Which is the religiousness in Andy Warhol?

Andy Warhol has been defined as “the United States in the moment the United States became the world” (1), that is, just over the first half of the 20th century. How can one not recall his TV sets reproducing his now famous Campbell tomato cans, or the reproductions of popular “icons” such as Coke bottles, Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando? According to Artprice indexes, between 1997 and 2006 the price of his TV sets has increased by over 300%. Warhol is part of that group of American artists of the 60s that wanted to represent the reality around them “literally”. The pop art artists, in other words, of “popular art”, started to use parts of the language of the culture of masses, such as publicity images, comics, movies, television, consumer goods and fashion in a more educated level. Thus, the mass experience entered into the individual experience, making the artistic expression of each person leave his own territory and open it to a social, collective, massive and commercial dimension.

Pop –”popular”- images are pictorially assumed and reformulated. Andy Warhol is an exemplary pop artist. If others chose comics (R. Lichtenstein) or the objects the average American has at home (C. Oldenburg), Warhol chooses the commercial image and everything that goes with it. Therefore his representation objects are frequently commercial labels, photographs of idols or famous people, symbols or works of art. But they also are distressing images of disasters and events from the crime reports. He used basically two procedures. The first is the isolation and dilatation, as in many portraits. The image is a front view, the result is a montage of heavily spread colors (black or yellow hair, red lips, blue eyelids…) and it is placed against an abstract-colored background (orange, green…) The second is the serial repetition of the subject being represented, from portraits to consumer goods (Coke, Campbell…). Thus, in one same work, the image is repeated on a single canvas, following the model of continuous repetition in publicity, typical of the mass industry or the mass media.

The object of these pages is not the presentation of Warhol’s artistic parable, but –with many more limitations- to take a deeper look at an almost completely ignored aspect of his inspiration: the religious element.

Fortunately, an exhibition held in Rome, in the Bramante Cloister, titled Andy Warhol. Repent and sin no more! has drawn the attention of the Italian public towards this aspect of the artist’s production which has been lying in the shadows for so long (2). The title of the exhibition is taken from Repent and sin no more!, a work in acrylic and ink silkscreen on canvas carried out between 1985 and 1986 (3). The exhibition included nearly 80 mostly large format works, exposing photos and videos kept in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

It is not easy to come close to the “philosophy” (4) of Warhol’s Catholicism, he was an eccentric, exhibitionist and transgressive artist. His biography does not bring forth a person intimately marked by religious values. Rather the opposite. His first famous Factory and the ones that followed –which were his New York laboratory- were also a sort of “bohemian paradises”, places of promiscuous behavior, free sex and drug abuse. In the artistic level, his production apparently completely surrendered to the market of the masses and consumption, does not seem to offer links with a vision of salvation, whichever this is. The image is never the fruit of a rescue; beauty is not sought in the common things. On the contrary, it would seem that its representation was rather cynical, deprived of surprises, even sent down to the road of degradation. However, it is still true that silencing the religious element of his inspiration does not help to have a complete vision of his art. We shall try to explain the reason why.

Andrej Warhola was born on August 6th, 1928 to a family of Slovak immigrants. His mother, a Ruthenian, was a woman of deeply rooted religious feelings and a member of the Uniata church. Attending the Catholic church of Saint John Chrysostom in Pittsburg left a very deep mark in him, although it remained hidden, almost secret. After he died a praying altar was found in his house, and religious signs were found in his bedroom. There was a prayer book on his night table. Was it only out of sheer love of beauty? Schizophrenia between life and religious feeling? It is not ours to make out such definite personal judgments. However, we must make a note of the fact that the priest of Saint Vincent Ferrer Church in Lexington Avenue, New York saw this man stop by nearly every day and light a candle, and also visiting the private chapel (5).

Art critic John Richardson surprised the audience with these words during Andy Warhol’s funeral eulogy on April 1st, 1987, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York: “I would like to recall an aspect of his personality he kept hidden from everybody, except from his closest friends: his spiritual side. Those of you who met him in circumstances that were the exact antithesis of spirituality, would be amazed that that side really existed. But this was and is the key to the psyche of the artist. Even if Andy was perceived –quite correctly- as a passive observer who never imposed his convictions on others, in some occasions he could become a very effective advertiser. Indeed, I am aware that he was responsible for at least one conversion. He considered it a privilege to support the studies of his nephew in the seminar. And he gave regular help to an organization for the poor and homeless. Andy trusted he would keep these activities concealed from everybody. Knowing this secret piety inevitably changes the way we see the artist, who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame and glamour, and that he was cool to the point of callousness…” (6). Wasn’t Warhol intimately consistent with the joyful staging in which he seemed to be deeply immersed?

