Myths Series by Andy Warhol
Created in 1981, the Myths series icons Warhol presents are well known. Their roots are in ancient beliefs, folklore, allegorical tales, and are based on traditional stories and media creations. They represent fantasies, dreams, hopes and fears. Most of Warhol’s myths are derived from photographs he had taken especially for this series and embellished with diamond dust that adds a luster to each work. Aside from the iconic imagery, each print reveals facets of Warhol’s personality and desires. Created later in the artist’s career, we can look upon the Myths series as a sort of introspective project Warhol created to look into himself and create greater connection with the world around him. Overtly self-referential, Warhol places himself among his idols.
While this portfolio has the same look and feel of much of Andy Warhol’s work it’s production and impact are far from “the same” as Andy’s other projects. Warhol’s fascination with iconic figures and motifs has its pictorial roots in the early 1960’s, continuing throughout the many series which followed. In this series rather than using celebrities from his contemporary social circle, the artist chose to feature fictitious characters, taken from 1950’s television, Old Hollywood films and Walt Disney cartoons. This choice reflects the myth-making ability of the entertainment industry, which has come to be formational in understanding heroes and villains. One of the artist’s greatest abilities was appropriating these images and expounding upon their commercial value. While their functionality as commodities was already proven, Warhol took advantage of this in employing them as his subject matter, guaranteeing a wonderfully resonant reception. Most of Warhol’s work was quick and to the point. The source material for his Jagger series was produced in one day. Not so with Myths. As a final flourish and one more sign there is something special about this series even to Andy Warhol. Some of the screen prints were embellished with Diamond dust. The icons Andy Warhol chose are so significant and the meaning to each of us so clear, the series has an impact on almost anyone that views it. That is as true today as it was in 1981 when he released the portfolio.
Although the ten pieces of the series have very different origins and sources, it is possible to identify a common thread between them. “While these mythic
figures carry a range of important cultural attributes, their shared celebrity stature arises from their being heroes of commercial art. Each of these cultural icons is also a commercial icon, a ‘logo,’ the symbol of a corporate identity. Each is also an artistic creation from which the artist has been erased (G. Metcalf, Heroes, Myth and Cultural Icons, exh. cat., College Park, The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, 1998, p. 7) Warhol’s singular subject choices for his canvases defy commonplace decisions: “Warhol’s Myths reside in the funny papers, in movies and ads. And in the mirror. Warhol nurtures the nonlife, the un-death of glamour.” (C. Ratcliff, Andy Warhol, New York, 1983, p. 101).
The suite, composed of 10 iconic representations of recognizable figures of American film, history and culture encompass Warhol’s own life and the magic of 20th century American Pop Culture, or American Mythology. The term ‘Mythology’ (or ‘Myth’) often-times evokes the collected stories of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, however, Mythology is a feature of every culture. The collection of myths of any society defines its spirit and soul.
Superman depicts the widely recognizable figure of American film, history and culture still popular to this day. Like he was and still is for many, Superman was one of Warhol’s idols. When he was a child, Warhol was diagnosed with an immobilizing illness and found comfort in Superman comics which depicted an unlikely hero. As a sick child, he was inspired by the duality of Clark Kent/Superman. Warhol shows the original American hero Superman in his iconic pose: flying, his fist heroically stretched up to the sky. The artist reworked this image by doubling the figure next to its outlines, thus creating a sort of double portrait. Through the formal composition its powerful impact is enhanced and the symbolic figure receives the characteristic Warhol charm.
Warhol used a costumed model to create the portrait of Uncle Sam. The artist invited friends and actors into his studio to pose for his Polaroid camera. Partly for reasons of copyright, the artist cast and shot actors for each of the images, photographing them with his Polaroid camera, and using this image
as the basis for his screen prints. Andy Warhol may not have been the kind of person you would have seen leading an Independence Day parade, yet he was an astute and sure patriot. As a keen observer of the emergence of America as the global superpower it is today, Andy Warhol captured deep American truths and fantasies. “Everybody has their own America,” the Pop artist once explained. “You live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”
Most of these images are from the 1940’s and 1950’s, when Warhol was a boy. Many experts see this portfolio as a look by Warhol at his childhood. Above all, the imagery presented in Myths are nostalgic representations of America’s enchanted past. From the vibrant coloring to the icons’ dramatic expressions, each screen print reflects American glamour and theatricality.
Instantly recognizable and consummately powerful, Mickey Mouse is a distinctive image that embodies Andy Warhol’s understanding of the relationship between celebrity and consumer culture in American society. In Warhol’s closely cropped, deadpan representation of Mickey Mouse, the image of carefree play and childhood innocence is conferred with media’s power to create identity and desire. As a Warhol portrait, Mickey Mouse has become more than a celluloid mouse: the image has entered the Warhol celebrity pantheon and has been featured in numerous international exhibitions as an important element of Warhol’s oeuvre.
