Consisting 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, Warhol’s The American Indian (Russell Means) series is emblematic of Warhol’s best work. The present example, with its vibrant blue background and monochromatic, red-faced and haired Means, has an even deeper, essential layer of meaning. With Means's unrealistic bright red face and hair, an undeniable association with the derogatory slang term 'Redskin' can be made in the portrait; therefore further testing and challenging our predilection as viewers for indulging in the stereotype of the archetypal native figure central to American myth-making.
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. 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 Brando 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 is exactly the kind of subject which appealed so strongly to Warhol, as seen by his Mao series. The American Indian series shares 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 Volume 4: Late 1974-1976, New York 2014, p. 506). 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 present 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 tones of Means’s face juxtaposed with the tactile articulation of his ornamentation and costume accentuate the potency of his impenetrable commanding physical presence. The deep blue background, almost glowing, instantaneously conjures a vivid image of the American West: the prairie, plains, and desert landscape.
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