Mass Appeal

Finding Andy Warhol’s religion

David LaChapelle, Andy Warhol: Last Sitting, November 22, 1986, chromogenic print.

ASKING WHETHER NYC needs another big Warhol show is a little like asking whether a university English department needs cheap wine and Costco cheese after a guest lecture: That’s just how we do things here. But “Andy Warhol: Revelation,” up now at the Brooklyn Museum after opening at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2019, has two great strengths. It has a fresh focus—the religious dimensions of his art—and curator José Carlos Diaz has dug deep into Warhol’s enormous archive to find rarely seen and lesser-known work (associate curator Carmen Hermo organized the presenation in Brooklyn). Promotional copy says it’s the first show to ever focus on Warhol’s Catholicism, which is almost hard to believe, but if true makes it an essential, overdue effort.

As fate would have it, “Revelation” arrives at a moment in which the culture at large seems to be grappling with disillusionment and a crisis of faith. The leading religions of the twentieth century, capitalism and science, are rapidly losing their ability to generate hegemonic consent; interest in spirituality, astrology, and the occult has surged over the past decade, along with an embracing of “traditional values” as a cover for reactionary politics. With materialism and skepticism no longer the ideological core of coolness, the institutional art world has turned in recent years to metaphysical and religious subjects, with blockbuster shows like Guggenheim’s Hilma af Klint retrospective and the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” attesting to the mass appeal of such themes in an increasingly dispirited and anxious society.

Religion and sincerity go hand in hand, and neither one is particularly associated with Andy Warhol, whose name is synonymous with ironic, detached irreverence. But you don’t have to dig very deep in Warhol’s biography or catalog to find plenty of both. Warhol was Byzantine Catholic, a denomination combining aspects of both Western and Eastern rites. He went to church with his mother almost every Sunday until her death in 1974 and attended regularly in the years after. One of his last diary entries, two months before his death, records that he “went to the Church of Heavenly Rest to pass out Interviews and feed the poor.” It’s impossible to know for sure where the limit of irony lies with an artist like Warhol; maybe he went to Church as a bit. But his deep superstitions and his fear of dying, at least, seem to have been very real, even before he was nearly assassinated. And we have the testimony of Lou Reed, who links Warhol’s religion and Warhol’s output in “Work” from 1990’s Songs for Drella:

Andy was Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones […]
Every Sunday when he went to Church
He’d kneel in his pew and he’d say “It’s just work. All that matters is work.”

Andy Warhol, Raphael Madonna - $6.99, 1985, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 156 1/4 × 116". Andy Warhol © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Catholic imagery, from cherubs to crosses to Christ himself, can be found in every stage of Warhol’s career. Madonna and Child, ca. 1950s, a pre-Pop ink drawing, swathes the famous blotted line of the artist’s commercial work in gold leaf to produce a smiling, playful nativity clearly rooted in the soft, luxurious reverence of Slavic icons. It’s really not a big leap from the canon of Catholic saints, with their feast days, miracles, and icons, to Warhol’s pantheon of celebrities; for the artist, Marilyn and Jackie and Liz were transubstantiated by their fame into something more than mere flesh. A canny art-world insider with an infamously chaotic entourage and countless not-quite-protégés, Warhol certainly knew that for every actual miracle worker there are twelve hangers-on, and at least one Judas. But his awe and excitement when meeting various personal idols was unfeigned. One corner of the exhibition documents a visit in the ’80s to the Vatican, where Warhol, expecting a private audience with the Pope, finally got a photo op with His Holiness after waiting in line for three hours. Warhol’s portraits of unfamous clients were often deliberately gaudy and slapdash, but his more committed portrayals bestow a stately radiance on sitters like his mother, Julia Warhola, whose portrait is prominently placed at the beginning of the show.

“Revelation” arrives at a moment in which the culture at large seems to be grappling with disillusionment and a crisis of faith.

