Life, Death and Andy Warhol

Life, Death and Andy Warhol

An exhibition at S|2 London features a selection of the late works of Andy Warhol, in which his preoccupation with iconography and its basis in religion became more closely intertwined with his awareness of mortality.
An exhibition at S|2 London features a selection of the late works of Andy Warhol, in which his preoccupation with iconography and its basis in religion became more closely intertwined with his awareness of mortality.

O n the 1st of April 1987 almost two thousand people congregated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City for a memorial service. Among them were such famous figures as Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones and Yoko Ono, as well as all the most celebrated contemporary artists of the time including David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The sombre yet beautiful scene of mourners walking up the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral could have easily been the queue for Studio 54 a decade earlier. Only the acclaimed ‘Pope of Pop’, Andy Warhol, could attract such a crowd.

Having already suffered from a gallbladder disease for almost fifteen years, Warhol was admitted to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center on the 20th February 1987 for what was meant to be a routine operation. He passed away from an arrhythmia two days later while in recovery.

This spring memorial service, in the city as synonymous with Warhol as Pop Art itself, focused on the private spirituality and faith of the artist most often associated with the popularity of his artworks. Those who knew Warhol best described his humility and his acts of service to the community through his frequent volunteering in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. However, it was during John Richardson’s eulogy that the depth of Warhol’s Catholic faith and “secret piety” was revealed to the rest of the world.

“Besides celebrating Andy Warhol as the quintessential artist of his time and place – the artist who held the most revealing mirror up to his generation – 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 the key to the artist’s psyche.”
John Richardson, Eulogy for Andy Warhol, 1987

Those attentive enough to the artist's late work could see evidence of Warhol’s strong Catholic faith as well as his obsession with mortality, both of which consumed more and more of his thoughts in his last years. The portentous and religious imagery of his late work flirted with styles and symbolism from Eastern and Western Catholic art history, and carefully reframed them within the context of Pop.

Born Andrew Warhola, Warhol’s family was part of the Ruska Dolina community, the Ruthenia section of Pittsburgh, who worshipped in the St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. His parents migrated from Mikova in the Slovak Republic of the former Czechoslovakia in the early 20th century, with his father moving first and his mother joining later. Warhol’s father battled tuberculosis during the artist’s childhood and the trauma of this meant that Warhol confronted suffering, illness and death at an early age in extreme proximity, as his father was housebound throughout his period of ill health. This encounter undoubtedly sparked Warhol’s fascination with death, as well as his enduring fear of mortality.

As a devout Catholic, Andy Warhol continued to attend Mass regularly with his mother Julia Warhola after they both moved to New York. John Richardson went as far to say that, “Andy never lost the habit of going to Mass more often than is obligatory”. Although humble and discreet about his faith publicly, Warhol took his Catholicism very seriously and even sponsored a nephew through his priesthood. There is a lot of conjecture about Warhol’s sexuality, particularly in light of his religion. While Warhol never confirmed or denied anything, and many of his closest friends and muses were proudly LGBTQ, there were various rumours on his supposed voyeurism, chastity or virginity.

“Yesterday, I was watching a game show, Blockbusters with Bill Cullen, and it was two black guys, a warden and his cousin, against a white girl and the category was ‘Letters’ and the question was: ‘Andy Warhol is a “V.”’ And (laughs) she got the answer right, she said ‘Virgin.’ And then Bill Cullen said, ‘That’s right, at fifty-one.’ She won $500 and she got it up to $12,000”.
Andy Warhol’s diary, Tuesday, February 17, 1981

Most of the rooms in Warhol’s childhood home were filled with icons of holy figures, while a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper hung in their kitchen. It is easy to see the stylistic influence of Warhol’s Catholicism once you become aware of it. The Catholic iconostases of his childhood, both at home and at his local church, seem to have been an obvious inspiration for his works capturing the Pop icons of his day as saintly figures. Warhol’s timely depictions of Pop saints such as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy (in light of JFK’s death) show them as modern-day martyrs, victims to fame and exploitation in media. In these works, Warhol’s fascination with celebrity takes on a more sombre reading, as he reflects how even the ultimate tragedy is turned into public spectacle by the media. The lack of privacy even in death, as well as the commodification and marketability of such images of tragedy, had always been of interest to Warhol.

