For Andy Warhol, Intertwined Faith and Sexuality

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Art historian John Richardson, addressing the sparkling crowd at Andy Warhol’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1987, said of the artist’s Catholic faith: “Those of ‘among you who knew him in circumstances which were the antithesis of the spiritual may be surprised that such a side existed. But he did exist, and that is the key to the artist’s psyche.

“Andy Warhol: Revelation” a paradigm-shifting exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, takes that eulogy and accompanies it, finding ample evidence of religious belief in Warhol’s public art as well as the more private ego observed by Richardson. He explores Warhol’s Catholicism in all of its anxiety and complexity – with particular attention to his life as a homosexual and to the secular consumer items and celebrities of his Pop Art.

These conflicts occur in his lesser-known works on display, such as the 1985-1986 painting. “The Last Supper (Be someone with a body)”, which merges Leonardo da Vinci’s Christ with a buff fitness model from an advertisement, and in new readings of familiar items such as boxes screen-printed with the Heinz ketchup logo (here linked to the bread and wine of the Catholic Ritual , as opposed to the supermarket).

The exhibit reflects an intriguing new emphasis, among curators and academics, on a more biographical and identifiable reading of Warhol: more people, less people. Whitney’s blockbuster in 2018 “Andy Warhol: from A to B and vice versa” gives a large place to the artist’s first explicitly homoerotic drawings; as Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times, the inclusion of these works made us reflect on “how and to what extent his art was strange – to use a term from academic theory – received versions of the American culture: questioned their validity, revealed their contradictions, turned them around. Likewise, the traveling survey “Andy Warhol: for life”, opening at the Aspen Art Museum this week, “takes a strange look at the artist” (according to the exhibition’s website) and highlights archival material “to examine the artist’s life parallel to his work ”.

Warhol, born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh to parents who had immigrated from Slovakia, grew up in the city’s Ruska Dolina neighborhood (where the Byzantine Catholic Church, St. John Chrysostom, was a hub for the predominantly Carpatho- working class population) Rusyn). He attended services with his mother every weekend, where he saw, among other icons, paintings of the apostles Saint John, Saint Andrew, Saint Thomas and Saint Peter; on loan from the church for this exhibition, they anchor an opening gallery of religious ephemera from Warhol’s education. Nearby are delicate drawings of angels by the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola, whose influence on her faith – well in her adult life, when she continued to live with him – cannot be overstated. . (In a 1966 article in Esquire, she called him a “good religious boy.”)

Warhol would also have been familiar with the golden icon paintings of the Byzantine Catholic tradition, to which his paintings of Marilyn Monroe on a golden background are often compared. The exhibition could have used one of these luminous works – that of the Museum of Modern ArtMarilyn d’orComes to mind – although it includes a delicate gold leaf collage of a nativity scene, created by Warhol in the 1950s and possibly related to the holiday ad campaigns he worked on as as a commercial illustrator.

In general, the exhibit (curated by José Carlos Diaz, chief curator of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where the exhibit debuted in 2019, and overseen in Brooklyn by associate curator Carmen Hermo) draws on du more obscure material from the collection of the Warhol Museum. , including work which might be considered preparatory or incomplete. One fascinating example is a series of 1981 photographs and drawings of female models breastfeeding their children, for an abandoned painting project titled “Modern Madonnas” (produced in collaboration with photographer Christopher Makos). The Conservatives offer a revealing quote from Warhol, who was apparently concerned that these images might not be well received: “I just know this series is going to be problematic. It’s just too strange, mothers, babies and breastfeeding.

Warhol’s continued interest in bodily fluids and processes is further explored in a section of the exhibit titled “The Catholic Body,” which is the strongest of the exhibit. Here, the tension between Warhol’s Catholic upbringing and his adult life as an openly gay man is played out in small cotton and linen canvases stained with abstract drops of semen and urine, as well as painting. of the aforementioned bodybuilder Jesus. Addressing this and other works from the early 1980s, conservatives make a powerful connection between Warhol’s “intertwined faith and sexuality” and his well-documented AIDS fears, citing a recent study by the curator of the Warhol Museum, Jessica Beck.

