By the late 1970s Andy Warhol had objectified countless celebrities (including himself), demi-celebrities, socialites and wannabes in his portraits. Using found photographs, photo-booth snapshots or his own Polaroid candids, Warhol electrified the stodgy tradition of portraiture and in the process defined Pop Art as well as contemporary American culture. Throughout the Studio 54 era, Warhol participated in and nurtured the culture of celebrity, and allowed countless patrons to self-style themselves as Warholian icons and join his panopoly of stars.
Warhol's renegade use of photography was as groundbreaking as his devotion to portraiture. The photographs are transformed from mere source material to become the composition itself when screened over a background of hand-painted color.
"By accepting the photograph directly into the domain of pictorial art, not as an external memory prop for the painter's handmade re-creation of reality but as the actual base for the image on canvas, Warhol was able to grasp instantly a whole new visual and moral network of modern life that tells us not only about the way we can switch back and forth from artificial color to artificial black-and-white on our TV sets but also about the way we could switch just as quickly from a movie commercial to footage of the Vietnam war. For Warhol, the journalistic medium of photography, already a counterfeit experience of the world out there, is doubly counterfeit in its translation to the realm of art" (R. Rosenblum, "Andy Warhol: Court Painter to the 70s," Andy Warhol: Portraits of the 70s,, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1979, p. 12).
Warhol's candy-colored portrait of The American Indian (Russell Means) reinforces this duality. Means, an Oglala Sioux activist and leader of the American Indian Movement lead the symbolic takeover and 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and subsequently spent a year in prison. He later became an actor and is well-known for his portrayal of the stoic chief in the motion picture "Last of the Mohicans." He suited Warhol as a subject on many levels: as a media star, a controversial political figure and as a potent symbol of America. For many Americans, he was probably the only Indian they had ever seen -either on TV or in person.
Warhol's portrait of Means also links him with Edward S. Curtis, the photographer famous for The North American Indian a collection of 2,000 photogravures and narratives from the 19th Century that stands as one of the most important and controversial representations of American Indian culture ever produced. Curtis's body of work both documented as well as mythologized this "vanishing race" and contributed to the counterfeit, composite image of the Indian that, until recently, has pervaded popular culture. Like Curtis, Warhol photographed his subject, and posed him in traditional costume in a heroic, traditional three-quarter length format. Means' complex identity and political importance is simplified to the point of anonymity; he is merely The American Indian, a stereotype reconfirmed for the 20th Century in glamorous Pantone colors.