Friday, March 27, 2009
Warhol's Last Supper
Here is the piece I wrote for Christian Courier as mentioned in class:
In a time before Leonardo’s masterpiece The Last Supper was insidiously deconstructed by the grand conspiracies of Dan Brown it was a favorite subject for kitsch reproductions. Like Gioconda’s smile, L'Ultima Cena has endured many an indignity over the years. It has been reproduced in tapestry and needlework kits, lacquered-on and laser-cut from plywood, painted on black velvet and illuminated with black light. You can carry it on your lunch box, reconstruct it as a jigsaw puzzle and replicate it in paint-by-number. It has been carved from butter and chocolate, assembled from spools of thread and Legos and has been recast in sand, salt and Simpson’s characters. With each reproduction, The Last Supper was lifted out of the world of “high art” to become an image so instantly familiar, so deeply inscribed in our cultural imagination, that it took on a new life as a logo or emblem for both Christianity and art quite independent of its existence as a painting in Milan.
In the final year of his life (1986-1987), the American artist Andy Warhol offered his own unique dialogue with Leonardo. In the early eighties Warhol began making works derived from other major artists including Raphael, Botticelli, De Chirico, and Munch. With the Last Supper, Warhol found his last grand inspiration, a sustained reimagining of Leonardo’s masterpiece. The impetus for the project was a proposal for an exhibition to be held in the Credito-Valtellinese, a Milanese bank located directly across the street from the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie where Leonardo’s original dilapidated fresco is housed. Warhol considered this project central to his life and work, and created far more work than the commission and the available space demanded. In the end, his series grew to encompass more than 100 paintings, a body of work that is considered by many critics to constitute his most important work. Indeed, it could be argued that the epic extent of the monumental series indicates an almost obsessive investment in the subject.
Mixing the sacred and secular with reckless abandon, Warhol combined the language of corporate logo with religious kitsch. In The Last Supper (Dove), for example, Warhol superimposes a price tag and the logos for General Electric and Dove soap and over a line drawing taken from a schematic outline drawing of the original he found in a children's coloring book. As with the other works in the series, Warhol’s "Last Supper" series is based on inexpensive secondary reproductions of the famous image and not on the image itself.
One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Andy Warhol left an indelible mark on the history of modern art and culture through his imagery and personal style. Best known for his multiple silkscreen representations of celebrities and product labels, Warhol embraced the debased ephemera of contemporary mass culture and raised them from the level of consumption to contemplation. By reiterating images derived from popular culture through hands-off techniques and mechanized repetition that directly recalled their origins in standardized mass reproduction, Warhol positioned himself as both a critic and a celebrant of mass culture. A self-described “deeply superficial” person, Warhol embraced American popular culture with deadpan neutrality. In public, Warhol appeared indifferent to issues of meaning, value or taste. His persona of postmodern insouciance came to epitomize the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll indulgence of the eighties’ Soho club scene.
But in private, Warhol’s aesthetic strategy of indifference broke down. Although it is not widely known, Warhol was raised and remained a devout Christian his entire life. Raised in a Byzantine Rite Catholic community in Pittsburgh, Warhol continued to attend mass almost daily, regularly helped to feed the homeless at an Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side, and even had a private audience with Pope John Paul II in 1980. This is a side of himself that Warhol kept modestly secret, hidden from the flashbulbs and paparazzi.
It is difficult to match this description of a quietly pious Andy Warhol with the façade of celebrity and voyeurism he worked so hard to create. I am not sure what to make of this disconnect. Part of me is deeply saddened that he was never able to fully integrate his faith and artistry. But part of me understands Warhol’s discomfort at bringing his faith into the hot focus of the spotlight. Warhol’s art not only cut through the divide between high and low art, but the pretensions of quasi-spiritual artwork that offered secular experiences of mystery, transcendence and beauty. For Warhol, art offered no answers – it could only reflect the emptiness of a culture fixated on consumption. His faith was the one thing that was real to him. Before God he could offer himself up, with all of his sins, contradictions and eccentricities, to the mystery of grace. Before God he could be authentic.
In Last Supper (Dove) Warhol treats Christ and the apostles as elements in a collage of postmodern iconography. Like the almost religious jingoism of GE (We bring good things to life!) and Dove’s “beauty” bar, Leonardo’s ubiquitous painting is a shortcut to a cheapened and nostalgic view of Christianity. Warhol’s first exposure to art was through looking at painted icons in church as a boy -- an influence that would constantly reemerge in his “Pop Saint” icons of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and John Wayne. In these final works, Warhol overtly explores the intersection between the worlds of art, commerce, and religion. On one level, his Last Supper paintings may be interpreted as a reminder that we live in a culture where everything is on sale, including religion. Yet the price tag also suggests that real grace, while free, is never cheap.
Chris Cuthill, March 25, 2009