As an adult, Warhol famously stated he wanted to be a cultural icon like Mickey Mouse. This Mickey Mouse screen print is surprisingly the first time the famous Disney character has appeared in Warhol’s work. Warhol imposes his pop style onto these already established icons, injecting himself into the vein of pop culture. Even more remarkable, these images continue to be recognizable in contemporary times, wittily subverting what Warhol termed “fifteen minutes of fame”. Warhol famously wanted to be regarded as strong an American symbol as Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse is one of the most graphically and commercially powerful examples among the Myths to represent this combination of icon, logo and corporate identity symbol. Warhol’s Mickey Mouse is viewed as an icon, ripe for contemplation, channeling a cultural fetish of celebrity, as in Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn and Liz. Like these stars of the silver screen, Mickey is part of America’s entertainment legacy; his identity was born of and will forever be associated with the Disney name. Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse are so intimately intertwined that by silk-screening the simple geometric forms the world recognizes as Mickey Mouse, the man behind the mouse looms large along with everything that his empire has come to mean in America. The result is that both positive feelings and more trying associations emerge from Warhol’s Mickey Mouse: entrepreneurial success, cutting-edge innovation, the production of popular American culture, and nostalgia for the more homegrown varieties of entertainment that cannot compete. This mixture of emotions also reflects aspects of the American transition from the prosperity of the early 1960s to the challenging economic and political events of the next few decades. Warhol understood that within this emerging cultural milieu, mythologies were developed in the media to be collected and cultivated by the masses. Mickey Mouse is continually fresh, unblemished by age, and un-burdened by the baggage of Western History. Thus, Mickey Mouse stands symbolically with Warhol’s film beauties, Coca-Cola Bottles, and Dollar Bills. Each of these commodities has been experienced and enjoyed by millions of individuals. As images and ideas, their consumption is pervasive in American culture, which fascinated Warhol: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see a Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liza Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. …All the Cokes are the same.” (Exh. Cat., Museum of Modern Art, 1989, p. 458).
Warhol’s Myths series thus recognizes the conditions behind the manufactured quality of public images and serves to “remind us that anyone (living or not, human or mouse) can be a cultural icon that sells, a celebrity. When celebrity is seen through its ability to sell, then being packaged to sell makes one a celebrity.”(G. Metcalf, Heroes, Myth and Cultural Icons, exh. cat., College Park, The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, 1998, p. 9). Warhol’s profound understanding of this principle ultimately reflects his own notorious status: testimony to the cultivation of his own, celebrity image, the artist had personal experience with the demands of ideology and projected perfection. This series gives a profound comment on the nature of society: where myths emerge from popular culture and inspirational figures are epitomized by commercialized celebrity status.
As Greg Metcalf has written, “What is the difference between Marilyn Monroe, a Campbell’s Soup Can, Uncle Sam, Golda Meir, O. J. Simpson, and Mickey Mouse? Nothing, say the portraits of Andy Warhol. They are all icons of America’s modern mythology of celebrity. Icons that sell. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, mythology is the organization of metaphorical figures that connote a state of mind, that transcends their specific place or time. To paraphrase Andy Warhol’s portraits, the mythology of America is celebrity, the gods and demigods are those who can sell through their mass-produced images, and the course of action we, as a culture, are called to is to consume. These portraits record an American culture transformed from hero-to celebrity-worship and the role of cultural icon as celebrity, a commodity, and a piece of commercial art that sells. Through these portraits, Warhol both documented and encouraged the collapse of separation between individual, logo and myth. The celebrity is no longer an individual, but a brand name, a logo.” (Greg Metcalf, “Heroes, Myth, and Cultural Icons,” in Exh. Cat., College Park, The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, Reframing Andy Warhol: Constructing American Myths, Heroes and Cultural Icons, 1998, p. 6).
The figures in the Myths series when taken together, sum up something that is false and fictional about America and, at the same time, so accurate and exact. There is a power and persuasion present in popular culture that makes it all encompassing in society even today. The critic Barry Blinderman put well, when he wrote “as an artist who represents an era in which advertising, film and TV are as great a source of heroes and villains as Homer and the Bible were for pre-media society, Warhol chose to update the classical order” with this series of prints. In creating his own version of the personification of the US, Warhol also captured something powerful and true in his country’s popular imagination. Unlike traditional mythological figures, Greek gods and goddesses, the motifs Warhol used in Myths capture the modern imagination and portray America’s powerful and enchanted past.