But Warhol’s images of fictitious cowboys, and later of Native American activists and cultural artifacts, are undoubtedly weighted with politics and the charged mythology that had so long informed representations of the American West—whether intentional or not. “One of the things that Andy always said was that his work had no social commentary, no political bent, no ax to grind. That there was just the surface, that he was a mirror reflecting back to America who and what we are: ‘We are Campbell’s Soup, we are Brillo, we are Heinz Ketchup, we are Elvis and Marilyn and dollar signs,’” Hopkins explained. “But I think you find enough examples throughout his oeuvre to say B.S. on that—at least occasionally.”
A series of paintings and prints by Warhol in the exhibition, along with corresponding catalogue essays, explore this question in depth. In particular, Hopkins points to one 1976 series, “American Indian (Russell Means),” which portrays Oglala Lakota activist and Native American civil rights leader Russell Means, who sat for the portrait. Warhol made the prints the year of the U.S. bicentennial. As Hopkins pointed out, Warhol chose this moment, amid celebrations parroting national pride and the more savory aspects of American history, to “[come] out with a series of paintings depicting a leader of the American Indian civil rights movement,” he explained. “Now tell me there’s no politics behind that.”
The final body of work Warhol made before his death offers his most in-depth exploration of the American West, and also his most controversial. The 1986 “Cowboys and Indians
” portfolio portrays a range of images that represent both the history and constructed lore of the American West, pulled from reality and fiction. Among them are portraits of the performer and sharp-shooter Annie Oakley, silver-screen cowboy John Wayne, and cavalry commander General Custer (who infamously led battles against Native Americans in a bid for their lands). They join representations of Apache leader Geronimo, an anonymous Native American mother and child, and Kachina dolls (photographed by Warhol from the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian).