Magazine December 31, 2019, Issue

Andy Warhola’s Religion

Jesus Statue, by Andy Warhol (Jeffrey Warhola)
An exhibition at the Warhol Museum explores the artist’s Byzantine-Catholic side


One of the final works of art created by Andy Warhol was The Camouflage Last Supper, a large silkscreen painting based on the mural by Leonardo da Vinci. It features a black-and-white rendition of the familiar image, obscured by splotches of green, brown, and gray in the pattern of an M81 combat uniform. It’s a strange mash-up of styles but also a fitting metaphor for the life of Warhol, the influential pop artist who cavorted with speed freaks and drag queens and became an emblem of 1960s decadence — and also maintained a Catholic faith that he mostly concealed from public view.

The Andy Warhol Museum’s new exhibition on Warhol’s religious art doesn’t include The Camouflage Last Supper, which belongs to the Menil Collection in Houston. Yet Andy Warhol: Revelation displays several other versions of The Last Supper from the same series as well as pictures of crosses, Madonnas, and more. The show, which runs through February 16 and then moves to Louisville, Ky., is “the first exhibition to comprehensively examine the pop artist’s complex Catholic faith in relation to his artistic production,” according to a museum press release. While the exhibition may not be quite as revelatory as its title suggests, it is a pleasant surprise to discover that Warhol may have had an undercover vocation.

Born in 1928 to immigrant parents who settled in Pittsburgh, Andrew Warhola — he eventually dropped the final vowel from his Slovakian surname — grew up in a world of piety. His mother filled their home with icons, and the family attended St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, where a large iconostasis stands by the altar. Early on, observers made the connection between the portrait-like paintings of saints that surrounded Warhol in his youth and his own portrayals of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor. With the exception of his famous paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans, Warhol is probably best known for these iconographic depictions of celebrities.

In 1949, Warhol moved to New York City and worked as an artist for ad agencies and magazines. He enjoyed success almost immediately, earning a steady income and winning industry awards. But just as many journalists dream of writing great novels, lots of commercial illustrators aspire to serious art. By the early 1960s, thanks to those Campbell’s Soup cans and similar productions, Warhol was in the vanguard of the pop-art movement, which rebelled against the formless ambiguity of abstract expressionism and glorified the recognizable objects of everyday life. 

Out of this came Warhol’s paintings of Coke bottles, Brillo boxes, and the banana that adorns the cover of the first album by the Velvet Underground. Ever since, critics have swooned. Last year, Holland Cotter of the New York Times declared Warhol “the most important American artist of the second half of the 20th century.” In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Plagens went further, dubbing Warhol “the single most important artist of the 20th century and, so far, the 21st century.” For a guy who died in 1987, that’s not too shabby.

In his 1960s heyday, Warhol gained a reputation as a pale-skinned, wig-wearing, leather-clad bohemian. (“Andy Warhol looks a scream,” sang David Bowie.) His entourage included pill-poppers, cross-dressers, and rock stars. He was flamboyantly gay. He made pornographic movies. He basked in the adulation of people who were losing the ability to distinguish good from bad art as well as right from wrong living. As biographer Wayne Koestenbaum put it, by “refusing to cut junk out of his life,” Warhol “erased the line between treasure and trash.” 

This refusal took a horrific twist in the deadly spring of 1968, between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. A hanger-on who was also a lesbian radical and the author of the SCUM Manifesto (“SCUM” supposedly stood for Society for Cutting Up Men), which called for the elimination of the male sex, walked into Warhol’s studio and shot the artist in the gut, almost killing him. The violence was both shocking and banal: This is what happens when an affinity for oddballs becomes an acceptance of lunatics and nihilists.

It turns out, however, that you can take the boy out of the Byzantine Catholic Church but you can’t take the Byzantine Catholic Church out of the boy — or at least he can’t escape from the sway of a devoted Slovakian mom. In the early 1950s, Warhol’s widowed mother, Julia, moved to Manhattan. The pair lived together for the next two decades, until shortly before her death. Warhol admitted few people into the private space of their home, and many of his acquaintances barely knew Julia, who remained a churchgoer and recited prayers in Old Slovak with her son. We don’t know much about the shape of Warhol’s faith in the 1960s, except to say that it remained a part of his life at some level and also that it must have been a source of tremendous guilt.

More is known about what happened after Warhol’s brush with death. As Warhol recovered in the hospital, according to a memoir by his friend Bob Colacello, the artist “promised God to go to church every Sunday if he lived — and he kept to the letter of that promise.” By the 1970s, Warhol regularly attended the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side. (It’s Roman Catholic, but the Byzantine Catholics are in communion with Rome.) He showed up on Sunday mornings and also popped in to pray during the week, though apparently he never received the Eucharist, nor did he go to confession. 

In an interview with Jane Daggett Dillenberger for her book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, Father Sam Matarazzo, a Dominican priest at St. Vincent’s, said that Warhol kept to himself and tried to avoid notice. “Warhol was bonding with a God and a Christ above and beyond the Church,” he said, adding that Warhol’s lifestyle was “absolutely irreconcilable” with the catechism. In another memoir — it seems that everyone who knew Warhol published one — the photographer Christopher Makos wrote: “Andy went to church every Sunday. . . . In church he was Andy Warhola and not a cool pop star Andy Warhol. . . . In church he was the anonymous Catholic.”

When Warhol died at the age of 58, few people knew any of this. At a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, however, the art historian John Richardson delivered a eulogy. “I’d like to recall a side of his character that he hid from all but his closest friends: his spiritual side,” said Richardson. “Those of you who knew him in circumstances that were the antithesis of spiritual may be surprised that such a side existed. But exist it did, and it’s the key to the artist’s psyche.” Richardson pointed out that “this secret piety” led to “at least one conversion” and inspired Warhol to pay for his nephew’s priestly studies. Warhol also volunteered at a homeless shelter, where he served meals. “Andy’s religion didn’t surface in his work until two or three Christmases ago,” concluded Richardson, citing the Last Supper series, which he called “a major breakthrough in religious art.”

That’s a bit much, though it might be said that Richardson’s remarks were a breakthrough in understanding Warhol, or at least an invitation to look at the artist in a fresh way. The Warhol Museum’s show, curated by José Carlos Diaz, offers a range of objects, from a plaster statue of Jesus that Warhol painted as a boy to a massive Last Supper, screened in pink. There are icon-like pictures of Warhol’s favorite females, plus his makeovers of the Mona Lisa. Among the most striking works is a bright pop-art close-up of yet another Leonardo masterpiece, The Annunciation

Amid these works that look to higher things, however, are three small and ugly pieces that have no religious content or meaning. According to the labels beside them, their main materials include semen and urine. Warhol was an accomplished aphorist and once said, notoriously, that “art is what you can get away with.” One wishes that the adults at the museum dedicated to his legacy had had the common sense not to let him get away with this profane nonsense, and especially not in this exhibit. Pissing on a canvas does not make art, even if an artist does the pissing.

If this is Warhol at his provocative worst, at least the exhibition for the most part reveals Warhol at his colorful and kitschy best. It also shows that his interest in religious art was alive and well in the 1950s. One illustration, for example, is a line-blotted version of Praying Hands, a pen-and-ink drawing on blue paper by Albrecht Dürer. The image shows up once more, in the family plot at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Carved into the face of Warhol’s tombstone, beneath a Byzantine cross, is the same set of praying hands, only backward.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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