Museum  March 15, 2022  Howard Halle

"Andy Warhol: Revelation" Explores the Impact of Faith on His Art

The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1998.1.821. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts,

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Self-Portrait, 1986. Acrylic and screenprint on linen, 40 × 40 in. (101.6 × 101.6 cm).

In both his life and his art, Andy Warhol, like Marcel Duchamp before him, was something of a sphinx, albeit one hewn from more impenetrable rock than his predecessor. While Duchamp couched his meaning in riddles, Warhol abjured readings of his art altogether. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he once said, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

But what if this empty shell was really a carapace concealing a squishy, vulnerable interior life? That’s one takeaway from the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Andy Warhol: Revelation, which explores an aspect of his career that was always hiding in plain sight: His religiosity. The show makes its case compellingly with a combination of ephemera and works both familiar and not, including little-seen outtakes and projects that became dead-ends.

The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1998.1.2125. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). The Last Supper (Detail), 1986. Screenprint on HMP paper.

Warhol (1928-1987) was born in Pittsburgh to a family of working-class immigrants from Slovakia. He grew up skinny and badly-complected, but more pertinently Catholic and gay (conditions noticeably conjoined in art history) at a time when being either wasn’t welcome in mainstream America. 

But, contrary to his image as an avatar of downtown cool, Warhol attended mass, underwrote his nephew’s priesthood studies, and served meals to the homeless. And, as his closest assistants could attest, he treated his studio, the Factory, as a kind of Vatican with himself as its passive-aggressive pope, presiding over a demimonde of dispossessed souls liable for excommunication if he tired of them.

Warhol was raised in the Byzantine Catholic Church, which, like the rest of Eastern Christianity, practiced the veneration of icons—a tradition that permeates Warhol’s appropriations of movie stars and soup cans. As a child, he was taken to church by his mother Julia. She remained a lodestar throughout his life, living with him in his Upper East Side manse for twenty years. One surprise of the show is that Julia made drawings of her own. These hang in a room devoted to her son’s earliest artistic efforts (including a plaster saint he colored in with paint when he was around twelve). 

Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum. Artworks by Andy Warhol © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Used with permission of @warholfoundation

Installation view, Andy Warhol: Revelation. Brooklyn Museum November 19, 2021-June 19, 2022.

Revelation goes on to recast Warhol’s themes in an ecclesiastical light, most especially his obsession with death—no small matter for someone whose sexuality was at odds with Church dogma and prospects for salvation. That fixation produced what are arguably his profoundest works: The Disasters series featuring images of race riots, car crashes, and electric chairs, an example of which, 1963’s Orange Disaster #5, is on view here.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, 1974, 74.2118. © 2021 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Orange Disaster #5, 1963. Acrylic, screenprint, graphite on canvas, 106 × 81 1/2 in. (269.2 × 207 cm).

Warhol himself endured a kind of crucifixion and resurrection in 1968 when he was nearly killed by a deranged Factory hanger-on and self-styled radical feminist named Valerie Solanas. She shot him three times and bullets tore through his lungs, spleen, stomach, liver, and esophagus. The resulting damages were documented in Richard Avedon’s photo of Warhol lifting his jacket to reveal a midriff striated with scars that could have been inflicted by a Roman flagrum. That image is installed within a section of the show featuring Warhol’s ruminations on the male body. These range from the erotic (a very early rendering of a beautiful young boy) to the abject (pieces made with urine and ejaculate). While these objects may have sprung from Warhol’s personal proclivities, and even his well-known insecurities about his looks, the exhibit goes further, connecting them to the centrality of Jesus’s figure to Catholicism in the form of the Eucharist. 

The latter takes center stage in several compositions drawn from the final cycle of Warhol’s career, his Last Supper series. Based on a nineteenth-century engraving of Leonardo’s masterpiece for the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan, Warhol’s Last Supper was commissioned in 1986 by the dealer Alexander Iolas, whose Milan gallery stood across the street from the convent. Warhol attended Iolas’ exhibition opening on January 22, 1987, which would be his last before his death exactly one month later.

For years, it was considered gauche to tie Warhol’s religion to his art but, over time, its presence has become harder to ignore. Although the role of faith in Warhol’s oeuvre has been previously acknowledged, Revelation represents the first institutional stab at the subject. 

True to its title, this exhibition ultimately reveals that (contrary to Warhol’s assertion) there is a whole lot of something where “nothing” was supposed to be.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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