A New Exhibition Blends Colorful Pop Art With Classic Western Archetypes
Pop artists Andy Warhol and Billy Schenck share a Scottsdale exhibition that explores contemporary frontier art.
By Paula M. Bodah | Gallery Photography by Melissa Valladares
Billy Schenck was a wide-eyed 18-year-old student halfway through a stretch at Ohio’s Columbus College of Art and Design when he arrived in New York City in the summer of 1966 and found himself in the employ of Andy Warhol. Yes, that Andy Warhol, who was already a famous pop artist and, to use a 21st-century term, an influencer. “I was a gofer for him and the Velvet Underground,” says the artist, referring to the seminal rock band fronted by the enigmatic Lou Reed. “I was a fly on the wall, running errands.”
That connection is just one of a series of synchronicities between the two artists that continues with the exhibition “Western Pop: Andy Warhol & Billy Schenck,” now at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
Schenck went back to school after that summer, earning a bachelor’s degree in art at Missouri’s Kansas City Art Institute, then moved back to New York City. Over the years, the two crossed paths occasionally, as when the elder artist came to the younger’s second solo show in the early 1970s.
The men’s careers dovetailed in a way that made them natural companions for this traveling exhibition, first launched in 2018 at the Briscoe Museum of Western Art in San Antonio and wrapping up its run with the Scottsdale show.
Michael Duchemin, who recently stepped down as Briscoe Museum’s president and CEO, conceived the show. “It occurred to Michael that my career and Andy’s crisscrossed back and forth,” Schenck says.
His contemporary take on classic Western art was influenced by Warhol’s graphic, color-saturated oeuvre. Warhol, meanwhile, had grown fascinated with Western art and put his own spin on it with “Cowboys & Indians,” the last series of screen prints he created before his 1987 death.
“Western Pop” is two shows in one, exploring the myths behind classic archetypes of the old West. It features 14 screen prints from Warhol’s series and 29 oil paintings and serigraphs spanning the decades of Schenck’s long career.
Depicting such iconic images as John Wayne in gunslinging-hero mode or the passionate parting kiss between a cowboy and the woman who loves him, the exhibition evokes nostalgia for a time portrayed in the Hollywood westerns of the artists’ youth.
“It’s a fun, original exhibition that shows that the genre of Western pop art exists and is a major part of American art,” says Tricia Loscher, assistant director of collections, exhibitions and research at the Scottsdale museum. “It has lots of great images, but it also has plenty to dig into in terms of stereotypes of the American West.” The artists’ depictions of classic frontier figures both real and fictional are complex and sensitive, neither heroic nor damning, and often treated with humor.”
Schenck—who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico—is among a small handful of artists considered the originators of this particular hybrid of traditional and contemporary artwork.
We will never know if Warhol might have gone on to explore the genre further, but for Schenck, it has been a career-long passion. “I’m taking it into different avenues where it’s never been before,” he says. “I try to squeeze as much drama as I can out of every square inch of a canvas.”
“Western Pop: Andy Warhol & Billy Schenck” runs through Nov. 26 at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, scottsdalemuseumwest.org