The Nature of Warhol
New York City's Feldman Gallery is buzzing--literally.
Battery-operated “bees” protrude from frames on coils and springs, their tiny wings whirring as part of an exhibition about the importance of the pollinators and the threats they face.
In the back of the gallery, owner Ron Feldman is discussing the origin of another piece of art about animals in danger—perhaps one of the least-known works from one of the country’s best-known artists. In the early 1980s, the gallery commissioned a series of 10 portraits from Andy Warhol in the pop art style of the celebrity images he was famous for. But instead of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley or Elizabeth Taylor, the subjects were the black rhinoceros, bald eagle, giant panda, African elephant and six other endangered species.
“He had his own nickname for this—it was Animals in Makeup,” says Feldman about the neon-hued portraits. Feldman and his wife commissioned the Endangered Species series after hearing Warhol discuss beach erosion in Montauk, the small coastal town on the far tip of Long Island where the artist owned property. Inspired to propose an environmental subject for a commission, Feldman pitched endangered animals. Warhol, he says, “instantly said yes.”
The Montauk property that was the catalyst for the series is an old coastal compound of fishing cottages surrounded by nearly 20 acres of rocky beach, bluffs and grass that Warhol purchased in 1972. Most of it now belongs to The Nature Conservancy, which manages it as a preserve and hosts art and nature programs there.
Hardly anyone would peg Warhol—New York City cosmopolitan, capturer of American celebrity and consumer culture, a man who seemed “almost allergic to fresh air,” as one friend wrote in 2001—as an outdoorsman. Yet the Andy Warhol Preserve and the conservation-themed art it inspired raise the question: How did nature influence this famous urban artist?
I’m sure that for nearly everyone, his interest in nature would seem out of character for Warhol,” says Matt Wrbican, chief archivist at the Andy Warhol Museum, the country’s largest museum dedicated to a single artist.
Warhol was born in Pittsburgh and pursued art in New York City, two of the industrial and commercial centers of America. His work itself is commercial and industrial. Some of the most recognizable pieces feature consumer goods like Campbell’s soup, and he created much of his work in a studio called The Factory. Even his appearance—with his signature silver wig—seemed manufactured.
Yet Wrbican has uncovered many examples of a relationship with nature in Warhol’s work in the museum’s archives. It started with discovering an essay in which a childhood friend of Warhol’s discusses going with him to a Pittsburgh park to draw insects. Illustrations from early in Warhol’s career include images of butterflies, birds, trees, cats and dogs. Among Wrbican’s favorite pieces of Warhol’s nature art are two prints from the 1950s entitled “Happy Butterfly Day” and “Happy Bug Day.” They “appear to encourage New Yorkers to pay attention to nature,” Wrbican says.
Last year, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas organized the first-ever exhibition about the influence of nature throughout Warhol’s career to “tease out this story that was right in front of our faces,” says curator Chad Alligood. The exhibition included early nature illustrations, parts of the Endangered Species series, the cover of a book about endangered animals that Warhol illustrated, and many images of flowers, the subject of more than 10,000 works throughout Warhol’s career. “His approach to the natural world was constantly trying to preserve the beauty,” Alligood says. After all, Warhol wrote in his autobiography: “I can never get over when you’re on the beach how beautiful the sand looks and the water washes it away and straightens it up and the trees and the grass all look great. I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.”
Warhol’s former getaway on Long Island’s far northeastern shore was built as a fishing retreat in the 1930s and named Eothen, Greek for “from the east” or, more poetically, “at first light.” Although its white clapboard cottages and the 5 acres they sit on are still private property (an art dealer bought them last year for $50 million), the 15 acres of adjacent open land are a nature preserve. Just before the driveway in front of the cottages, a Conservancy trailhead leads through a thicket of American holly, bayberry and black oak. The vegetation soon shrinks to low shrubs including native shadbush as the trail opens up to reveal views of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against a rocky beach. “It’s like our own mini Grand Canyon here,” Conservancy preserve manager Paul D’Andrea says, looking out on the clay-rich cliffs and bluffs that tower over much of Montauk’s coastline.
The landscape is grand, indeed, and also rare. D’Andrea explains that the preserve is one of the best remaining examples of Montauk moorlands, a maritime grassland habitat characterized by sandy soil remnants from a glacier (“Long Island is one whole glacial deposit,” D’Andrea says), mild temperatures and ocean winds. Over the past century, Montauk’s grasslands have been destroyed by development and conversion to forest as the cyclical wildfires that once cleared woody growth have been suppressed. “There is very specific vegetation that grows here in the salt spray,” D’Andrea says, pointing out that not only do the plants tolerate the saline droplets, but some even need blowing sand to reproduce. “It’s very special.”
D’Andrea points his binoculars toward a few cormorants flying in place against the strong sea winds. This is also a “huge and important area for migratory birds,” he says. Montauk is a crucial feeding ground and rest stop on the Atlantic Flyway. It is also home to some rare animals, including the eastern newt, spotted turtle and bog copper butterfly. And the erosion Warhol spoke of is still an issue. On the beach in front of the Warhol preserve, D’Andrea draws a line in the sand with his foot to mark where a bluff, at least 10 yards inland from his line, used to be. “Erosion is happening faster than we want,” he says.
When Warhol purchased Eothen with his film-making partner Paul Morrissey in 1972, Montauk was a remote fishing village known for good surfing. It retains that character, although there is some evidence of encroachment from the ritzy Hamptons lifestyle up the road. In a New York Times interview from 2006, the agent who sold the property to Warhol said the artist was uninterested when she showed him vacation homes in Southampton and East Hampton but perked up when they reached the end of the island in Montauk, with its rustic motels and wild beaches.
Warhol owned the Montauk property for 15 years, during which he visited occasionally and invited a caravan of stars to stay, including the Rolling Stones, Jackie Kennedy, Truman Capote and fashion designer Halston. When he died in 1987, the land’s ownership was divided between the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Morrissey. They gave 15 acres to the Conservancy in 1992, with the agreement that the preserve would host visual arts programs. Now, artists and local students visit the preserve, which is not otherwise open to the public, as part of Conservancy organized workshops and field trips throughout the year.
Long Island artist and environmental activist Rameshwar Das holds slides of photograph negatives up to the window at the old farmhouse that serves as the Conservancy’s East Hampton chapter office. Outside, another artist, one of a group of plein-air painters who frequent nearby preserves, sets up an easel in front of a tree.
Das has been coming to Montauk since he was a kid and says he loves the “rich mix” of seaweed and rocks and skate’s egg cases—what his grandmother used to call mermaids’ purses—that wash ashore on its beaches. He led environmental photography classes here for 22 years and is now on a volunteer committee that plans the Warhol preserve’s art programs. He also helps select participants for an annual artist-in-residence program, which includes a week of lodging in nearby Montauk and access to the preserve to pursue artistic endeavors.
His slides capture hundreds of scenes on the preserve: tall bluffs, art students on field trips, shadbush, with “its great twisty trunks and white flowers,” and rocks. Lots of rocks—big, small, close up and grouped together. “The rocks are extraordinary out here. That’s always fun, seeing what the ocean has rearranged every season,” says Das.
The preserve has been a muse for many artists and inspired such works as a stop motion film created from wildlife camera trap images, designs drawn with tidal pattern measurements and a performance art piece based on a rare flower. The Warhol preserve, Das says, “has enabled The Nature Conservancy to see more involvement of artists with the environment, which is a natural fit.”
It is a natural fit—even if sometimes, as with Warhol, a surprising one. Though a relationship to the environment, just like art, is subject to interpretation. Warhol put it simply in one of his books: “Land really is the best art.”