“Extinction—the tragic and permanent loss of entire species of animals—should be a concern for everyone. This concern and a strong desire to take action toward preventing the loss of more animals has brought about an unusual collaboration between art and science.”— Dr. Kurt Benirschke
“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
What is Andy Warhol, that commercial Pop Art, celebrity-worshipping, iconographic urban cowboy doing at the National Museum of Wildlife Art? When we think of Warhol, we think of repeated images of Campbell’s Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, Mao Tse Tung, Jackie Kennedy, even electric chairs. We note, grudgingly at times, our seemingly endless exposure to his more famous commercial images. And we think, ‘Sod off. That Warhol guy got lucky. He became rich and famous by ripping off Campbell’s and Hollywood. He’s nothing but a copycat. Why is what Warhol did considered art?”
Warhol’s repetition worked, and that is the point. The need to interpret what we worship, or what we fear and mourn, to recreate externally what our collective unconscious takes in, drives us to create. That is art. Mankind has always needed to leave markers of our existence, needed to tell our present to the future. Artists create time capsules, and Warhol is no exception. The America of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s witnessed an escalation of manufactured sound bites and media images. Warhol simply recorded this trend and added to it. We may not like the message, but we cannot deny its reality. Warhol’s vision of society was, and is, so pervasive that it became what it observed. It is impossible, now, to imagine those decades when Warhol was at the height of his creativity without Warhol.
Warhol was a transcendent colorist. He painted and printed all his subjects in sharp, amazing hues of citron, crimson pinks, gold, peach, scarlet reds, deep purples, bottomless blues. He tricked out paintings and prints so thoroughly, they vibrated. Born into a working class Pittsburgh neighborhood, Warhol grew up devouring comics, cartoons, and movie magazines. Doubtless the vivid imagery buoyed Warhol, living as he did in somber-skied Pittsburgh, saddled with frail health.
With a love of color and a yearning to feel alive, rich, and productive, it’s no wonder Warhol took to painting the natural world. Nature includes culture, as the Warhol Museum’s Matt Wrbican notes. Warhol’s interest in nature was life long. Physically fragile, he became even more so after being shot by Factory actress-turned-deranged-feminist Valerie Solanas, in an assassination attempt. It can be said that Warhol’s conservation consciousness grew, at least in part, as a result of having to fight for his own life.
Whereas Warhol’s lurid colors render his celebrity portraits as mask-like and impenetrable, his brilliant, earlier images of hibiscus, cows, sunsets, and wildlife take on shimmering life. This gift for color translates completely in “Silent…. They are raw, and they are eloquent. And they provide pigmented exclamation points to conservation’s message about borrowed time.
“Silent Spring: Andy Warhol’s Endangered Species and Vanishing Animals” was curated by Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in 2002, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, “Silent Spring.” That book, and the storm of controversy over pesticide use it created, are said to have set the stage for the environmental movement. Warhol and Carson were both Pittsburgh natives. In 1983 it was natural evolution for Warhol to accept the commission for “Endangered Species” from Ronald and Frayda Feldman, political and environmental activists noted for their promotion of innovative artists through their gallery, New York’s Ronald Feldman Fine Art. Warhol’s portfolio was the result of a conversation with the Feldmans about ecological issues, particularly beach erosion. The subject was dear to Warhol, as he owned beachfront property on Long Island, and undeveloped land in Colorado.
In 1986, the San Diego Zoo’s Dr. Kurt Benirschke and Warhol collaborated on the book Vanishing Animals, a collection of 16 Warhol silkscreen and collage prints, reproduced and placed alongside corresponding chapters by Benirschke on each species. Benirschke gives us each animal’s history and discusses possible reasons for their declining population. Chapters and prints include portraits of the California Condor, La Plata River Dolphin, the Galapagos Tortoise, the Whooping Crane, and Sommerring’s Gazelle. Notes Benirschke, “ Naturally, the animals presented here are very personal choices, having been selected from a virtually endless supply of animals whose last hour is rapidly approaching.”
So, what has Warhol contributed to art, and particularly to wildlife art? He has, say his colleagues, given us back something we may not know we had. He has brought to the fore our human longing to have the familiar, and precious, codified. And he has succeeded, says David Hockney, in making a strong connection between those of us who look at his work and the work itself. Warhol’s prints and paintings go into your head and stay there. There’s no mistaking them for the work of another artist, and that alone can help save a species. I think all who take time to visit “Silent Spring: Andy Warhol’s Endangered Species and Vanishing Animals” this summer shall agree whole-heartedly. You will come away welcoming and celebrating Andy Warhol as something you never imagined you would: a great conservation artist.
Tammy Christel’s column “Arts Observatory,” about the arts in and around Jackson, appears every week in the newspaper Planet Jackson Hole.