When Andy Warhol died, in 1987 at age 58, this paper’s front page asked, “Is God Dead?” That headline (derived from a 1966 Time magazine cover that had famously asked the same question) was not as snarky or grandiose as it might have seemed at first blush. For sure it was acknowledging that one of the most popular, successful, and influential artists in history had passed away unexpectedly after gall bladder surgery. But it also expressed an awareness that throughout his four-decade career, this gay, first-generation American from a blue-collar family in western Pennsylvania often focused on themes of mortality in general and religion in particular in his paintings, prints, and films.
This open espousing of faith—Warhol’s looked to both the rites of Rome and the Byzantine Catholicism his parents brought with them from Eastern Europe—was a rarity among 20th-century artists. The Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition showcases vitrines filled with Warhol’s prayer cards, crucifixes, and such religious tchotchkes as “Jesus Statue, 1938-41,” a small plaster effigy described in a wall label as an early Warhol: “Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he painted the figure, taking care to color the Sacred Heart and Christ’s wounds in bright red.” After moving to New York, in 1949, Warhol refined such directness into powerfully bold graphic design work that he later transmuted into pop art masterpieces.
Two years after Time pondered the death of God, Warhol was shot by a disgruntled actress-playwright who felt disrespected by the famous artist. There had always been a vibrating abstract quality to Warhol’s death multiples—the Brooklyn show includes stacks of electric chairs, shifting blue portraits of a mourning Jackie Kennedy, and negative prints of Marilyn Monroe that reverse fair skin and blond hair to dark scrapes and blots. In contrast, Richard Avedon’s large black and white photo of Warhol’s deeply scarred torso matter-of-factly documents his near-fatal wounds.
Christ’s death foretold in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is appropriated here, silkscreened onto massive pink and yellow canvases on either side of one gallery. These paintings, from Warhol’s 1986 “Last Supper” series, echo the ambiance of Roman churches, where Renaissance paintings and altars bear upon a worshipper like an aesthetic and spiritual vise. In other galleries, Warhol’s graphic dexterity and dead-on colors come to the fore in numerous images of skulls, including a small yellow one casting a shadow against a red background, creating an ersatz heart—death as valentine.
The enigma of mortality also hovers over a roughly 12-foot-wide silkscreen painting from Warhol’s late-1970s “Shadows” series: A black slab on the left melds mistily with arabesques of white on the right. What form originally cast this abraded portal of darkness? Alert viewers will note that the gallery’s ceiling lights, interrupted by a half-wall divider, cast a silvery shade upon the surface, heightening awareness of your own gray ghost falling upon the canvas’s … vision of limbo? … as you walk past.
It is to Warhol’s eternal credit that his stark images so often conjure questions you never before thought of asking. ❖
Andy Warhol: Revelation
The Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Through June 19