Portrait of the Artist as a Catholic Man

The Last Supper
© 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc.

Andy Warhol: Revelation
The Brooklyn Museum
Through June 19, 2022

Reviewed by Pamela A. Lewis

The Brooklyn Museum’s “Andy Warhol: Revelation” explores the artist’s little-known but lifelong engagement with religious belief and to the extent to which his Catholic faith informed his art, while the institutional church was also subjected to his criticism. Art historian John Richardson, who eulogized Warhol at his memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1987, observed that his spiritual side may have come as a surprise to many, but it did exist and was key to understanding the artist’s psyche. The show, as its title suggests, reveals an artist for whom religious belief was at once a source of inspiration and of anxiety.

© 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc.

Born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh to parents who immigrated from what is now Slovakia, Warhol grew up in the city’s Ruska Dolina neighborhood and attended St. John Chrysostom, the Byzantine Catholic church that was the center of the Carpatho-Rusyn working-class community where Warhol spent his childhood and early youth. It was at St. John’s, which he attended every weekend with his mother, Julia, that the young Warhol absorbed the church’s rituals and saw the richly painted icons of Christ and of the saints that lined its walls.

St. John Chrysostom’s elaborate and powerful iconography would remain Warhol’s frame of reference for much of his future artwork, and within the show’s seven sections it is the religious and cultural point of departure for Warhol’s journey of faith and art. In the section called “Immigrant Roots and Religion,” religious ephemera from his early life — prayer books, crucifixes, his certificate of baptism, and brightly colored pysansky Easter eggs — are on display in the cases that introduce the exhibition.

These personal and, in some cases devotional, items are the context that informed Warhol’s religiously referential works, such as an exquisite gold-leaf collage of a Nativity scene, which was in all likelihood influenced by the gold-ground icons he would have seen in St. John’s, and which would culminate in a series of paintings, The Last Supper.

Warhol’s personal religious fervency is still a subject of debate, considering his more familiar sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll image. But his representations of religious figures and symbols were purposely irreverent. A series of paintings from the section “Guns, Knives, and Crosses” (1981-82), which Warhol created for an exhibition in Madrid, presents the troubling connection between redemption and violence. Canvases depicting screen-print crosses reference what he called “the Catholic thing,” given the religion’s dominance in Spain from 1492 through Generalissimo Franco’s fascist dictatorship (1936-75), while the guns and knives recall the Spanish Civil War. The use of bright colors and of repetition downplays the religious symbol’s universality.

In his “Raphael Madonna — $6.99” (1985), an acrylic and silkscreen ink reinterpretation of the Renaissance master’s oil “The Sistine Madonna” (1512-13), Warhol appropriates this beloved composition to take aim at American consumer culture, in which even religion is commoditized, as suggested by the work’s looming price tag in the background. He makes this point again in the painting “Christ, $9.98” (1985-86), based on a newspaper ad for a night light shaped like Jesus. And in 1985-86, Warhol collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) — who was also raised Catholic — to create “Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper).” The installation features white punching bags, each bearing Warhol’s hand-painted face of Christ, lifted from da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and inscribed by Basquiat with the word Judge.

The Last Supper (Detail)
© 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc.

“The Catholic Body,” which focuses on the tension between Warhol’s Catholic history and his identity as an out gay man, is the show’s strongest section. Here, works such as “The Last Supper (Be a Somebody with a Body),” where a blowup image of a beefy bodybuilder is superimposed over Warhol’s hand-painted face of da Vinci’s Christ from “The Last Supper,” intertwine carnality and sanctity. They point as well to the artist’s fascination with the body, alongside his conflicted feelings regarding his own, when judged against commercially promoted images of physical attractiveness and strength (which he obsessively tried to attain). They also explore Warhol’s fears of vulnerability and disease, in the face of the then-worsening AIDS crisis and the Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexuality.

His fears of victimization were nearly realized when, in 1968, radical feminist Valerie Solanas shot and severely wounded him. With a nod again to Catholic iconography, Richard Avedon’s now-famous 1969 photo shows Warhol baring his surgery-scarred torso and posing in the manner of St. Sebastian, who was martyred by being shot through with arrows, as depicted in countless paintings in Western art. The artist also extends his hands in a resurrected-Christ pose, suggesting that he has been restored to new life through the miracle of medicine.

In his series “Jackie” (1964) and “Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn” (1978), Warhol at once pays homage to his subjects while passing judgment on American culture’s attitude toward and treatment of its female celebrities. In “Jackie,” the widowed First Lady, presented in four somber blue and black acrylic and screenprint images attending her husband John F. Kennedy’s funeral, is elevated from fashionable cultural icon to secular saint. In “Marilyn,” the artist’s manipulation and abstraction of Monroe’s famous features draws attention to America’s worship of fame and wealth and to the erotic objectification of the female body.

Warhol once instructed an interviewer to look at the surface of his paintings and films and himself to find the real Warhol, because there was nothing behind that surface. While his art is for some an acquired taste, “Revelation” takes us behind the surface and acquaints us with Warhol’s creative process. But uppermost in this show is the acknowledgment of how faith was more central to this artist’s life and work than we knew.

Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. She writes on topics of faith.


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