Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Andy Warhol by Arthur C. Danto
Let us consider his last substantial body of paintings, based on Leonardo's The Last Supper, which are thought by some to be evidence of Andy Warhol's religiousness. As so often happened in Warhol's work, the idea came from elsewhere, in this case from the dealer Alexandre Iolas, who had a gallery in Milan. Andy was one of five painters he selected to do paintings based on Leonardo's The Last Supper. His idea was that a show of Last Suppers by contemporary artists would generate interest, since the gallery was across the piazza from where Leonardo's masterpiece was undergoing its latest restorations, and there would have been incentive for visitors to take in both it and versions of it by painters of our day. Warhol specialists have observed that he found the reproductions of The Last Supper in art books too dark, explaining why he used cheap copies of the old painting instead. But my view is that everyone knows Leonardo's painting- it belongs to the common consciousness of the culture that Warhol shared with everyone who knew his work, and which he took as his artistic mission to raise to self-awareness- to show our inner life to ourselves. Leonardo's The Last Supper is one of the few paintings that enjoys this status- Warhol's can of Campbell's tomato soup is another- though few of those who know The Last Supper ever actually saw it in Milan; it is better known through its many reproductions. To show The Last Supper as commonplace is to show it as it appears on a postcard, the way Duchamp showed the Mona Lisa, or in a calendar of masterpieces. Ask people to name ten paintings, they will inevitably name The Last Supper- not La Conversation by Matisse, let alone The Last Sacrament of Saint Jerome by Domenichino or one of the Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes by Cezanne.
Andy treated the Last Supper as he treated many of his subjects. He did versions that showed series of Last Suppers, much like his serial paintings of soup cans or dollar bills. He doubled Jesus, the way he doubled Marilyn, or Elvis. Repetition was a sign of significance. He filled it with logos from contemporary products, like Dove soap, to represent the Holy Spirit, or the Wise owl from the familiar potato chip package, emblematizing wisdom. Or he used the General Electric logo to emblematize light. All these came from the commercial world in which he and the rest of us are at home, though it is fair to say that none of them had religious significance as such. Warhol's great artistic project began with the images in the Bonwit Teller window and evolved on two levels- the levels of fears and agonies, and the levels of beauties.
The level of plane crashes, suicides, accidents, executions; and the level of Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, Elvis, Jesus, radiant with glamour and celebrity. A dark world with radiant beings, whose presence in us is redemptive, and into whose company Warhol sough to insinuate his own ungainly presence, and to make stars of us all. His mission was to externalize the interiority of our shared world. The Last Supper has penetrated the common consciousness with the momentousness of its message. In making it his he shows us that it is ours, part of life, rather than something one has to travel to Italy to see.- in this respect it is like the dish sometimes held to be the Grail, commonplace rather than rare, a dish like any other rather than something crusted with jewels and made of precious metals. Or, like his early prints, something that one could buy for a few dollars at the receptionist's counter at Castelli's, where they were displayed on the racks. A genuine work of art for five bucks! No wonder he stenciled low price tags- like $6.99- on pictures of masterpieces...
I think the religious turn, if there was one, happened much earlier. I believe that at some moment between 1959 and 1961 Andy Warhol underwent an artistic change deep enough to bear comparison with a religious conversion- too deep, one might say, not to be a religious conversion. Before then, his work had a certain effete charm, consisting of plump cherubs, posies, pink and blue butterflies, pussycats in confectionary colors. He made a handsome living as a commercial artist, whose chef product consisted of playfully erotic advertisements for upscale ladies' footwear. My feeling is that his religious identity was disclosed in April 1961, in his first exhibition- installed, symbolically, in a site displaying soft fluttery summery resort wear for the class of women for whom the luxurious shoes that had given him his first success were designed- the windows of Bonwit Teller, one of the great emporia for upscale women's clothing on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Warhol, as we saw, surrounded the mannequins with blowups of the coarse, grainy advertisements one sees in the back pages of cheap newsprint blue-collar publications. The images he appropriated after the conversion were vernacular, familiar, and anonymous. They typicalty advertise cures. A montage of black-and-white newspaper ads is for falling hair; for acquiring strong arms and broad shoulders; for nose reshaping; for prosthetic aids for rupture; for love elixir ("Make him want you"); and for Pepsi-Cola ("No finer Drink'). It projects a vision of human beings as deficient and as needy. IT was a message not unlike that of Joseph Beuys, whose symbols were fat and felt, to minister to the hungry and cold. All religion is based on suffering and its radical relief. It was as if the message of saviors had been translated into the universal language of cheap American advertisements. The Bonwit Teller show testified to what remains perhaps the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creation- Warhol's "before and after".