Andy Warhol’s Quadrant Mickey Mouse is an intensely exuberant painting, vividly-hued in bisecting planes of lively color, depicting an icon of popular culture—Mickey Mouse. In Quadrant Mickey Mouse, Warhol illustrates the most celebrated cartoon in history in his trademark silkscreen style. He repeats the classic Mickey image four times over in a 2x2 grid as if to illustrate the ubiquity of the image itself, as he had done to great effect in other 4-part canvases such as 4 Marilyns and 4 Jackies. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the painting, though, is Warhol’s abstract use of bisecting planes of color in the painting’s background. The artist was an altogether brilliant colorist, and in Quadrant Mickey Mouse he experiments with vivid combinations of lavender, tangerine, pink and blue. These prisms of shimmering color intersect the Mickey image in offset geometric planes, so that each seems to be viewed through a kaleidoscope, as if passed through the prism of dreams and memory.
Painted in 1981, Quadrant Mickey Mouse was created during a pivotal moment in Warhol’s late career that witnessed an unprecedented flourishing of work. During the 1970s Warhol seemed to generate an endless number of society portraits that felled him from critical favor, yet the dawn of the 1980s revealed Warhol renewed and reinvigorated, as he became obsessed in a critical re-engagement with his most important paintings of the 1960s. In what would become the Reversals and Retrospectives, Warhol mined his own historic work to bring himself out of the past and into the present day. He even ventured into pure abstraction with the Shadows and Rorschachs and regained the respect of the art world intelligentsia that had previously abandoned him.
It was during this intense period of reevaluation that Warhol intended to complete a series based on the characters of Walt Disney that would include both Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. A longtime Walt Disney fan (he collected original Disney acetates), Warhol also visited the summer blockbuster exhibit “Disney Animation and Animators” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from June to September of 1981. When asked by an interviewer if he had seen the Disney exhibit at the Whitney in 1981, Warhol responded, “Yes. I was interested to see how other people did so much of the work. I liked the show so much that I went to see The Fox and the Hound. That movie looked like it was done 50 years ago because the backgrounds were so painterly. But I wish the Whitney show had been larger; I wanted to see more” (A. Warhol, quoted in B. Blinderman, “Modern Myths: Andy Warhol,” Arts, October 1981; reprinted in K. Goldsmith, (ed.), I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, 1962-1987, New York, 2004, p. 290).
Consistently, Warhol mentioned Walt Disney as the artist he most admired and the earliest artist to influence him. In light of this fact, it seems obvious that Warhol would turn to one of his earliest influences during the last decade of his life. As an image, Mickey Mouse not only suited his pictorial means but was also laden with meaning: there is perhaps no bigger emblem of childhood itself than Mickey Mouse. In Quadrant Mickey Mouse, Warhol depicts the happy-go-lucky cartoon mouse in classic fashion. Viewed in profile, Mickey’s jaunty round ears and bright, smiling face instantly transport the viewer to childhood reveries spent in front of the television or Sunday paper.
By the time Warhol painted Quadrant Mickey Mouse, the Disney brand was nearly sixty years old and a global entertainment phenomenon, first appearing to major audiences in the black-and-white “talkie” Steam Boat Willie in 1928. Almost immediately, the Mickey Mouse character spread around the globe, making him the most recognizable cartoon character in history and—perhaps more importantly—a symbol of American innovation and spirit. The influential American novelist and critic John Updike has written, “The America that is not symbolized by that imperial Yankee Uncle Sam is symbolized by Mickey Mouse. He is America as it feels to itself—plucky, put-on, inventive, resilient, good-natured, game” (J. Updike, “The Mystery of Mickey Mouse,” The Best American Essays, Boston, 1995, p. 388)
Mickey played a key role in the development of Pop Art as well. Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey, from 1961, is considered one of the first Pop Art paintings. Warhol, too, first turned to comics as the source of his early work, depicting both Superman and Popeye that same year. Quadrant Mickey Mouse embodies those first Pop Art impulses while passed through the lens of a mature artist at a seminal moment in his career. The similarities between Warhol’s factory and Disney’s production studios have been oft-cited, but it is each artist’s iconic dominance of the globe—both culturally and commercially—as well as their enduring appeal that most closely links them. Traveling the world, nearly everyone recognizes “Mickey” or a “Warhol” so that the images themselves transform from mere depiction to something larger and more symbolic, achieving icon status. Updike invoked the philosophy of Karl Jung as he described the cartoon’s transformative power: “Mickey stands at that intersection of abstraction and representation where magic connects” (J. Updike, Ibid, p. 391).
Though Warhol intended to create an entire series devoted to Disney characters, he never completed the project. In 1981, Warhol was encouraged by the dealer Ronald Feldman to create a Myths series that went on to include the Mickey Mouse along with other imaginary characters like Superman, Santa Claus and the Wicked Witch. The Myths were exhibited at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York beginning on September 15, 1981. An article published on the occasion of the exhibit describes “In a certain sense Warhol himself is a myth. He has come to symbolize success and stardom in the arts, yet still somehow remains an elusive figure. The mystification surrounding his public image renders it difficult for some to see his art for what it really is—powerful, persistent images that have never failed to capture the spirit of the time” (B. Blinderman, ibid, p. 291).