Friend and colleague Henry Geldzahler, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of New York at the time, commissioned Warhol to create his now infamous Death and Disaster series in the early 1960s. Based on press photographs of real accidents, the Death and Disaster works explore empathy and compassion alongside the crudity and commodification of public death. The series focused on the portrayal of death and violence in the media, especially more grotesque and publicly visible scenes such as car crashes, hospital incidents, poisoning, electric chair execution, suicides, funerals and race riots. As Jane Daggett Dillenberg states in her book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, “Warhol makes the viewer a witness of the gruesome and pathetic deaths” using images lifted from tabloids and popular press in a sort of 20th century dance of deaths that exposes our increasing de-sensitivity to the banality of death.[3] Warhol’s quintessential vibrant use of block colour and repetition in the Death and Disaster works hints at our ease in encountering these sorts of images again and again, without truly confronting what they depict. These grotesque scenes are stylistically treated the same way by Warhol as his screenprints of celebrity portraits and advertisements. Nothing is sacred, even the most serious imagery is continually circulated and commodified. Our indifference creates an unempathetic society immune to images of suffering, a sentiment even more unavoidably real in 2020 as it was in the 1960s.

The Electric Chair series (1963-1967), based on a singular photograph of the Sing Sing Penitentiary execution room in New York, echoes this sentiment. Sing Sing was the site of the last execution by electrocution in the state of New York, which took place in 1963. In many of Warhol’s works featuring the electric chair image, the only other object in frame, other than the solitary chair, is the sign “SILENCE” in the background of the photograph, representing the irreversible silence in death.

In June 1968, Andy Warhol was shot at point blank range in his infamous Factory studio in New York. This assassination attempt was the work of Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist who had featured in one of Warhol’s films. Warhol was announced dead at one point during the gruelling five-hour surgery that saved his life.

“They told me that two bullets from a 32-caliber gun had gone through my stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus, left lung and right lung”.
Andy Warhol

During Warhol’s extensive rehabilitation from the shooting, he promised God he would attend Mass every Sunday if he survived. After this Warhol became very withdrawn and anxious, working almost completely nocturnally, while those closest to him became fiercely protective. The Factory dropped its open-door policy and later changed locations from East 47th Street, Manhattan to Union Square. Though Warhol survived this attack and went on to enjoy more fame and international recognition than he could ever imagine, he was inextricably changed by the events of this day both physically and mentally. The impact of this near-death experience is notable in much of his works in the years that followed.

Warhol embarked on painting a series of skulls throughout the 1970s, having photographed one he bought in a Parisian flea market. The brushwork and colour added to each of the different iterations of Skull creates a punk aesthetic, while the series contributes to the art historical legacy of memento mori (remember you must die) and Catholic imagery of saints contemplating skulls and mortality. Many people have commented how in some of Warhol’s renditions of the skull, the shadow it casts resembles an infant’s face. This cyclical link between the beginning and the end of life echoes the central beliefs of the Christian faith.

In the mid-1980s, Warhol’s public artistic interest in death and mortality collided with his private Catholic faith, as well as his interest in New Age religions and the increasing commercialisation of faith. Inspired by a scrapbook of advertisements, maps, diagrams, and illustrations from magazines and newspapers Warhol had collected since the 1950s, his monochrome Ads, Myths and Illustrations series was born. The series of works includes: Are you “Different?”, Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away!, Christ $9.98 and Repent and Sin No More!, all of which were created by tracing adverts from Warhol’s scrapbook that were then made into screenprints. These late works share a universal theme in the way that they reflect society’s anxieties and convey religion to have quick-fix commercial appeal.

