Ed Ruscha in Mark Lawrence Rosenthal, Marla Prather and Ian Alteveer, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, New York 2012, p.25
Andy Warhol’s The American Indian Series consists of twenty-six 50 by 42 inch paintings, twelve larger 84 by 70 inch paintings, and twenty-three drawings, all conceived between August 1976 and early 1977. The series was produced as a venture between Andy Warhol and West Coast art dealer Douglas Chrismas, who founded Ace Gallery in Vancouver and Los Angeles and would have an exclusive agreement to sell the series until Warhol’s death in 1987. In the past decade, only three examples of Warhol’s The American Indian (Russell Means) in the 50 by 42 inch size have appeared at auction.
All works in the series depict Russell Means (1939–2012), an Oglala Lokata Indian from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, who was widely known for his leadership during the 1973 American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota to protest against perceived corruption of the local government and their mistreatment of the local Indian population. The siege of Wounded Knee was an armed standoff between American Indian activists and federal law enforcement officials that lasted 71 days and garnered national media and political attention.
In the summer of 1976, Andy Warhol approached Douglas Chrismas about making a portrait series, and asked the dealer to find a model who personified the contemporary American Indian. A majority of the Indian nations in California and Canada recommended Means for the role, and Ace Gallery contributed $5,000 to the AIM in exchange for Means’s participation. While the artist never explained the reasoning behind his choice of subject matter, Russell Means as typified American Indian represented an irresistible theme to Warhol on both a cultural and stylistic level.
The topic of the American Indian had the undeniable appeal to Warhol of being a favored, and at the time highly controversial, topic in Hollywood as well. In fact, the actor Marlon Brando was campaigning heavily to raise awareness for the American Indian cause; one month into the siege at Wounded Knee he declined to accept the 1973 Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather in protest to the degrading treatment of the American Indian in American film. This intersection of political activism, popular culture, and celebrity was exactly the kind of subject which appealed so strongly to Warhol, as seen in his Mao series. The American Indian works share the same bold scale, linking them to Warhol’s impersonal and monumental depictions of Mao. These similarities highlight the iconic, instead of dramatic, character of Warhol’s depiction of Means.
As in the Mao paintings, here Warhol objectified a political and societal leader with the same cultural status, cache and awe he treated his earlier, more glamorous portrait subjects. This powerful portrayal of Means is the result of Warhol’s interest in the nature of popular culture as it relates to the duality of fame. Means appears as the archetypal American Indian not in an ideal sense, but as the product of the American consciousness, a figment of the cultural imagination exemplified by Hollywood’s portrayals of the American West. In Warhol’s work, Means has been converted into a Hollywood Indian, the classic stereotype. The strength of this image is in the way that Warhol forces the viewer to question their reaction to the work, and their associations with the perceived theme.
Warhol deliberately tricks the viewer into seeing the American Indian as a stock character playing a type. He has turned Means, the guerrilla activist, into his antithesis: a Pop Indian. However, by creating these associations, Warhol in turn highlights their absurdity. The stereotype of the American Indian is, even when it is meant to be ennobling, a reductive construct; he is still a savage, even if he is a noble one. As Rainer Michael Mason writes, with the American Indian Series Warhol “has once more adopted a theme that is simultaneously captivating and banal. The Indian is a conventional accessory of the American scene, for the same reason as its counterpart, the cowboy, or as Coca-Cola, the electric chair, the movie star” (Sally King-Nero and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings and Sculpture Late 1974-1976, Vol. 04, New York 2014, p. 493). Fittingly, Means regained fame decades after his encounter with Warhol for his role as Chingachgook in the Academy Award-winning movie, The Last of the Mohicans.
The American Indian (Russell Means) is a study in dynamic contrasts stylistically as well. The combination of printed silkscreen image transferred to canvas with the conventional acrylic and finger painting imparts a pervasively energetic texture to the work. The highly saturated neon tones of Means’s costume and the tactile articulation of his ornamentation juxtaposed with the flat and monotonous earth tone of his face accentuate the potency of his impenetrable commanding physical presence. The sun-soaked background, almost glowing, instantaneously conjures a vivid image of the American West: the prairie, plains, and desert landscape. The flaxen striations Warhol has added along Means’s left cheekbone have undeniable associations with notions of Indian war paint; therefore testing and challenging our predilection as viewers for indulging in the stereotype of the archetypal native figure central to American myth-making.
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