The art of Andy Warhol is distinctive in its coloring and style. His name conjures his iconic images of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. But Warhol was also an animal lover, and in the 1980s he created a series of wildlife prints in an effort to build awareness for endangered species around the world.
The 10 prints in the series are on display in a rare exhibit at the National Museum of Wildlife Art near Jackson to celebrate the museum’s 30th anniversary. It is one of several big shows the museum is hosting this summer, in honor of its birthday.
The endangered species portfolio is distinctly Warhol in its coloring and style, but instead of famous faces, there is a Siberian Tiger, a San Francisco silverspot butterfly and a black rhino that pop from the prints in vibrant hues.
“It’s just a really amazing surprise,” said Adam Harris, the Petersen curator of art and research at the museum, of people’s reactions when they first see the prints. Many aren’t aware the series even exists, he said.
The museum borrowed the 10 prints in the portfolio from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2006 for a special exhibit. The public reacted so strongly to the show, the museum acquired prints for its own collection. The prints are fragile and more sensitive to light than paintings so they’ve remained in storage.
The Warhol show, which opened Tuesday and hangs at the museum until November, is an unusual chance to view it.
“Anniversaries make a good excuse to have big shows,” Harris said.
1987 museum started with 250 pieces
The National Museum of Wildlife Art opened as the Wildlife of the American West Museum in May 1987. Situated on Jackson’s Town Square, it had about 250 pieces from the private collection of Bill and Joffa Kerr, who at the time lived in Oklahoma City, and now split their time between Jackson and California, said Jane Lavino, curator of education and exhibits at the museum. The collection was small, but significant, with 50 pieces by Carl Rungius, who is considered by many the preeminent North American wildlife painter, Harris said.
“That put us on the map right away in terms of wildlife art,” Harris said.
In 1994 the museum moved to its location overlooking the National Elk Refuge on the outskirts of Jackson and changed its name to the National Museum of Wildlife Art to better reflect its collection and mission.
“Wildlife art doesn’t just happen with paintings of moose and bears, it happens with lions and tigers and all kinds of different creatures,” Harris said. “To tell the whole story of wildlife art, there was a conscious effort to broaden the mission.”
After the move and name change is when the museum really came into its own, said Lavino, who has worked at the museum for 26 years. About 70,000 people visit the museum each year and about 80 percent of those are first-time visitors, she said.
The museum’s permanent collection now contains about 5,000 pieces and includes work by Georgia O’Keefe, John James Audubon, Charlie Russell and other recognizable artist names. Its collection of wildlife art is unrivaled, Harris said.
“There are no other museums that have the breadth and depth that we do,” Harris said. “Especially in terms of historic American and European art that gives a sense of the background and history of the subject.”
The Rungius collection is still the backbone of the museum’s permanent collection. At least some of the 100 landscape studies and 100 pieces of finished works by Rungius now in the museum’s collection are always on display. Staff recently updated the exhibit to include more of his landscape studies which provide insight into Rungius’ process, Harris said.
Moving beyond Rungius
In addition to its robust permanent collection, the museum has also hosted significant exhibitions of work by artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso and Ansel Adams. In 2015 it displayed sculptures by internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei.
The museum has made an effort to include more contemporary artists in its exhibits and collection and to create richer experiences for visitors.
This summer, those viewing John Gould’s 80 hummingbird prints will hear a soundscape of a day in the life of a hummingbird created by Thomas Rex Beverly, Lavino said. The track includes the sound of wingbeats in the morning, rumbling thunderstorms in the afternoon and crickets in the evening.
“Iridescence: John Gould’s hummingbirds,” which opens May 26, is one of three big shows, along with the Warhol exhibit, at the museum this summer.
Gould was an English scientist and artist in the mid-1800s who helped catalogue species Europeans hadn’t seen before they traveled to the New World. His catalogue work influenced George Darwin’s theory of evolution, Harris said.
The third major exhibit, “National Geographic Photo Ark: Photographs by Joel Sartore,” is another type of catalogue exhibit, Harris said. Sartore created studio portraits of animals held in captivity. It will hang June 10 through Aug. 20.
“The aim is to show people how diverse the animal population is in the hopes that it will spur some more assistance in keeping that diversity going,” Harris said.
The museum will exhibit 40 of Sartore’s images, but will also have a video showing more images to capture the scope of the project.
The shows are topical, but also embody the mission of the museum and wildlife art, Harris said.
The first art ever created on rock with stones depicted animals, Harris said. “We’ve been trying to figure out our relationship to these other beings on the planet from day No. 1, and how we explore that is through art.”