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PITTSBURGH — That Andy Warhol was a lifelong practicing Byzantine (i.e. Eastern) Catholic is not a secret. At least one book is devoted to his religious concerns. His biographers and some critics note that most of the women and men in the Factory were lapsed believers. And he made paintings, especially late in life, with explicit Christian concerns. But because the contemporary art world has, at least recently, been a secular place, there hasn’t been much attention given to Warhol-the-Catholic.
Andy Warhol: Revelation at the Warhol Museum opens with Sunset (1969), a 33-minute film intended for a never-realized project, organized by Dominique and John de Menil, at the Vatican pavilion at the 1968 World’s Fair in San Antonio, Texas.
The stationary camera shows a California sunset, a West Coast parallel, as it were, to Warhol’s Empire (1964), his eight-hour film of the Empire State Building. In good Warhol-style, he then created a large edition of screen prints using a film still of the sunset for a Minneapolis hotel project organized by Philip Johnson.
Some of the work in this show has not been much seen before, or even published. There are religious drawings by Warhol and his mother, Julia Warhola, from the 1950s; a plaster Jesus he painted when he was an adolescent; some holy cards, crucifixes and other religious paraphernalia from the archives; and four icons that the artist John Hegedus painted around 1916, borrowed from Warhol’s Pittsburgh church.
Much of the rest of the material is more familiar. We get some of the Jackies (1964), some of the Marilyns (1968), a Mona Lisa (1979), and a couple of the very late Last Suppers (1986). But there are a few more unfamiliar works: “Mona Lisa’s Hands” (1963), which situates the eponymous hands at the very top of an otherwise blank canvas; some odd prints from 1978, black images recycling the Marilyns; and more of the religious memorabilia saved by Warhol, who saved everything.
But who am I, as the current Pope has said in another context, to complain when Warhol’s minor work is displayed? The more important question is: How does this relatively small exhibition, using but part of one floor of the seven-story Warhol Museum, add up? The canonical Warhol — the 1960s Pop paintings; the classic films; the portraits — is not much in evidence. That is of course a deliberate, plausible curatorial decision. But, insofar as the Catholic Warhol produced mostly marginal, minor work, it would seem as if his religious concerns were not ultimately very significant.
Just a few miles from the museum is St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, which Warhol’s family attended. The priest walks through the center of the iconostasis, upon which icons of saints are hung. Since Warhol’s time, this church has been redone, but an archival photograph in the catalogue shows the Hegedus paintings in their original setting. Replace the saints with celebrities and you have Warhol’s portraits. It’s easy to see where, as we say, Warhol was coming from. But what does that tell us about his Catholic concerns? Is this anything more than the display of mostly essentially minor materials?
Occasionally, though this is rare, a well-executed, seemingly modest exhibition can inspire serious reflection about fundamental art historical issues. When so much has been written recently about Warhol, is it possible to say anything really new? Let’s try! According to the usual ways of thinking, the history of painting is the story of changing subjects. Under the old regime, the sacred was of prime importance. But then secularization meant the dominance of the profane. From this perspective, the themes of Warhol’s Pop Art mark just one recent stage in this long development. In a traditional Catholic culture, art is religious by default. But in our contemporary secular society, what does it mean to identify Warhol as a Catholic artist? To ask this question in another way: what unifies this body of work and links it to his better-known art?
It’s arguable that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is the founding father of art history, for he offers an historicist theory of visual art as social expression, an account that played a central inspirational role in German academic culture. There is, however, in his lectures on aesthetics a very different analysis, which has not attracted much attention. And that is his account of the medium of painting.
According to Hegel in his Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (Oxford, 1973), a proper history must relate the subjects of art to its physical realization. And so he’s interested in the relationship between Christ’s incarnation and the “sensuous element” in painting “whereby the form of the object as our vision sees it is transformed from the shape of something real into a pure appearance.”
That is to say, just as Christ is both man and God — man when he suffers; God through his divine nature — a painting is both a mere physical object and a representation of the sacred. And what this parallel means, Hegel argues, is that painting is the art best suited to Christian culture, for an image of Christ or the saints uses this medium as “the subjective re-creation of the external world” in which, through color, “the material is lit up in itself.” (In some ways, probably unknown to Hegel, icons were thought to have something like this dual character.)
Now suppose, just for the purposes of argument, that we take this admittedly problematic analogy between God’s manifestation and the nature of painting very seriously. What surely follows is that Warhol’s Catholic side, far from being a marginal, even eccentric form of personal expression, marks rather a recovery of the central traditions of European painting.
On this radical alternative view, Warhol recovers this sacred tradition in perhaps the only way that was open to him in a commodity culture. And what follows (this also is implicit in Hegel) is that all of Warhol’s art, not simply the works featuring religious subject matter, is sacred. This would suggest that there is no division in his artistic sensibility between sacred and secular ways of thinking, for all of his art is a manifestation of the sacred. And this includes all of his erotic subjects.
Over the years, I’ve often reread Hegel’s great lectures on aesthetics. But I never quite understood them until viewing Andy Warhol: Revelation. And so I owe an enormous debt to this exhibition — truly a revelation, though not exactly, perhaps!, in the sense intended by the Warhol Museum.
Andy Warhol: Revelation continues at The Andy Warhol Museum (117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through February 16, 2020. The exhibition is organized by José Carlos Diaz, chief curator at The Warhol.