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The Last Warhol

A single painting encapsulates the artist's gadfly influence

Although Andy Warhol died in 1987, his art continues to pose questions -- questions concerning the nature of art and life. His work and personal mythology spark a kind of curious fascination that grows with exposure. With the recent acquisition of an important work from Warhol's final period, the Menil Collection continues its involvement with this controversial artist and the iconography he created for our times. Camouflage Last Supper, now installed in the Menil lobby, encapsulates all of Warhol's dominant themes and working processes. It takes visual cues from the ubiquitous Western media and their consumerism and publicity, while addressing personal and ultimate concerns: military geopolitics, the capacity for the body to be improved, and the power of the mind for spiritual salvation.

While much has been written on Warhol's art and life -- and lifestyle -- there have been relatively few attempts to find in his art any special virtues other than its apparent commerciality. The public likes Warhol, all right. Topped by a silver wig, Warhol himself became as recognizable as his images of Campbell's soup cans. Poet and art writer John Yau has pointed out that Warhol's degree of recognition -- one might call it marketability -- puts him on equal footing with Van Gogh, whose face has been appropriated by the mythmaking machinery of consumer culture and packaged and sold throughout the world, from high-priced galleries to inexpensive card shops.

It's because of that adulation from both art-world elitists and pop culture's masses that critics have felt obligated to take a position, to define Warhol in either/or terms. Warhol walked a tightrope between harsh criticism for being too commercial and praise for being ahead of his time. And the argument continues unabated because each side wants to control the standards by which art and artists can be judged. Did Warhol undermine society's standards? Or was he repackaging them in a way that was simultaneously shocking and pleasing?

The last years of Warhol's life were characterized by increasing vitality and momentum in his work. Between 1977 and 1986, Warhol created six series of paintings -- his belated contribution to the large-scale paintings of the masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism.

In the last of those series, Camouflages of 1986, Warhol took literally the famous danger faced by Abstract Expressionism, that of turning into "apocalyptic wallpaper," and used it as a starting point. Warhol had started making religious paintings in 1981; the most complex of these are his later large works featuring outlines of reproductions of Old Master religious paintings superimposed with tracings of advertisements. The cover for the program at Warhol's memorial service was a reproduction from this series that incorporated an image of Raphael's Sistine Madonna, and in which Warhol imagined a modern Virgin Mary as mannequin for a department-store newspaper promotion.

In 1986, just a year before his death, Warhol began an ambitious series of works based on Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. (He had already "recycled" Leonardo's Mona Lisa many years earlier.) In some of his silkscreened versions of the Last Supper, he repeated the Leonardo composition in grids as many as 60 times. In hand-painted versions, he juxtaposed the religious figures with advertising images of motorcycles, Dove soap bars and Wise potato chips, insinuating that Leonardo's masterpiece had become a commonplace, brand-name product. The Andy Warhol Museum -- the seven-story, $12 million shrine that just opened May 16 in Pittsburgh as the biggest single-artist museum in the U.S. and the most ambitious outside the Picasso Museum in Paris -- features a chapel-style installation for a mammoth version of the Last Supper.

The Menil Collection has acquired one of these important Last Supper works from Warhol's final days. The Camouflage Last Supper -- a gift to the Menil from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts -- is a powerful 25 1/2-foot-long silkscreen painting that attests to the artist's final flurry of energy. Warhol doubled the image from Leonardo's famous fresco, printing the scene on the left and right sides of his canvas. He then "camouflaged" the familiar image: floating like a scrim over the double image is the green, beige and brown military pattern originally devised to hide weapons. With the biomorphic leaf-shaped sprigs and islands, Warhol produces the "all-over" ideal of the Abstract Expressionists through graduated contrasts and continual repetition within an extremely large format. We stand in front of it almost devoutly, as if in front of some emphatic testimony to abstract painting, ready to lose ourselves in the work. At the same time, we're wholly conscious of the military's grotesque appropriation of the design as decoration. In many respects, the work explores precisely the issues that have engaged so many artists over the last few years: the inability of images, and whole artistic styles, to maintain absolute meanings.

Warhol is, and perhaps was -- even before the invention of the term -- the quintessential "postmodern" artist, freely reshuffling the imagery of popular culture and art history into enigmatic questions about the nature of meaning. Warhol shrewdly displayed a cool attitude toward all aesthetic camps and a total indifference to traditional hierarchies of "high" and "low" art. The hand-painted elements, with all their sacrosanct historical and ceremonial associations, are combined with commercial reproduction so that ubiquity and repetition assure the image's swift decline into nostalgic cliche. In other words, Warhol knew early on that the medium had become the message, the essential narrative form.

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