Andy Warhol and the Myth of the American West 

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Courtesy / Gregg Barrios

(from left) Andy Tabloid – Revolver Red and Andy Tabloid – Magnum Magenta by Greg Barrios.

“I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” – The Velvet Underground & Nico

Fifty years ago, on June 3, 1968, Andy Warhol was shot by a disgruntled Valerie Solanas. Warhol was initially pronounced dead but managed to pull through. The shooting made the nightly news.

I had spent the summer and fall of 1967 at the Factory, Warhol’s silver-painted studio in Manhattan. I was back in Austin taking graduate classes when I heard the shocking news. I called the Factory. My longtime friend Warhol’s assistant, Gerard Malanga, answered. He and Viva had just returned from the hospital.

Warhol’s near-death experience paled next to the brutal and tragic assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. that April, and two days later, on June 5, of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. Still under heavy sedation, Warhol whispered to Malanga as they watched the tragedy unfold on live television, “I wish it had been me instead of Kennedy. He was going to change the world.”

In many ways, Warhol also changed the art world. These memories flashed as I recently attended the Briscoe Western Art Museum’s exhibit of Warhol’s Cowboys & Indians, a suite of 10 images that reflect his vision of the mythos of how we view the American West.

The McNay Art Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Immersed also will feature Warhol: a meditative room will screen Warhol’s Sunset (1967), a 33-minute loop of a sunset with Nico from the Velvet Underground doing the voiceover.

The Cowboys & Indians suite is divided into figures of Teddy Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, and John Wayne as well as American Indians with the Apache Geronimo the only historical figure portrayed. The suite is one of the last that Warhol produced before his untimely death in 1987, but it wasn’t the first time he depicted images of the American West. His previous Double Elvis (1963) depicted Presley as a Western gunslinger, and later a screen print of Russell Means, an activist and leader of the American Indian Movement in 1968.

Another American icon in the suite, Buffalo Wild Bill Cody was an American showman. His touring company included Indians and sharpshooters like Annie Oakley. Their use of weapons was for show and marksmanship. Warhol delighted in watching Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton performing her signature song, “You can’t get a Man with a Gun.”

Geronimo also became a celebrity of sorts appearing at fairs, signing autographs, and receiving fan mail. He had a conflicted relationship with Teddy Roosevelt pictured next to him in the Cowboys and Indians suite. Roosevelt once remarked, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are …”

Geronimo, however, dedicated his autobiography to Roosevelt.

Roosevelt in turn was inspired by Buffalo Bill and named his Rough Riders after Cody’s western show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. There is a San Antonio connection. The Rough Riders trained here and often gathered at the Menger Hotel that today houses memorabilia and uniforms of the Riders.

Critics have commented that Warhol’s early use of guns and death as subjects were absent from his work after the shooting. And unlike Richard Avedon’s photographic study, The American West, Warhol’s renderings occupy a different universe than the hyperreality of Avedon’s living West.

An early clue to Warhol’s depiction of bigger-than-real life icons comes from his Ads series (1985) that featured Judy Garland dressed in mink furs for Blackglama. The quip in the ad reads: “What becomes a legend most!” Is it any wonder that the Cowboys and Indians’ suite followed on the heels of Ads in 1986?

The portrait of John Wayne in the series is the most intriguing and gives us an insight into Andy’s thinking. Like many of his depictions of celebrities, the Wayne portrait was appropriated from a publicity still of Wayne in the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In that film, we learn that the Jimmy Stewart character became famous for shooting outlaw Valance – only it wasn’t true. When the John Wayne character reveals he shot Valance, a newspaper reporter preparing to publish the true story decides against it: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Ditto Warhol in his suite of Cowboys and Indians. They are legendary, romanticized, archetypal, ahistorical, and totally contrived of how Americans have viewed the West. (The Briscoe will screen Liberty Valance as part of this exhibition in June).

Ford did the same trick in his masterpiece, The Searchers, that also starred Wayne. That film begins with a woman opening a door and a title card reads “Texas 1868.” As the camera widens to include the expanse of the landscape, we realize that this isn’t Texas, it is Monument Valley in Utah. And yet, we suspend our disbelief and buy into the story, the myth.

Warhol’s portrait of Wayne created a snafu when his heirs sued the artist for not getting permission to use Wayne’s image. Warhol settled by giving a complete set of the Cowboys and Indians suite to the heirs. The Wayne estate held an auction in 2011 of Wayne’s effect and memorabilia, including the suite, that were auctioned as individual pieces and reaped record prices.