For instance, Warhol’s Christ $9.98 was taken from an advert for a ‘Jesus Night Light’, advertised as a “a small touch of heaven on earth”, Are you “Different?” is taken from an advert for ‘Astara, a new-age Mystery School’ while Repent and Sin No More! and Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! are taken from Christian pamphlets. The serious and urgent undertones to the black and white works of the mid-1980s created in the age of slogans and headlines brings together the commercial and the spiritual. People’s fears and anxieties could be commodified, and for the small cost of $9.98 they could escape the neoliberal dread of the era. These images can be read in so many ways depending on what you want to take from them and what you are expecting from them. This ambiguity is indicative of Warhol himself; he revelled in the vague yet sensationalist quality of such slogans, never truly showing his hand and his true thoughts.

Not only does this series fuse Warhol’s long-standing use of adverts and commercial typography and religious ideologies, but also the different negative and positive photographic exposures express the extreme polarities during the Reagan era in the United States. There is a timeless urgency in these black and white advert artworks, but they also represent the fear of nuclear war and the opposition between the two looming geopolitical powers through the cold war era.

In his eulogy John Richardson likened Warhol to a yurodstvo, a holy fool or “saintly simpleton” common in Slavic and Russian villages. The tradition of such a character was that they feign madness and deny the conventions of the human world to be closer to God. Jane Daggett Dillenberg states “This Slavic holy fool had a sense of humor and fun. Andy would have approved on the choice of April Fool’s Day for his last public memorial.” Warhol’s dual curiosity into the mystic and sensational, alongside his strong Catholic grounding, makes it understandable how John Richardson would liken him to the holy fool of Mikovan folklore. Warhol carefully curated his enigmatic persona, keeping the art world guessing at every turn.

“Never take Andy at face value. The callous observer was in fact a recording angel.”
John Richardson, Eulogy for Andy Warhol, 1987

In 1986, Alexander Iolas commissioned Andy Warhol to reimagine Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper. In true Warhol style, the artist’s version of the work also reflects his fascination with consumerism, having spent months tracking down source material in the form of mass-produced Catholic memorabilia copies of the motif. This commission would go on to become the last exhibition of both Iolas’ and Warhol’s lifetimes. Iolas was the gallerist who gave Warhol his first New York exhibition in 1952 and there is a very conclusive and prophetic weight to the exhibition. Warhol died a month after it opened.

On 22nd January 1987 the exhibition opened in Milan at the Galleria Refettorio delle Stelline as Warhol – Il Cenacolo (Warhol – The Upper Room, a reference to the location of The Last Supper). Featuring twenty-two works from the series and held across the plaza from the Santa Maria delle Grazie, which housed the da Vinci original. Iolas himself, like many others in Warhol’s friendship circle at the time, was in the late stage of AIDS related illness. Images of death and suffering surrounded Warhol. Upon arriving in Milan for the exhibition opening, Warhol noted in his diary:

“Found Iolas in the VIP room, he was like a little old lady wrapped up in fabric. We found out later he’d come out of the hospital just to pick us up”.
Andy Warhol's Diary, Wednesday, January 21st, 1987 – Paris – Milan

The scene of The Last Supper is itself a man who knew he was going to die, sharing one last meaningful moment with his friends, creating the sacrament of the Eucharist and asking them to come together in this same way to remember him. Not only was this commission testament to the growing importance of Warhol’s faith to him in his last years, but the ways in which he was saying goodbye to his friends and working on leaving a legacy through his artwork.

In a way, mortality, religion and death have been present themes throughout Warhol’s entire oeuvre. As present in the Marilyns and the adverts, as much as the Death and Disaster series and undoubtedly culminating in The Last Supper. Confounded by the attempt on his life, and contemplating his religion and the afterlife in his later years, these insights into Warhol’s portrayals of faith, death and suffering are hauntingly foretelling thirty-three years after his death.

Contemporary Art

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top