Art, Culture //

Andy Warhol: The Pope of Pop

On the pop art icon's surprising faith.

Art by Anthia Balis.

Chances are that you’ve heard of pop art icon Andy Warhol. Maybe you’re acquainted with that infamous silver hair/black turtleneck combo. Or perhaps you’ve heard of his studio ‘The Factory,’ frequented by the likes of The Velvet Underground and Edie Sedgwick. What you may not know is that Warhol was a devout Christian. 

Born to two Slovakian Catholic immigrants, Christianity was a key part of Warhol’s life from childhood. He kept this under wraps for the entirety of his life, his devotion to Catholicism only becoming public knowledge after his death in 1987 when, at his memorial service, art historian John Richardson shared that Warhol had ‘never lost the habit of going to Mass’ and Reverend Anthony Dalla Villa described Warhol as ‘the Christian gentleman.’

I was surprised to learn of Warhol’s faith. Partly because of his reputation for hosting scandalous parties in ‘The Factory’ and partly due to his infatuation with the glamorous hedonistic celebrity lifestyle. Perhaps wrongly, I wouldn’t typically associate these qualities with a man who chooses to regularly sit in a pew, listening to a priest condemn human sins. His works never hinted at any sense of spirituality to me. If anything, I’ve often struggled with the impersonal quality of his silk-screen prints, finding the almost exact replications of consumer products clinical and lacking depth. Yet I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Take Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962), for example. The hand-painted gold shades mimic the gold-leaf present on the ceilings of Catholic churches. Warhol presents the face of Monroe at the heart of this heavenly substance, transforming Monroe into one of the Byzantine icons he would have witnessed at church. Essentially, Warhol draws a parallel between the revered status of biblical figures in religious circles and the cult of celebrity in post-WWll American society. Produced shortly after Monroe’s death, Gold Marilyn takes on an added significance, America’s obsession with Monroe never felt more acutely than at this time, the collective mourning of the Hollywood star bordering on devotional. 

Additionally, Warhol created explicitly religious works such as The Last Supper (1986) series in which he produced nearly 100 renditions of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century mural painting by the same name. The sheer number of works indicates an almost compulsive commitment to the subject matter — Christ on the eve of his crucifixion. Considering that this image is centred on the theme of sacrifice and salvation, I don’t think it is a stretch to consider that Warhol’s incessant repetition may be connected to the tension he felt identifying as a religious queer man.

After learning about the influence of religion on Warhol’s practice, I began to examine his more well-known works, particularly Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), from a new perspective. I was less inclined to read the work as a reproduction of advertising imagery, rather housing the potential for spiritual value. Presenting thirty-two cans of soup in a structured grid, each can positioned on a vacant white background, devoid of its ordinary supermarket context, ascribes intense, never-before-seen value to the everyday object. Viewers of Soup Cans are compelled to intimately consider an article that they already feel familiar with. This experience begs the question — are you really perceptive to the world around you? Are you really familiar with a can of Campbell’s? Somewhat ironically, it is this close attention to the mundane which makes it spectacular. To quote pop artist and nun Sister Corita Kent, who viewed Soup Cans when it first exhibited at the Ferus Gallery, ‘A work of art makes you alert to what you hadn’t noticed in ordinary things, so that the distinction narrows between what is ordinary and what is extraordinary.’ Thus, although not alluding explicitly to religious painting or writings as Gold Marilyn and The Last Supper do, I daresay there lies within Soup Cans a blueprint through which to find a level of contentment. 

This notion of finding the extraordinary in small everyday items seemed pertinent during Sydney’s second Covid lockdown. As the periphery of our worlds shrank, the significance of objects and experiences became recalibrated in my mind. As each day was concerned with ‘less exciting’ activities, ‘smaller’ moments had more hold over me. I found myself reveling in the grand stature of the jacaranda tree in my backyard, feeling soothed as I sat beneath it, looking up at its slow, swaying branches splayed against a cloudless sky. I felt so much more grateful for my job at a supermarket, the few consolatory remarks that I exchanged with co-workers and customers holding greater weight. When something a tad out of the ordinary did occur, like a friend sending a bouquet of flowers to my doorstep, I was enveloped by a sense of gratitude.

It might be a stretch to claim that an element of the divine exists within Warhol’s Soup Cans but I stand by the notion that there exists an appreciation of the everyday. As we move out of lockdown, I hope to carry this Campbell’s Soup Cans blueprint with me, able to observe and absorb the intricacies of everyday life as the beloved hustle and bustle of Sydney resumes.