Executed in 1976, The American Indian (Russell Means) offers a rare and prescient synthesis of Andy Warhol’s unparalleled devotion to popular culture and his adoption of germane political imagery in his artistic output. Produced with Warhol's semi-mechanical silkscreen technique, the present work embodies the apex of the artist's signature style. Conceived of as a project with West Coast dealer and Ace Gallery owner Doug Chrismas, the series to which the present work belongs contains thirty-eight paintings and twenty-three drawings. At 84 by 70 inches, The American Indian (Russell Means) is one of only twelve of the largest format paintings, which Warhol granted Chrismas the exclusive rights to sell for the first ten years after the series’s inception. Other examples of this size reside in important collections, such as the Denver Art Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, and the Dayton Art Institute. Acquired shortly following its execution, the present work has remained in the same private collection since it was purchased from Chrismas. Impressive in its monumentality and rich, expressive and painterly surface, the present example is among the very best from the series - notable for the clarity, precise alignment of its screen, and variegated, vibrant color palette. Neil Printz writes that the “heroic scale” of the paintings in the American Indian (Russell Means) series “links them to the monumentality and impersonality of the Mao series of 1972 to 1973—a relationship that underscores the iconic rather than the dramatic character of Warhol’s portrayal of [Russell] Means, and the status of the project as a series.” (Rainer Michael Mason cited in Neil Printz and Sally King-Nero, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 4: Paintings and Sculpture late 1974-76, New York, 2014, p. 493)
The subject of the series, Russell Means, a member of the Lakota tribe, led the American Indian Movement during the highly-publicized, seventy-one day siege of the town of Wounded Knee—“the infamous site of an 1890 massacre of the Lakota by a U.S. Cavalry regiment”—as protest of the U.S. government’s alleged tribal mistreatment. (Ibid., p. 493) A focus of intense media scrutiny, the siege garnered significant attention in Hollywood, resulting in avid celebrity activism. Marlon Brando famously refused to accept his 1973 "Best Actor" Oscar for The Godfather because of Hollywood's role in "degrading the Indian and making mockery of his character, describing [him] as savage, hostile, and evil.” (Ibid., p. 494) Rainer Michael Mason explains that the series’s subject falls in line with Warhol’s oeuvre as a whole, for Warhol “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...The title of the series, moreover, ‘The American Indian’ takes this anonymous and communal dimension into account. At the same time, however, the Indian is the face of a real political problem.” (Ibid.) Despite its thematic continuity, The American Indian (Russell Means)’s loosely painted surface illustrates a shift in Warhol’s practice in the 1970s, which David Bourdon characterizes by “a new interest in painterly painting,” unlike the “textureless surfaces” of his portraits of the 1960s. (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 330)
The American Indian (Russell Means) simultaneously proffers Means as a cultural icon and essentializes him, flattening his individuality to the character type of an “American Indian.” Though he positions his body three-quarters away from viewers, Means faces them straight-on: he turns his head to meet their gaze. There is a solemnity to his expression; his right eyebrow raised slightly, as if to acknowledge viewers’ presence, but he bears no hint of a smile. His unflinching stature carries a gravitas that bespeaks his authority within his community, and he consumes the entirety of the canvas, demanding viewers’ full attention. Cropping the portrait to Means' bust—and therefore adopting the legacy of bust-portraiture, a form typically reserved for Western history’s great leaders—elevates Means’ status for Western viewers. Doing so also lends a sense of celebrity to Means' image, for it places the portrait in line with Warhol’s many portraits of celebrities and cultural icons, nearly all of whom he removes from their context and crops into a high-keyed, flat backdrop. Warhol emphasizes Means’ dominant facial features: his defined bone structure and his piercing, focused gaze. Unlike many of his other series of portraits—such as Marilyn, Mao, and Ladies and Gentlemen—which he decorates with makeup-like face paints, Warhol renders Means’ face with a monochromatic wash of color. Given the widespread trope of face paint in stereotypes of Native Americans, Warhol’s refrain from stylizing Means’ face with various tones of paint is particularly curious. Means commented on the significance of war paint in Native American culture, explaining it “was put on only those willing to die,” so the figures who donned such paint “were all the soldiers, the defenders inside Wounded Knee.” (Russell Means in Neil Printz and Sally Kind-Nero, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. 4: Paintings and Sculpture, Late 1974-76, New York, 2014, p. 498) Warhol uses Means’ accoutrements as an arena for color play instead, coating his subject's hair with bright blue pigment, swashing his jacket with thick strokes of cadmium yellow, dousing his shirt and collar in turmeric and basil hues, and striping his jacket’s edges with dashes of bubblegum pink. Warhol’s vibrant and intensely bold color palette calls to mind Henri Matisse’s exquisite 1947 composition of cutouts Éléments Végétaux. The present work’s dramatic, flat planes of color echo the brilliance of Matisse’s selection of unmodulated colors. Warhol leaves traces of his finger painting visible, providing palpable evidence of his manipulation of Means’ presentation.
The American Indian (Russell Means) perfectly encapsulates Bourdon’s analysis of Warhol’s legacy: “He was a genius, whose brash, provocative paintings...epitomized the prevailing cultural and moral spirit of his time.” (David Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 9) With its dual significance—an emblem of a contemporary sociopolitical crisis and an American archetype with far-reaching cultural resonance—The American Indian (Russell Means) makes manifest Warhol’s profound contribution to the history of art. The series’ conceptual grounding in seriality and repetition roots it to the core of Warhol’s oeuvre; with an ethos of mass-production, The American Indian (Russell Means) helps cement Warhol’s status as the most powerful force behind American art’s turn from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art.
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