I’m a big fan of the recent trend toward less heavy-handed wall text, so I will rarely say this, but I was missing a little context on the history of Christian iconography in the show. I don’t just mean the thematic and stylistic links but a sense of how religious images were and are a fundamental part of daily life, an object of consistent and regular veneration; part of the household, so to speak. Many Catholics cross themselves every time they see a crucifix; if you’re a devout Jew you touch the mezuzah every time you walk into home. The religious icon isn’t desecrated by its ubiquity. It’s easy to latch onto the name “Factory” and cast Warhol’s relentless output simply as an allegory of capitalist production, but his voluminous oeuvre is no less infused by the evangelical spirit of the workshop, the Byzantine icon maker, and the Renaissance painter. Multiplicity does not diminish the icon’s aura. There is, in fact, a profound secret that only Warhol and the Catholic Church have ever divined: how to keep making more and more money without limiting your production or relying on artificial scarcity.

Andy Warhol, Crowd (detail), 1963, graphite and silkscreen ink on Strathmore paper, 28 1/2 × 22 5/8". Installation view, Brooklyn Museum, 2021–21. Photo: Jonathan Dorado. Andy Warhol © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

Even for a Warhol nerd, “Revelation” delivers some real gems, beginning with the entrance wallpaper, a detail from Crowd, 1963. Sourced from an aerial photo of the titular mass waiting to catch a glimpse of the Pope two decades before Warhol’s own pilgrimage, it’s a welcome relief from the cows and flowers. A never-realized series of paintings called “Mother and Child” is represented here by Polaroid studies of women with breastfeeding infants. Two of the best works in the show reduce a Renaissance masterwork to a pair of disjointed hands: Mona Lisa’s Hands, 1963, places two copies of her hands above a silvery gray void; Details of Renaissance Paintings (Leonardo da Vinci, the Annunciation, 1472), 1984, turns this sacred moment from season one of the New Testament into a series of surrealist neon landscapes punctuated by disembodied limbs. These works reveal an eye for line, color, and framing that belies any notion of mechanical indifference.

Lacking deeper contextualization, some of the most delightful works in the show felt tenuously connected to the curatorial premise: a dozen punching bags made by Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, and an exquisite set of distorted, expressionistic Marilyns from the 1978–79 “Shadows” series. I’m thrilled that so many viewers will get to see Chelsea Girls, screening on a loop in a separate gallery, but what a missed opportunity to screen Imitation of Christ (1967), made a year later and (loosely) based on a fifteenth-century Latin spiritual guide. I was also a little dissatisfied by the exhibition’s attempt to link Warhol’s Catholicism to “queer desire”; clearly, it’s a Venn diagram that warrants exploration, but simply asserting an unspecified but necessary link between the artist’s religion and the artist’s sexuality (“As a gay Catholic…”) isn’t quite enough.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (detail), 1986, screen print and colored graphic art paper collage on HMP paper, 31 5/8 × 23 3/4". Andy Warhol © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The last series of paintings Warhol ever finished, and the last shown in his lifetime, are a massive group of works derived from Leonardo’s Last Supper, originating in a commission which he quickly exceeded. The series was first shown in 1987 at Milan’s Palazzo Stelline, across the street from the original mural. With religion and mortality being such consistent themes in his work, the “Last Supper” series is hardly a late-life turn to earnest spiritual reflection. Nonetheless, the eerie coincidence of the artist’s death soon after their completion lends the paintings a ghostly, uncanny aura. The series is represented in “Revelation” by several detail paintings, including a spectacular one branded with purple brackets, and a pair of enormous florescent diptychs in yellow and pink that have a room to themselves, the only gallery in the exhibition that has benches to sit on. Though not as heavy and awe-inspiring as the olive-and-gray camouflage Last Suppers in the fairly recent Whitney retrospective, the paintings really do require a minute to fully take in.

In a famous reading of Warhol that I’ve always found fundamentally absurd and untenable, Fredric Jameson contrasted the work of van Gogh with Warhol’s “postmodernism,” asserting that Warhol’s work marks “the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense.” For Jameson, this subjective flattening brings “not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling.” As postmodernism loses its grip on the theoretical imaginary, it’s become clearer and clearer that it never really explained much about Warhol’s work to begin with. The messy reality of human existence is all over his art, which is laced with anxiety, humor, fear, and, yes, a surprising amount of reverence and faith.

FT isn’t a real person, but that doesn’t stop them from having a lot of opinions. You can find more of their work on Patreon and Gumroad.