Pop Goes the West
Through April 15
Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are considered the fathers of Pop Art in America. While each artist explored the notion of high vs. low art in their work, each did so with different but often overlapping sensibilities: Lichtenstein largely within a highly formalized, complex graphic framework, and Warhol through rendering single images in larger-than-life, stylized formats. What is less known about these artists is their interest in American Indian culture as a source of inspiration, or at least subject matter. It is this particular interest that generated the exhibitions Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters, originating at the Montclair Art Museum, and Andy Warhol’s Cowboy’s and Indians, put together locally by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
Both shows comprise Pop Goes the West, on view now at the Eiteljorg, intended to inform the viewer of both the playfulness and formality of Pop Art as it expresses Native American culture.
Lichtenstein’s intent was not to convey American Indian culture from a romantic or accurately cultural perspective; rather, his idea was to incorporate the visual elements of the culture into more formalist explorations of particular art movements. In the 1950s, that included cubism and expressionism; in the 1970s, when Lichtenstein took up the interest again, he worked within a more surrealist approach.
Ever fascinated with interpretations of the culture rather than direct responses to it, Lichtenstein relied on existing paintings and images rather than the real thing, although he lived for a time near the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in New York and was known to visit there with his wife, Dorothy.
Lichtenstein responded to paintings such as “The Murder of Jane McCrea” by John Vanderlyn (1803-1804); instead of reacting to the horror and drama depicted in the painting, Lichtenstein’s version is reminiscent of the work of Paul Klee and Picasso, cubist in its separation and reconnecting of visual elements into a sort of layered pastiche.
As Lichtenstein wrote in 1952, “Subject matter, ideas, techniques, etc. bear no influence on any paintings I have done. If any of them appear in my paintings they have only been instruments of amusement, they do not direct one brushstroke I have ever made.”
He may have been kidding himself. The symbolism — and the meaning, or ideas, behind the symbols — so prevalent in the American Indian culture obviously fascinated him. Artists are almost by nature tapped into the collective, and whether Lichtenstein explored it as a purely visual exercise or not is almost beside the point.
Warhol was unabashed in his fascination with the celebrity as reflection of popular interest. In the case of his Cowboys and Indians series, created just a year before his death in 1987, figures such as Geronimo and John Wayne are front and center, calling us to reflect on their value.
Both exhibitions provide a unique departure for the Eiteljorg: looking at Native American culture through the lens of art history and its pivotal Pop Art movement rather than more traditional approaches.
Pop Goes the West is on view through April 15 at the Eiteljorg Museum, downtown in White River State Park. Call 317-636-9378 or visit www.eiteljorg.org for more information.