The Last Warhol

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.

Appropriately, Warhol's last series dealt with a person who was both superstar and daily bread of one of the most powerful hagiographies in the world: Christ. Certainly Warhol's double reproduction in Camouflage Last Supper is intended to suggest both sameness of meaning and loss of meaning in media representation, but the entire effect -- the overlay of religious and military power -- is so potent that meaninglessness could hardly have been his intent. Rather, Warhol presents cultural and aesthetic realities in such a deadpan, mechanical manner that we are forced to confront the images and, through his reproductive and painterly technique, to think about how the media -- as well as institutions -- diffuse their impact in our daily lives.

All of this enters into the series of Last Supper paintings, which was commissioned by Alexander Iolas, a leading art dealer known as a champion of the European Surrealists. Iolas' broad knowledge and adventuresome spirit helped form the core of the Menil Collection, and Iolas was responsible for Warhol's first one-man exhibition, of graphic work in New York in 1952. In 1986 Iolas organized an exhibition of the Last Supper paintings in a gallery across the street from the church refectory that contains Leonardo's fresco -- it was to be the last one-man show of Warhol's work during the artist's lifetime. The Warhol exhibit opened in Milan the same day that the prohibition against the public's visiting the Last Supper chapel took effect. Writer Pierre Restany was in Milan at the time; later he recalled his surprise when Warhol asked him, "Do you believe that the Italians are conscious of the respect I have for Leonardo?"

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is known largely through prettified versions that conceal its condition. But even while Leonardo was alive it had started to deteriorate because of humidity. It also suffered from brutal Napoleonic soldiers and from monks who cut a door in it. In 1943, Allied bombs almost destroyed the vaulted ceiling above the painting. For the most part, its figures are ghosts.

Leonardo also bypassed the traditional meaning of the Last Supper in Christian art. He was not the least concerned with the institution of the Eucharist or with the mystery of the sacrificial death in which the Apostles participated and to which many of them would themselves succumb. Leonardo was interested in a single aspect of the narrative: instead of designating the betrayer, he showed the explosive effect of the announcement at the feast. As if by inexorable law, the revelation factors the number twelve into four groups of three, the number of the Trinity. Christ, the divider, appears as the center of light and space, the vanishing point of the perspective. Leonardo exploited the mathematical unity to make the divisions of his composition immediately significant to his viewers and to create order out of dramatic confusion.

In Warhol's hands the composition is served by the cartoonish camouflage forms. Some forms look like wiggling fish or ducks in flight; others carve up the space like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, highlighting important figures. St. Thomas' pointing finger looks disembodied, floating inside a beige camouflage shape. The head of Christ is defined by a loopy gray "boomerang" that slips halfway down His face in its double image. The bombshell impact of the announcement congeals as a sort of black cloud emerging from the bottom edge of the painting and billowing in the center. The cloud is produced by the shadows under the two tables melding with the conjoined edge of the two scenes.

If, in Warhol's version, the figures appear as ghostly as they do in the original, it's because Warhol reportedly worked from kitsch; his secondary sources included a white plastic maquette of the Last Supper that was found in a gas station on the New Jersey Turnpike, a published line drawing based on the composition, and a large Italian-made bisque figural group picked up in a Manhattan shop. (In a recent issue of Time magazine, critic Robert Hughes couldn't resist taking a swipe at Warhol's kitsch factor when another version of his painting failed to sell at auction: "The true mystery is who on earth could have actually wanted to own a 31-foot pastiche of Leonardo's Last Supper overlaid with green camouflage patterns. Is some Christian fundamentalist group planning to open a restaurant?")

But, for the Menil Collection, Camouflage Last Supper represents the de Menil family's long-standing commitment to the artist, a relationship which began in the mid-1960s. The Collection owns 23 Warhol drawings and paintings (including Warhol's double Mona Lisa) as well as a selection of prints. The Collection's 1968 portrait of Jermayne MacAgy was one of Warhol's first major portrait commissions. Moreover, the Dia Center, formed by German-born art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil (daughter of Dominique de Menil), has amassed close to 80 Warhol objects, plus the spectacular 102-panel Shadow series. The Dia Foundation is centrally involved with the Warhol Museum, as are the Andy Warhol Center for the Visual Arts and the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh.

Although Warhol once deadpanned that "church is a fun place to go," there's little doubt that his devotion to Catholicism -- a religion that requires great personal attention to repetitive ritual -- was an influence on his art. Did the fundamental importance of religion in his work also have roots in superstition, perhaps in style and fashion, or even in the 1980s penchant for appropriation? It may simply come down to a major characteristic of Warhol's art, namely, the representation of inflated products and an embracing of overproduction. What Warhol gleaned from the church, as well as from mass culture, was that the only position to take is one that dictates that the replica replaces the original. Not only does Warhol continue to make us aware of the manipulation inherent in images, signs and notions of progress, he challenges the way those images and thought processes feed into our late 20th-century, post-industrial, capitalistic society.


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