Transubstantiating the Culture: Andy Warhol's Secret
by James Romaine
The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting.
- Andy Warhol (August 6, 1928 - February 22, 1987)
The works of our century are the mirrors of our predicament produced by some of the most sensitive minds of our time. In the light of our predicament we must look at the works of contemporary art, and conversely, in the light of contemporary art we must look at our predicament.
- Paul Tillich in "Each Period Has Its Peculiar Image of Man"
In his final self-portrait, Andy Warhol's gaze is both perplexed and perplexing. Like the artist, everything about this work is suspended in a haze of mystery. Warhol probably had no expectation that this would be his final self-reflection, yet it's hard to imagine him treating himself differently even if he had known.
Warhol treated everything the same. Cool detachment was as much a trademark for Warhol as Campbell's was for soup. Warhol's coolness has often been read as cynicism, and it did involve a degree of distance, but only out of a perceived need for self-protection. The seeming contradiction of Warhol's Self-portrait, and indeed all of his work, is that he expresses himself without revealing anything about himself; he is at once alienated and self-alienating.
There is scarcely a person in America whose life has not been affected—whether or not they know it—by the way Warhol transformed our understanding of our culture. Certainly there is no serious artist working today who has not been influenced by Warhol's conversion of the banal world of consumer culture into the sacred realm of art. We see ourselves and our world reflected in the mirror of Warhol's art, but the image has still not come into full focus. By the time he painted this last Self-portrait, Warhol had become the most famous artist in the world; but more than a decade later his art remains enigmatic.
Warhol began his career in New York as an illustrator of women's footwear, under his real name, Andrew Warhola. The darling of magazine editors, Warhol acquired the nickname "Candy Andy." Perceptions of Warhol today have not changed much since then.
We may think of sex and drugs (two things Warhol mostly abstained from) or fame and fortune (two things Warhol abounded in) as Andy's candies. Yet Warhol's persona, with his fast parties and white wigs, differed greatly from the private identity he both concealed and revealed in his art. Sly as a fox, Warhol played dumb with comments meant to set us off track, such as, "If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surfaces of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."
There is, in fact, a great deal concealed beneath the surface of Warhol's art. The surfaces of
his works appear to be mechanical — an appearance Warhol emphasized by calling his studio "the Factory" and claiming to make art that could be done by anyone. The smooth veneer of silk-screening not only created a mechanical appearance, but his practice of reproducing already-reproduced images published in magazines and newspapers allowed Warhol to increase the degrees of separation between himself and his subjects.
Nevertheless, Warhol continued to use imagery that had personal significance to him. Many of these images were spiritual ones, influenced by the Catholicism that permeates Warhol's art. Despite reports that he went to church almost daily, some doubt the credibility of Warhol's faith and even consider his work anti-Christian. Warhol's life was, admittedly, filled with contradictions. He was always trying to protect his true intentions, especially regarding his Catholicism. Many of Warhol's friends did not know of his religious life until after his death.
More than one seemingly religious person's secret sins have been exposed at their death; Warhol's secrets were that he went to church and served at a soup kitchen. In his eulogy for Warhol, John Richardson outed him from the confessional when he said:
I'd like to recall a side of his character that he hid from all but his closest friends; his spiritual side. Those of you who knew him in circumstances that were the antithesis of spiritual may be surprised that such a side existed. But exist it did, and it's key to the artist's psyche. Although Andy was perceived—with some justice—as a passive observer who never imposed his beliefs on other people, he could on occasion be an effective proselytizer. To my certain knowledge, he was responsible for at least one conversion. He took considerable pride in financing his nephew's studies for the priesthood. And he regularly helped out at a shelter serving meals to the homeless and hungry. Trust Andy to have kept these activities in the dark. The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he could be cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value....
With family roots in Byzantine-Slavic Catholicism, Warhol kept a homemade altar with a crucifix and well-worn prayer book beside his bed. He frequently visited Saint Vincent Ferrer's Church on Lexington Avenue. The pastor of Saint Vincent's confirmed that Warhol visited the church almost daily. He would come in mid-afternoon, light a candle, and pray for fifteen minutes, sometimes making use of the intimacy of the private chapels. The pastor described Warhol as intensely shy and private, especially regarding his religion. Warhol's brother has characterized him as "really religious, but he didn't want people to know about that because [it was] private." For someone so bent on self-protection, Warhol's efforts to keep his religious life a secret may indicate just how important his faith was to him.
Do these religious revelations offer insight into Warhol's art? They do; perhaps more than has yet been appreciated by either the art or Christian worlds. Warhol's consumer imagery at first seems obsessed with the external world of contemporary culture to the exclusion of the internal life of faith. But there is also a persistent longing for something more, a hunger that is evident in the last Self-portrait and, most famously, in those cans of Campbell's soup.
In order to see this religious dimension, we must regain our sense of the sacramental—the use of material things as vehicles for encountering the divine and enabling eternity to break into time and space. Warhol's pop art, often criticized as mere regurgitation of advertising, actually displaces images from their original context in the commercial world, transporting them to the realm of art, collapsing the distance between the two, and creating new associations and meanings.
The Campbell's soup can, one of Warhol's most famous motifs, thus becomes another self-portrait of the artist. The can, like Warhol's public persona, is cool, metallic, machine-made, impenetrable, a mirror of its surroundings. These qualities, superficial though they are, nevertheless seduce the eye.
But what completes this self-portrait are the can's contents; they should be the most significant part, but actually have very little in common with the can's exterior. Soup, a warm source of nourishment, is a sensitive element that will not survive long outside of a protective container. Hidden beneath supermarket imagery, Warhol's faith is sealed for protection.
