In this essay I will address how Andy Warhol’s religious beliefs shaped and directed his art and why religion matters in the history of American Modernism.
Andy Warhol was very much engaged in the material culture of his art and religion, particularly his Catholic faith. Andy Warhol, the modern artist, made hundreds of pictures of religious subjects throughout his busy and complexed career, especially towards the end of his life. More than 100 paintings and drawings, based on Leonardo’s the Last Supper, sort of riffing on this 19th Century copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, the phenomenal scene of betrayal and devotion. Warhol plays around with things like Day-Glo, camouflage, juxtaposing images of Christ and his disciples, repeated patterning. He combines with images of logos for Wise potato crisps, price tags, images of motorbikes, dove soap logos, camel cigarettes, General Electric, Heinz 57. Using everyday objects and logos, essentially remaking Leonardo’s mural. Daggett Dillenberger says, “Andy Warhol took the cheapened and distorted copies, and with the alchemy of an artist, he transformed Leonardo’s Last Supper, recreating it again and again in ever new variations. Warhol gave the vulgarized and secularized image a new seeing.”
Andy Warhol is one of the best-known modern artists of the past century. Less well known, but increasingly known is that he was an observant Catholic who carried a rosary, went to church every week, sometimes more than once, raised in Pittsburgh in the Byzantine Catholic or Eastern Rite Church. He sustained his faith as an adult. He met the Pope in 1980 and is often pictured serving meals to the homeless at various churches. It's important, I think, to think about Warhol this way. Many believe that Andy Warhol was obsessed with celebritism, wealth and power, however, Warhol was shy, mysterious, hoarder that built a fantastic disguise and hide his true passions and beliefs behind the mask of the world-renowned Andy Warhol.
One important influence in this Catholic connection is Sister Corita Kent. And it's interesting that Warhol is often cited as an influence on her, but I think it's interesting to think about how Sister Corita actually started making screen prints in the mid-'50s. She's taught in California. Priests and nuns came from all over the country to work with her in California. And her work was widely reproduced in Catholic newsletters of the late '50s, early '60s. It might be interesting to rethink the Warhol-Sister Corita connection and consider, is she the influence on him? Andy Warhol obviously produced a lot of religious paintings or paintings rather that included religious subject matter.
In art historical recounting of modern art in general, religion has been largely until relatively recently overlooked and even ignored. And there are a lot of different reasons for that. An assumption that modernism is on one scale and religion is on the other side, that they're inherently oppositional, that modern art is even anti-religious or anti-religion. And certainly, a lot of that stems from what we now address as a secularization thesis about the modern world in which, presumably, following sociologist like Max Weber, that the world has become progressively disenchanted. The spiritual elements have been purged out and rightly so to make room for progress, rationalism, science, and so forth and so on. During Andy's lifetime, he was living across that divide between the world of immigrant Catholics and Jews, who were quite religious and building communities to sustain their faith, to a world after Vatican II, after the Holocaust, in which case there's a lot of questioning about the meaningfulness of religion and even the existence of God. Andy Warhol’s religious life was more challenging for the art world than his gay identity. Poet John Giorno recalled “In New York at the time (1960s) being religious was worse than being a fag” “The abstract expressionists thought Andy was just a fag, and a commercial artist. Only half a man and half an artist.” (Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews John Giorno 7 October, 2002)