The spirit of Andy Warhol

Pop artist's religious side emerges in a new book about his works.

January 17, 1999|By Glen Elsasser | Glen Elsasser,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- Andy Warhol captured the 1960s in all its giddy heights of narcissism, exhibitionism and consumerism -- an artistic quest that made an indelible impression on popular culture and brought him celebrity and wealth. Now, nearly a dozen years after his death, Warhol's little-known spiritual side has emerged from an under-explored body of the pop artist's works.

A pious Catholic, Warhol produced more than 100 drawings, prints and paintings with religious themes. Among them are a monumental series of at least 40 paintings inspired by the familiar "Last Supper" of Leonardo da Vinci that Berkeley art historian Jane Daggett Dillenberger describes as the largest series of religious art by a major American artist.

Dillenberger first caught a glimpse of this work in a photograph of the artist's studio taken shortly after his death in 1987. She calls the event "an epiphany" that led to an investigation into this elusive side of the artist and, now, a new book, "The Religious Art of Andy Warhol" (Continuum, $39.95).

Her original intention was to organize an exhibition of Warhol's religious works, but "there is a reluctance on the part of museums to take on such an exhibition," she said. "I'm hoping the book engenders new interest."

Warhol, of course, is best known for his silk-screened likenesses of personalities such as Jackie Kennedy and Mao Tse-tung as well as paintings of Campbell's soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles. So while his "Last Supper" paintings clearly borrow from da Vinci's, he also infused the sacred subject with his own sensibility and pop-art symbols.

In one painting, a Wise Potato Chips logo -- an abstracted blue and black owl -- seems poised to spin toward the viewer from the banquet table. In other paintings from this series, which occupied the last year of his life, Warhol duplicated da Vinci's image repeatedly on canvases covered in a camouflage pattern, or glowing with red, pink or yellow paint.

In her study of this side of Warhol, Dillenberger interviewed "anyone who could help me," including his two older brothers, Paul and John, and Picasso scholar John Richardson, who had eulogized him at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1987 as "a recording angel" of "impregnable innocence and humility."

Her book captures a life that reads more like an updated medieval play, with death trumping all worldly success, than the story of an inveterate partygoer and pal of the beautiful people.

The exact cause of his death at age 58, after gall-bladder surgery, has never been determined. But in 1968 he endured an attempt on his life; an actress from one of his films shot and critically wounded him, because -- she later told police -- he had exerted "too much control of my life."

Dillenberger notes that Warhol's familiar comment, "Everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes," underscored what he saw as the fleeting nature of life.

Another major statement came in a series of skull paintings, including self-portraits with a skull from a Paris flea market. Dillenberger compared these to the vanitas ex paintings of the Renaissance that emphasize the certainty of death. Among his later works is a silk-screened canvas in stark black and white that proclaims: "Heaven and hell are just one breath away!"

Warhol's parents, who came from Eastern Europe to an immigrant neighborhood in Pittsburgh, were deeply religious. Their Byzantine Catholic Church, with its long services in an old Slavic language, set the family apart from other Catholics. Throughout his life, Warhol regularly attended Sunday Mass and often stopped at the neighborhood church to pray.

Like many commentators, Dillenberger initially was turned off by the pop-art phenomenon.

"When the pop artists came on the scene, their work seemed crass and the ill-digested representations of things of the most ordinary nature," she said.

What changed her mind was a major Warhol exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1970.

"I went down to see it just thinking I would spend a half-hour or so before going on to Los Angeles. Well, I was there for three hours, and it was a real conversion experience for me. The sheer beauty of his work overcame me -- the depth and complexity, things I did not expect to find."

"One room had nothing but paintings of rather simplified flowers in the most glorious colors," she said. "And when you stepped into the room, you felt like shouting with joy."

Another room was devoted entirely to a series of paintings of the electric chair, and she found them "moving and beautiful and suggesting transcendence."

Dillenberger found herself "completely absorbed, baffled, enchanted and converted to the tremendous gifts of this strange, strange person."

Even today, she said, "I still have that feeling about him. It's like genius. It's impossible to encompass him entirely: You think you have him, understand him and then you see things you have never seen before and this is still happening."

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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