While carefully keeping himself secure inside, Warhol succeeded in making everyone believe that the soup can should be the focus of attention. Some have become enraptured by their own reflection on its metallic surface. Others have complained that Warhol and his art are hollow. Very few have attempted to open the can and find out what's inside.
Warhol's creative gift was an ability to bring subjects into spiritual equilibrium. He treated ultra-glamorous movie stars and anonymous police arrest photos with the same combination of contempt and envy. Warhol used consumer items more than just as mirrors of his time.
What seems to have attracted him to Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell's soup cans, as in 200 Campbell's Soup Cans, was a sense of comfort, belonging, and equality.
Warhol admitted that one reason he was attracted to the imagery of Campbell's soup was that he had eaten Campbell's soup nearly every day as a boy. Soup, of course, is a nearly global icon of home, but Campbell's is a distinctly American icon.
For Warhol, growing up in a poor immigrant family struggling to find its place in a new homeland, Campbell's soup probably offered a reassuring sense of belonging.
Warhol loved mass consumer imagery because of its equilibrating powers. "Coke is Coke," he once said, "and no matter how rich you are you can't get a better one than the one the homeless woman on the corner is drinking."
Living in New York City, Warhol undoubtedly experienced the way cities have of exaggerating the distance between wealth and poverty even while juxtaposing them. Perhaps reinforced by the piety and poverty of his childhood, Warhol may have looked forward to the equality of heaven, with the mechanical nature of his work forecasting an eternal destiny.
Warhol's strategy of representing heaven by repeated images has been linked to Byzantine icons, which limit individual creativity in favor of a standardized form. Warhol's work has a certain hypnotic rhythm, not unlike the rosary. This repetition also suggests that the image could extend infinitely, giving us a glimpse into eternity through everyday reality.
200 Campbell's Soup Cans celebrates more than social egalitarianism. But in a critique of America's emergent consumer religion, 200 Campbell's Soup Cans also joins a long artistic tradition of vanitas images, in which lavish displays of wealth are offset by reminders of life's fleeting nature and the inevitable final judgment.
Warhol's references to religious themes increased throughout his career, culminating in his most overtly religious and plainly sacramental works, patterned after Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Warhol made more than one hundred works based on Leonardo's image, but until recently these works received very little attention.
Many things may have drawn Warhol to the Last Supper, including the fact that Warhol's own art often dealt with food as a symbol of heaven.
Warhol's Catholicism asserted the miracle of transubstantiation, in which food—bread and wine—becomes a heavenly substance. Warhol may have accessed Leonardo's imagery to set himself within a certain tradition of religious art.
Leonardo brought out the classical and realist artist in Warhol, even though the meaning of "classical" and "real" had radically changed in the five hundred years separating them. Leonardo's breakthroughs in artistic perspective had radically brought the Christ figure into the viewer's world; Warhol brought Leonardo down off the wall, and in so doing brought Christ and the sacrament of the Eucharist into his world.
Indeed, Warhol's interest in Campbell's soup and the Last Supper are linked. Remember, Warhol said that his attraction to Campbell's soup was that he had eaten it every day as a child. Warhol's brother recalled that a reproduction of the Last Supper hung on their family's kitchen wall. As Warhol sat eating his soup, he ate under the watchful presence of Christ.
Another reason Warhol turned to the Last Supper was that it reminded him of his mother, Julia Warhola. Mrs. Warhola had a prayer card with an image of the Last Supper that she kept in her Bible. After her death, Warhol kept this card as a reminder of his mother's faith. He was very close to his mother, who came to live with him in New York. Warhol's brother noted that Andy and their mother had a small altar in their New York apartment and that "Andy wouldn't leave unless [she] would come into the kitchen and kneel down with him and pray."
Mrs. Warhola's prayer card bears a remarkable resemblance to Warhol's art, for it has reworked its subject significantly: the figure of Matthew is shifted, and Christ is given a golden halo — changes probably made to invigorate the viewer's devotion. Is it too unlikely to suppose that Warhol's art had the same intent?
Works like Last Supper (Dove) bring together brand name products from the supermarket and the sacramental imagery of the church, asserting that modern life and faith are neither separate nor contradictory. Each makes the other more real and meaningful. The dove, descending from above Christ like a halo, represents the Holy Spirit; the General Electric sign (with its own halo) is a symbol of the Son. It doesn't take much imagination to connect GE with the light of the world, but there is an even subtler meaning to this sign: GE's slogan, "We bring good things to life," points to the resurrection and eternal life.
Warhol died of unexpected complications from routine surgery on February 22, 1987, making the Last Supper images a fitting, if unintentional, conclusion for Warhol's art. They show Christ in a creative and transformative action. Artistic transubstantiation allowed Warhol to identify with Christ, to see Christ as an artist and to see art as a sanctifying activity.
Indeed, Warhol's approach to art and Christianity exemplify what H. Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture, famously called "Christ the Transformer of Culture." Just as Christ transformed common bread and wine into the holy sacraments, Warhol transformed everyday imagery into art.
The popularity of Warhol's work is a reflection of our own hunger for such transformation. Like all art, it raises questions: Are we hungry enough to accept anything offered to us? How are we to be discerning? Was Warhol discerning? If we are to "test each spirit," should we filter out Warhol? Was Warhol so hungry for something divine that he too easily accepted substitutes for the one thing that would satisfy him?
If we consider the disreputable company Warhol kept, our answer to the last question might be yes. Maybe Campbell's soup was no more than a commercial substitute for a spiritual hunger. But the spiritual sincerity and artistic complexities of his last works suggest that Andy Warhol's faith, and art, cannot be so easily dismissed.
November 12, 2003 | by James Romaine
James Romaine is an art historian who lives in New York, and the author of "Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith."
This article originally appeared in Regeneration Quarterly.