Man’s Best Friend and Vanishing Animals
(Lococo Fine Art Publisher, 2011)
Andy Warhol’s immense body of work can at times seem to cover every subject under the sun. The equally immense amount of criticism and conjecture about his oeuvre makes the whole subject of Warhol’s art fraught with polarization and speculation. This can lead one to feel that everything there is to be said about his work has been said or, equally troubling, that saying anything at all is tantamount to swimming with sharks.
As something of a curative to this, Lococo Fine Art, based out of St. Louis, Missouri, has released two books that display an overlooked and fascinating area of Warhol’s oeuvre, both made in conjunction with recent corresponding shows at the Lococo Fine Art Gallery. Man’s Best Friend and Vanishing Animals compile a series of animal drawings, paintings, and screen prints made in 1976 and 1986. Among the images’ subjects are a collection of armadillos, butterflies, parrots, peccaries, tortoises, gazelles, and condors, as well as a host of different dog breeds. Man’s Best Friend contains 15 line drawings of dogs and one of a cat, as well as six mixed medium paintings and silkscreens of dogs, all originally shown together in two 1976 exhibitions, Andy Warhol: Animals, in New York, and Cats & Dogs by Andy Warhol, in London.
The drawings are simple and illustrative; the painting/prints are colorful and expressively abstracted. Vanishing Animals compiles some of Warhol’s endangered species prints, which were commissioned by Ronald and Frayda Feldman. The images of these animals are silkscreened on top of collages made from strips of colored paper. At times the placement of these strips emphasizes the forms or movement of the depicted animals—the haphazard flight path of butterflies, the stretching of a tortoise’s neck; at other times they impose an unnatural grid upon the relatively naturalist depictions of these animals. Both books are printed in vivid colors and provide little to no text or context.
There are definite ways in which the art in these two books can be seen as simply extending what are considered Warhol’s normal concerns. Through the painting of dying species and the use of photographs and taxidermy as source material, Warhol continues his musings on depictions of death. The very nature of these specific animals’ relationship to human spectacle, as non-human versions of celebrities and victims in their own right, carries on many of the issues raised in his Campbell’s Soup cans or Marilyn Monroe prints. And yet these images of animals, just like the real animals they picture, hold a unique place in, or possibly outside of, the world of production and consumption that is often assumed to be Warhol’s primary focus. The heated either/or arguments around his depictions of Monroe—whether he identifies with her as an individual or is fascinated with her as celebrity object—become strangely mutated by these animals, some of whom we confer individuality upon, some of whom we have driven to near extinction. The search for meaning in the faces or forms of these animals is not unlike the search we engage in when viewing Monroe’s portrait, yet they lead the viewer to questions that have their roots in the natural sciences rather than in social and cultural commentary.
If we find in Warhol this interest in non-human worlds, then many of the debates raging about his status and intent—is he a Brechtian troublemaker? a compassioned humanist? a critical nihilist, or an avid consumerist?—move off center stage. What if we approached his prints of Monroe or the Campbell’s can in the same way we approach the butterfly, asking not only their place in a human order (or disorder), but in a natural one as well? If we stop asking what these paintings say about us (the human viewers), our ears may become attuned to a very different frequency of messages, where the subjects of Warhol’s images talk about themselves.