist and limits of representation. Scholder was “sometimes called the Indian Andy Warhol” because both were public artists. However, Scholder’s work, which was not pop art but rather painted portraits of individuals, “revealed that cultural specificity and racial representation broke apart the supposed consumerism of pop art and the individual emotional subjectivity of abstract expressionism.” Evans examines Warhol’s portrait of Scholder within the context of Scholder’s practice, arguing that “the supposed vacuousness and banality of Warhol’s portraits are revealed as disturbingly fraught with (pop) cultural and racial assumptions when considered alongside Scholder’s work” (p. 76).

Another example is Gloria Lomahaftewa and Daryn A. Melvin’s discussion of Warhol’s Kachina Dolls. These are sacred artifacts for Hopi, tihu, that Warhol serialized for Cowboys and Indians. Lomahaftewa and Melvin take this opportunity to describe some aspects of Hopi’s history and religion and to introduce the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. In so doing, I would argue, they respectfully critique both the production of the portrait in the first place and perhaps also its inclusion in the exhibit. They note, “because of the continued misrepresentation, exploitation, and abuse of Hopi cultural property, it has become necessary to establish and strictly follow a set of guidelines that will protect the cultural property rights of Hopisinom today and for future generations” (p. 102).

These critiques, taken alongside the images of Warhol’s home and the biographical revelations about his obsession with certain mythologies and fantasies of an American frontier that never existed, reveal the limits of Warhol’s aesthetic, avowedly nonpolitical, project. Altogether, the text exposes what I took to be an emptiness in Warhol’s work, ultimately revealing the power and seduction of a fantasy about America that has always been harmful.

Citation: Rachel Howard. Review of ahtone, Heather; Brower, Faith; Hopkins, Seth, Warhol and the West. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

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