Worshipping with Warhol
April 10, 2013
To quote art writer John Richardson: “To believe the envious Truman Capote, Andy [Warhol] was a Sphinx without a secret. In fact, he did have a secret, one that the kept dark from all but his closest friends: he was exceedingly devout—so much so that he made daily visits to the church of Saint Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”
During my 1999 interview with Janet Daggett Dillenberger, author of The Religious Art of Andy Warhol (The Wittenburg Door, March/April 1999), she tuned me in to the spiritual themes present his work. Armed with a newly discovered awareness of a man I previously associated with celebrity not Christianity, I soaked in an extensive exhibit of his Last Supper masterpieces at the Guggenheim Soho in early 2001, and a smaller but still inspiring exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
So when I journeyed on a press trip to Warhol’s boyhood home of Pittsburgh this summer, I savored the opportunity to play in The Andy Warhol Museum. While this museum only carried a few fragments of The Last Supper, the curators carved out a room to display Warhol’s personal mementos. Here sat the prayer books, rosaries, and other religious artifacts that Warhol kept out of the public eye. Viewing the very items that fed his soul brought out my inner voyeur—I sensed Andy would not want anyone gawking at these pieces. Yet I couldn’t stop staring at the religious icons that lent a new-found understanding to the icon known as “The Pope of Pop.”
As I noted over at Killing the Buddha, Dillenberger offered an informed analysis about the religious symbolism found in Warhol’s art. Here are some choice passages:
On Warhol’s use of the Wise potato chip, Dove, and GE logos in The Last Supper, The Big “C”:
If I were to say to you it means thoughts and soul, I would confine it and I don’t think that would be correct. But I suggest several possible meanings. The GE is a symbol for God and the Dove. And both of these of course have other meanings but the Dove is the dove of the Holy Spirit and then we have Christ himself there and that gives us the Holy Trinity. That is an imagery that Warhol was terribly familiar with especially being a Byzantine Christian. And so, he has playfully put that into the painting and if we want to decode it that way we can. If we just want to see those as pop signs that are just decoratively sprinkled around to make a lively and interesting painting, we can do that too. And that’s all right with Warhol.
Andy’s placement of place three motorcycles in this work:
That’s very fascinating. Andy himself wore black leather. He went through a phase of doing that. And of course, he was associated with people at The Factory who were black leather people too. The black leather that was worn by Hell’s Angels and by motorcycle enthusiasts of that period came to bear a symbolic meaning of freedom from restraints. Many of them were gay and the power of the motorcycle is that you can out zip in and out of cars and so forth and they did. All of that was bound up together in a subculture that Warhol himself knew.
The significance of the 6.99 price tag:
First of all, we see them all the time and a lot of things in his art, he’s emphasizing that which we see all the time. But most of those price tags are, even for the time that they were painted, are in the rather cheaper range. So that if you want to say that the 6.99 is an undervaluing of religion, that these are cheaper bargain rates, that may be one reason. But people have thought of more obscure things; if you reverse the nines, you get three sixes. 666 is an apocalyptic number that occurs in the book of Revelations and is associated with doom and occult things.
What big “C” represents:
Well, first of all it means Christ. But at the Warhol Museum they have an ad for a cancer cure that has this big “C” and talks about the fear of cancer and that you can do something about it if you buy such and such. The form of it comes from an ad and there was a period, when cancer was so feared nobody wanted to say the word. People often just referred to it as the big “C.”
To create your own Warholian works of art, those with an iPhone or iPad can download the Warhol: DYI POP app (http://www.warhol.org/connect/mobile/)–without, of course, the Factory fun. What would your Warhol say about your faith?
George E. Hilty
Thank you. Relatives of the Orthodox and Byzantine tradition have helped me appreciate icons. I admit sharing your twinge of guilty voyeurism, melted in part by the awesome meaning of what you saw.