For Andy Warhol, Faith and Sexuality Intertwined

The art historian John Richardson, speaking to the glittering crowd at Andy Warhol’s memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1987, said of the artist’s Catholic faith: “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 key to the artist’s psyche.”

“Andy Warhol: Revelation,” a paradigm-shifting exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, takes this eulogy and runs with it, finding ample evidence of religious belief in Warhol’s public-facing art as well as the more private self observed by Richardson. It explores Warhol’s Catholicism in all its anxiety and complexity — with full attention paid to his life as a gay man and to the secular consumer objects and celebrities of his Pop Art.

These conflicts play out in his lesser-known works on view, like the 1985-6 painting “The Last Supper (Be a Somebody With a Body),” which merges Leonardo da Vinci’s Christ with a buff fitness model from an advertisement, and in new readings of such familiar objects as boxes screen-printed with the logo for Heinz ketchup (here linked to the bread and wine of Catholic ritual, as opposed to the supermarket).

The show reflects an intriguing new emphasis, among curators and scholars, on a more biographical and identity-driven reading of Warhol: more person, less persona. The Whitney’s 2018 blockbuster “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” gave considerable room to the artist’s early, explicitly homoerotic drawings; as Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times, the inclusion of these works made us think about “how and to what degree his art queered — to use a term from academic theory — received versions of American culture: questioned their validity, revealed their contradictions, turned them inside out.” Similarly, the traveling survey “Andy Warhol: Lifetimes,” opening at the Aspen Art Museum this week, “casts a queer lens over the artist” (per the exhibition website) and foregrounds 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 mainly Carpatho-Rusyn working-class population). 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 upbringing. Nearby are delicate drawings of angels by the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola, whose influence on his faith — well into his adult life, when she continued to live with him — cannot be overestimated. (In a 1966 article in Esquire, she called him a “good religious boy.”)

Warhol also would have been familiar with the gold-ground icon paintings of the Byzantine Catholic tradition, to which his paintings of Marilyn Monroe on a gilded background are often compared. The show could have used one of these luminous works — the Museum of Modern Art’s “Gold Marilyn” comes to mind — although it does include a delicate gold-leaf collage of a Nativity scene, created by Warhol sometime during the 1950s and possibly related to the holiday advertising campaigns he worked on as a commercial illustrator.

In general, the exhibition (organized by José Carlos Diaz, chief curator of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where the show debuted in 2019, and overseen in Brooklyn by the associate curator Carmen Hermo) relies on more obscure material from the Warhol Museum’s collection, including works that might be considered preparatory or unfinished. One fascinating example is a 1981 series of photographs and drawings of female models breastfeeding their children, for an abandoned painting project titled “Modern Madonnas” (made in collaboration with the photographer Christopher Makos). The curators offer a revealing quotation from Warhol, who was apparently worried that these images would not be well received: “I just know this series is going to be a problem. It’s just too strange a thing, mothers and babies and breastfeeding.”

Warhol’s abiding interest in bodily fluids and processes receives further scrutiny in a section of the show titled “The Catholic Body,” which is the exhibition’s strongest. Here, the tension between Warhol’s Catholic upbringing and his adult life as an openly gay man plays out in small cotton and linen canvases stained with abstract blobs of semen and urine, as well as the aforementioned bodybuilder Jesus painting. Speaking to this work and others from the early 1980s, the curators make a powerful connection between Warhol’s “intertwined faith and sexuality” and his well-documented fears of AIDS, citing recent scholarship by the Warhol Museum curator Jessica Beck.

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

His fears of illness, imperfection and bodily decay reached a kind of apex in his late paintings based on Leonardo’s “Last Supper” — the final series he exhibited before his death from cardiac arrest a day after undergoing gallbladder surgery. These works were shown to great fanfare in Milan in 1987, in a monastery just across the street from the Leonardo mural — an event represented, in Brooklyn, by a striking gallery of two large-scale paintings and a sampling of the popular, sometimes kitschy reproductions on which Warhol based them.

Previous commentary on Warhol’s “Last Supper” paintings has tended to focus on ideas about celebrity and artistic copying, which are certainly present anytime Warhol riffs on Leonardo, but Beck makes a compelling case for them as agonized expressions of grief and fear in response to the AIDS crisis (particularly after the disease killed Warhol’s boyfriend Jon Gould in 1986).

“More than a demonstration of reverence for Leonardo’s masterwork, or even an unveiling of his own Catholic faith, Warhol’s ‘Last Supper’ paintings are a confession of the conflict he felt between his faith and his sexuality,” she writes, “and ultimately a plea for salvation from the suffering to which the homosexual community was subjected during these years.” (Her essay, which first appeared in the Whitney exhibition’s catalog, is not included in the small book for “Andy Warhol: Revelation” but is available online and should be required reading.)

Just how Catholic was Warhol, in his own eyes? We know from his diaries that he went to church often, but sometimes just for “ten or five minutes.” Blake Gopnik, in his recent biography of Warhol, disputes the notion that Warhol was a fervent Catholic. “Throughout his life, Warhol was certainly a regular churchgoer, at least off and on,” he notes. “But there’s no way to look into the artist’s heart and know whether this shows deep religiosity or instead a mix of aesthetics and of a quite practical superstition — after all, he also wore crystals to ward off disease, and it can’t be right to bill that as less sensible or normal or less effective than Christian prayer.”

Certainly Warhol was irreverent enough to make works like the painting “Christ, $9.98,” based on a newspaper advertisement for a night light shaped like Jesus. And he was not afraid to be critical of the role the Catholic Church played in history, as seen in a series called “Guns, Knives, and Crosses” made in 1981 and 1982 for an exhibition in Madrid that makes explicit connections between the crucifix and other instruments of violence.

After viewing “Andy Warhol: Revelation,” though, it’s hard to argue with the idea that Catholicism mattered to Warhol. Its rituals, structures, and even some of its beliefs seeped into his art, and complicate our understanding of it — and of him.

This comes across with particular sensitivity in a mesmerizing film reel from an unrealized project, intended for a Vatican-sponsored ecumenical pavilion for the 1968 HemisFair (the official World’s Fair of 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 that remain unclear, the pavilion was never completed; Warhol then incorporated the footage into his 25-hour 1967 film “****(Four Stars).”

In the approximately 15-minute excerpt at the Brooklyn Museum, the sun sinks into the Pacific Ocean somewhere along the California coast as the singer Nico slowly recites cryptic lines about life and death, light and darkness. It’s not, on first impression, a very Warhol-like work — the sunset’s deep purple bands have earned the film comparisons to another Menil commission, the Rothko Chapel. But it is deeply, convincingly spiritual.

Andy Warhol: Revelation

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

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