Andy Warhol was Catholic? | faith matters
If someone asked me a word or phrase to describe 1960s pop artist Andy Warhol, I might say “hedonist” or “iconoclast.” I would never think “Catholic”.
And that’s the theme of the Brooklyn Museum’s vibrant and diverse exhibit titled “Revelation.”
It is truly a revelation.
Warhol, born Andrew Warhola Jr. on August 6, 1928, worked in a variety of media including painting, screen printing, photography, film, and sculpture. He is perhaps best known for his Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe artwork, as well as his place in 1960s celebrity culture.
This exhibition examines the influence of his Catholic faith on his art and his life.
When you enter the space, you see a photo of the Byzantine Catholic St. John Chrysostom Church in Pittsburgh, where Warhol grew up. He went to Sunday mass each week with his mother, Julia, who lived with him for two decades in New York. The Tories revealed she prayed with him every day before he left to work on his craft.
His baptismal certificate is on display alongside two of his devotional prayer books, items you might see in the hands of elderly Catholics who used them when Mass was said in Latin. There are also prayers or holy cards, including that of Pope Paul VI, and some Easter eggs decorated in the Byzantine style.
In Manhattan, Warhol attended St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church, and a parish priest reported that he attended daily mass but never took communion or made confession. He sat or knelt on the back benches.
Warhol was gay and grew up in a homophobic religious environment. Even before his death in 1987, the Catholic Church had hardly moved the needle on homosexual tolerance. He was aware of the conflict of being both Catholic and gay, and his sexuality influenced his work and his relationship with the art world.
The exhibition has several sections, including one titled “The Catholic Body,” which reveals Warhol’s fascination with mother and child, as in Mary with Jesus. A series of photos of naked mothers breastfeeding and a large homoerotic photo of a man’s bare torso with multiple surgical scars are among the works.
Twice a day, the museum features Warhol’s 1966 film “Chelsea Girls,” which is like a dose of early reality TV where groupies experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex poses. The camera drools over the male anatomy even though she’s only wearing underpants.
“Warhol displayed and obscured his religion and his sexuality, and these dualities are explored in ‘Revelation’ with the back and forth between sincerity and superficiality, revealing and hiding, traditional and avant-garde,” explains Carmen Hermo, associate curator of the exhibition.
Warhol drew, painted, or sculpted many Catholic images and religious figures, including angels, the face of Jesus, and the Sacred Heart.
In another area, seven white punching bags with graffiti hang next to each other. Each has the face of Jesus and the word “judge” written multiple times, among other graffiti.
A huge fresco of the Last Supper encrusted in a pink hue is on display, one of nearly 100 variations by Warhol on the theme of Jesus and the Last Supper.
Warhol regularly volunteered at homeless shelters in New York City, especially during the busier times of the year, and described himself as a religious person. Renaissance art influenced Warhol because it elevated the human and masculine form. Two framed lithographs challenge viewers with the words “Are You Different?” and “Heaven and Hell are only a breath away!”
Warhol is most famous for making everyday objects – like Campbell’s soup cans – art, pieces featured in an exhibit called “Material World: What We Worship”. Surrounding a case of Heinz ketchup and Del Monte cans are two famous huge dollar signs.
This exhibition places Warhol’s religious interests in the way he designed his art. His art is noticeably influenced by the Eastern Christian tradition, so evident in his places of worship. Warhol’s brother described the artist as “really religious, but he didn’t want people to know because (it was) private”.
Despite the private nature of his faith, art historian John Richardson eulogized at his funeral: “To my knowledge he was responsible for at least one conversion. He was very proud to finance his nephew’s studies for the priesthood.
Warhol’s parents were immigrants from Slovakia, and his early life revolved around church and community. Some of the photos shown show Warhol meeting with different popes.
Most people I asked after returning from the Brooklyn Museum had no idea that Warhol was Catholic.
What he kept hidden, except for a privileged few, was his religious and spiritual aspirations which are no longer a secret to those who visit the “Revelation”.
Reverend Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @padrehoboken.
“Andy Warhol: Revelation” continues through June 19 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets for the Warhol exhibition are timed and include admission to the museum. Adults, $25; Adults 65 and over, $16; Disabled visitors, $16 (free care partner); Students 13 and over with valid ID, $16; 4 to 12 years old, $10; 3 and under and members, free. For more information, call 718-638-5000 or visit brooklynmuseum.org.