Ironically, while Warhol was recuperating from his wounds, he was doing post-production work on his Western movie, Lonesome Cowboys, shot in Tucson earlier that year. The satiric film with Andy as cinematographer might best state his ribald thoughts on the American Western. Perhaps the Briscoe will add a screening and discussion during the exhibit’s run through early September.

Leaving the Briscoe, my New York days at the Factory shone brightly in my mind. Malanga introduced me to Andy at Max’s Kansas City. I was anointed as the “kid from Texas.” Warhol’s band of outsiders welcomed me as a fellow filmmaker, writer, and poet. I felt an immediate sense of being in the right place, of belonging. This extended family included the Factory house band, The Velvet Underground, as well as indie filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Malanga, Shirley Clarke and others like myself living in the Chelsea Hotel.

Although I later received the benefits of Warhol’s largesse – photos, books, art and films – it was the magical experience of living among kindred spirits bent on creating a new direction, a new sensibility that changed my life – our lives forever. Andy took us in without reservation. That in a word remains priceless.


4 thoughts on “Andy Warhol and the Myth of the American West 

  1. Gregg, if John Wayne told the reporters the truth of what really happened, that would have made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a movie of the paranormal; he was in pine box. The story begins with Jimmy Stewart returning from Washington to attend Wayne’s funeral. It is he who tells the story.

    As for using Utah scenery to create a myth, you can fault many movies for that. Ford liked Monument Valley for its beauty and knew it would enhance the drama and help sell tickets. Some of the scenes were shot at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I don’t see that as affecting the myth-making.

    The novel The Searchers from which the movie of the same name draws its inspiration was set before the CW. Why Ford chose to make it 1868 I can’t say, but it allowed him to accentuate Ethan Edwards’s insularity. He returns after the CW, not having surrendered to federals, and carries a Spanish medal he presumably got from the French for fighting in Mexico.

    Wayne and others use a model of a Colt revolver that was not invented until 1873 and a carbine that I think dates to 1892. That’s Hollywood.

  2. BTW, I remember that auction. No Hollywood personality comes close to matching hammer prices for John Wayne memorabilia. Marilyn Monroe comes in a close second. All others are way behind.

    Wayne’s hats went for about $80k, but the beret from the Green Berets went for $179k! I don’t remember the Warhol prices, but I am certain it was the Wayne connection that put them over the top.

    I picked up John Ford’s iconic hat for a fraction of those prices.

    • Thanks, Robert.
      Don’t know if you’re familiar with Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers – The Making of an American Legend. In it Frankel posits that what makes the Ford’s film so powerful and important is that “it both upholds the myth and undermines it, baring the ambiguities surrounding race, sexuality and violence in the setting of the West.” It’s a great read whether one agrees with him or not.

      Another bit of trivia: It’s been said that Texas rocker Buddy Holly got the title of his hit song, “That’ll be the Day,” from Wayne’s/Ethan’s famous quip in The Searchers.

      As far as getting Ford’s iconic hat for a fraction of its value, you got the better part of the deal. Ford remains one of our national film treasures. Again, thanks for expanding the conversation.

  3. Gregg, Glenn’s book stands close to the hat. I corresponded with him about the portrayal of Ethan. While others take the cheap shot that Wayne’s character is a racist who hates all Indians, Frankel allows (as would any normal observer) that the guy has an axe to grind, he is more balanced. After all, Ethan Edwards has been fighting Indians all his life (mostly Comanches) and as soon as he returns home to the woman he loves (Martha) she is gang-raped, dismembered, and scalped. Well, how much love is he to have for red brothers.

    On the other hand, the Indians are after revenge as well. Interesting that Ford chose a German actor with blue eyes to play Cicatrice. (He played the part of the progressive school teacher in Auntie Mame, btw).

    To go along with the hat for display purposes I have among other items the gun Sull Ross used at the Battle of Pease River in which, as you know, Cynthia Ann Parker was recaptured. I think Frankel was the only one to pick up the fact that Ross promised the gun to the first man with a kill and scalp. You can see the gun at I call it the “Gun of Pease.”

    Ford enjoyed undercutting the Myth of the West, but I think of it as a more universal theme. Men and Woman raised before us as heroes, only to discover they have feet of clay. Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache, for example. It happens all the time, from time immemorial.

    But to some characters, Ford remains true: Captain Brittles; Sergeant Rutledge. There are true heroes.

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