Warhol was haunted by the vulnerability of his own body, particularly after being shot in 1968 during an assassination attempt by Factory member Valerie Solanas, and his fear is often manifested in Catholic imagery. In Richard Avedon’s famous 1969 photograph – a close-up of Warhol’s torso, pierced with scars from his surgery after the shooting – he becomes a Saint Sebastian, the Christian martyr who is depicted tied to a tree and pierced with arrows in many many images of western art.

His fears of disease, imperfection and bodily decay reached a sort of peak in his later paintings based on Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.“- the last series he exhibited before his death from cardiac arrest a day after undergoing gallbladder surgery. These works were shown with great fanfare in Milan in 1987, in a monastery directly opposite Leonardo’s mural – an event represented, in Brooklyn, by a striking gallery of two large-scale paintings and a sample of the popular, sometimes kitsch reproductions on which Warhol based them.

Previous comment on “Last Suppe” by Warholr “ paintings tended to focus on ideas about fame and artistic copying, which are certainly present at all times Warhol riffs on Leonardo, but Beck convincingly defends them as agonizing expressions of grief and fear in response to the AIDS crisis (especially after illness killed Warhol’s boyfriend, Jon Gould, in 1986).

“More than a display of reverence for Leonardo’s masterpiece, or even an unveiling of his own Catholic faith, Warhol’s ‘The Last Supper’ paintings are a confession of the conflict he felt between his faith and its sexuality, ”she writes,“ and ultimately a plea for salvation from the suffering to which the gay community has been subjected during these years. (His essay, which first appeared in the Whitney Exhibition Catalog, is not included in the little book for “Andy Warhol: Revelation” but is available online and should be required reading.)

How Catholic was Warhol in his own eyes? We know from his diaries that he often attended church, but sometimes just for “ten or five minutes.” Blake Gopnik, in his recent biography of Warhol, disputes the idea that Warhol was a devout Catholic. “Throughout his life, Warhol was certainly a staunch devotee, at least intermittently,” he notes. “But there is no way to look into the artist’s heart and know if it shows deep religiosity or rather a mixture of aesthetics and a fairly practical superstition – after all, he was also wearing crystals. to ward off disease, and it may not be right to present it as less sensible or normal or less effective than Christian prayer. “

Certainly, Warhol was irreverent enough to do works like painting “My God, $ 9.98”, based on newspaper ad for a Jesus shaped night light. And he was not afraid to criticize the role the Catholic Church has played in history, as seen in a series called “Pistols, Knives and Crosses” made in 1981 and 1982 for an exhibition in Madrid that establishes explicit links between the crucifix and other instruments of violence.

After watching “Andy Warhol: Revelation”, however, it’s hard to dispute the idea that Catholicism mattered to Warhol. His rituals, structures, and even some of his beliefs have infiltrated his art and complicate our understanding of it – and of him.

It appears with special sensitivity in a fascinating film reel of an unrealized project destined for a Vatican-sponsored ecumenical pavilion for the 1968 HemisFair (the official World’s Fair that year) in San Antonio. Warhol’s original idea, commissioned by the Menil family and funded by the Catholic Church, was to show the sun setting at various locations across the country. For reasons which remain obscure, the pavilion was never completed; Warhol then incorporated the footage into his 1967 25-hour film “****(Four stars).”

In the approximately 15-minute clip at the Brooklyn Museum, the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean somewhere along the California coast as singer Nico slowly recites cryptic lines about life and death, the light and darkness. This is not, at first glance, a very Warhol work – the dark purple streaks of the sunset have earned the film comparisons with another Menil commission, the Rothko Chapel. But it is deeply, convincingly spiritual.


Andy Warhol: Revelation

Until June 19 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway; 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.


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