Finding Andy Warhol’s religion – artforum international


ASK IF NYC needs another great show from Warhol, it’s kind of like asking if a college English department needs cheap wine and Costco cheese after a guest talk: that’s exactly how we do them. things here. But “Andy Warhol: Revelation,” currently at the Brooklyn Museum after opening at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2019, has two great strengths. He has a new focus – the religious dimensions of his art – and curator José Carlos Diaz has delved deep into Warhol’s enormous archives to find rarely seen and lesser-known works. The promotional copy says it’s the first show to focus on Warhol’s Catholicism, which is almost hard to believe, but if it’s true, it makes for a vital and expected effort.

As fate would have it, “Apocalypse” comes at a time when culture as a whole seems to be grappling with disillusion and a crisis of faith. The major 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 increased over the past decade, along with the adoption of “traditional values” as a cover for reactionary politics. With materialism and skepticism no longer the ideological core of coldness, the institutional art world has turned to metaphysical and religious subjects in recent years, with successful shows like Guggenheim’s Hilma af Klint retrospective. and the Met’s “Heavenly Bodies” attesting to the massive appeal of these themes in an increasingly discouraged and anxious society.

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

Andy was Catholic, ethics ran through his bones […]
Every Sunday when he went to church
He would kneel on his bench and 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, is found at every stage of Warhol’s career. Madonna and Child, California. 1950s, a pre-Pop ink drawing, covers the famous smudged line of the artist’s commercial artwork with gold leaf to produce a smiley and playful Nativity clearly rooted in the soft and 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 celebrity pantheon; for the artist, Marilyn, Jackie and Liz have been transformed by their fame into something more than mere flesh. A shrewd art insider with an infamously chaotic entourage and countless not quite protected, Warhol certainly knew that for every true miracle worker there were twelve junkies, and at least one Judas. But his awe and enthusiasm when encountering various personal idols were not feigned. One corner of the exhibit documents an ’80s visit to the Vatican, where Warhol, expecting a private audience with the Pope, finally got a photo op with His Holiness after standing in line for three hours. Warhol’s portraits of unsung clients were often deliberately garish and sloppy, but his more engaged portraits lend a majestic glow to models like his mother, Julia Warhola, whose portrait is placed prominently at the start of the show.

The “Revelation” comes at a time when the culture as a whole seems to be grappling with disillusionment and a crisis of faith.

I’m a big fan of the recent trend towards less heavy wall text, so I will rarely say it, but I lacked a bit of context on the history of Christian iconography in the series. I’m not just talking about thematic and stylistic connections, but about the meaning of how religious images were and are a fundamental part of everyday life, an object of consistent and regular veneration; part of the household, so to speak. Many Catholics cross themselves each time they see a crucifix; if you are a devout jew, you touch the mezuzah every time you come home. The religious icon is not profaned by its ubiquity. It’s easy to cling to the name ‘Factory’ and present Warhol’s relentless production simply as an allegory of capitalist production, but his voluminous work is no less imbued with the evangelical spirit of the workshop, the Byzantine icon maker and Renaissance painter. Multiplicity does not diminish the aura of the icon. There is, in fact, a deep secret that only Warhol and the Catholic Church guessed: how to keep making more and more money without limiting your production or relying on an artificial shortage.

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 real gems, starting with the wallpaper in the hall, a detail of Crowd, 1963. Taken from an aerial photo of the titular Mass waiting to glimpse the Pope two decades before Warhol’s own pilgrimage, it’s a welcome relief of cows and flowers. A never-before-done painting series titled “Mother and Child” is depicted here in Polaroid studies of breastfeeding women. Two of the best works in the exhibition reduce a Renaissance masterpiece to a pair of disjointed hands: Mona Lisa’s hands, 1963, places two copies of his hands above a silvery gray void; Details of Renaissance paintings (Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, 1472), 1984, transforms this sacred moment in the first season of the New Testament into a series of surrealist neon landscapes punctuated by disembodied limbs. These works reveal a sense of line, color and framing that belies any notion of mechanical indifference.

Lacking further contextualization, some of the more delightful works in the exhibition felt tenuous tied to the premise of curation: a dozen punching bags made by Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, and an exquisite set of Deformed and expressionist Marilyns from 1978-79 “Shadows” series. I am delighted that so many viewers can see Chelsea Girls, loop screening in a separate gallery, but what a missed opportunity to project Imitation of christ (1967), produced a year later and (loosely) based on a 15th century Latin Spiritual Guide. I was also a little unhappy with the exhibition’s attempt to tie Warhol’s Catholicism to “queer desire”; clearly, this is a Venn diagram worth exploring, but simply asserting an unspecified but necessary connection between the artist’s religion and the artist’s sexuality (“As Catholic Gay …”) does not enough.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (detail), 1986, serigraph and collage of colored graphic art paper on HMP paper, 31 5/8 × 23 3/4".

The last series of paintings ever completed by Warhol, and the last one shown during his lifetime, is a massive group of works derived from the work of Leonardo da Vinci. last mealuh, the origin of a commission that he quickly exceeded. The series was first presented in 1987 at Palazzo Stelline in Milan, opposite the original fresco. With religion and mortality being such cohesive themes in his work, the “Last Supper” series is hardly an end-of-life turn to serious spiritual reflection. Nonetheless, the odd coincidence of the artist’s death shortly after their completion gives the paintings a ghostly and eerie aura. The series is represented in “Revelation” by several detail paintings, including a spectacular one marked with purple hooks, and a pair of huge fluorescent diptychs in yellow and pink which have a separate room, the only gallery in the exhibition that has benches to sit on. Although not as heavy and impressive as the olive and gray camouflage Last Supper in Whitney’s fairly recent retrospective, the paintings really take a minute to fully assimilate.

In a famous reading of Warhol that I have always found fundamentally absurd and untenable, Fredric Jameson contrasted van Gogh’s work with Warhol’s “postmodernism”, arguing that Warhol’s work marks “the emergence of a new type of flatness or lack of depth, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense of the term. For Jameson, this subjective flattening brings “not only a release from anxiety, but also a release from any other type of feeling, since there is no longer a self present to make the feeling.” As postmodernism loses its grip on the theoretical imagination, it has become increasingly clear 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 steeped in anxiety, humor, fear and, yes, a surprising amount of respect 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.


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