If I have quoted intimate details and witnesses it is certainly not for the sake of revealing hidden aspects of his personality, but because they can help understand the complexity of his character and reveal a deep religious link that follows the artist until his death in 1987 after a simple gall bladder operation. However, the reference to religious images, beyond any interference with his personal religiosity, is still a constant. This is the point. Gianni Mercurio, curator of the Roman exhibition is amazed: “It is disconcerting because of the fact that few critics in the past years –but particularly during his lifetime- were aware of the obvious reminiscence of his work, including the style, of late Byzantine and Russian Orthodox tradition” (7). What is the sense of such a stylistic appeal? Our question about Warhol’s religiosity concerns this question –and not about biographic peculiarities.


If we look at Warhol’s paintings, keeping in mind eastern icons, we can see that they have a lot in common. The golden background of the icons is translated into the abstract, vivid and passionate color of his portraits. The static in eastern illustrations can be found in the sense of “still image” one experiences when looking at his works, whether they be people or objects. The de-contextualization is at its most in relation to the visual and historical context. The lack of emotional commitment is also obvious. Contrasts are intense. Comparing eastern icons with Warhol’s work might seem bold, but it becomes natural if it is made actually looking at the images. Warhol’s paintings are really and truly “pop icons”, as it has been said. His portraits are those of “pop saints”.

Together with these characters, however, it is necessary to stress that death and the expiration of life is an ever-present issue. His father’s death when he was still very young, left a deep mark in him. But let’s also consider that he survived the attack perpetrated against him by Valérie Solanas, a radical and fanatic feminist. There are many signs of death or decadence that accompanied him during his short life. One of them was the precocious baldness when he was aged 21 and moved to New York. That was only one of the things that always led him to reject his own body… Not to forget the death of many of his friends because of AIDS, the “new” scourge of the 80s. It was impossible for Warhol to detach himself to a sort of constant memento mori.

These signs are transferred to the subjects of his painting: skulls, an electric chair, photos reproducing terrible crime scenes, air crashes and car accidents. But it is really his artificial images, because of their own nature, the ones that communicate a cold denial of life. How can one link his obsessive and collectors attention (Warhol collected everything) for mundane affairs and his perception of death and dissolution? We find an answer in the tension that takes him to repeat life, which gives sense to the expiry of objects, of the vanitas vanitatum. Warhol exorcizes fear of loss and dissolution showing off death in its reproduction through the media. There is something elusive and “slippery” in Warhol’s work (8). It’s true: Warhol has fooled us, he was only camouflaged. Those who consider his work as the victory of consumer goods, of colors, of consumption and fame, don’t see the bitter taste of the ephemeral, which is evident. It is really so if we consider his “icons” of Marilyn Monroe (who had just died), of Jacqueline Kennedy (portrayed after her husband’s death), of Liz Taylor (an alcoholic at the time), and Elvis Presley, but also of Lenin, who is portrayed embalmed after his death. Happiness seems to be the other side of the tragedy.

The remarkable intellectual Jean Baudrillard interpreted Warhol’s “fundamental passion” as the will to explore the world as if it were only a “special effect” that puts forward the disappearance of the individual, of his will and his representation. The desideratio, he writes, “gives in his place to the sideratio, the sideration facing a world that has turned unconceivable, enigmatic, that resists meaning” (9). To tell the truth, it seems to us that Baudrillard runs short. Warhol’s world is not brut de déchiffrage, in other words, literally “blunt to decipher”, as it is definitely deciphered in its value of nothing and emptiness. In our opinion, Warhol’s icon is the exact opposite of the eastern icon, its specular image. The second is the image of the eternal and of wholeness. But the ways and the expressive procedures are the same. Much farther than the transgressive mask he lucidly covered his face with, Warhol shows a disconcerting comprehension of life. It is the precise image of emptiness. And some of his expressions reveal this with accents that seem to have been taken from the biblical book of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes): “Every time that the peoples and civilizations degenerate and become materialistic, they exhibit their exterior beauties and their riches, and say that if all of that were wrong, they wouldn’t do so well, and they wouldn’t be so rich and beautiful. That is what they did in the Bible when they worshipped the Golden Fleece, for instance, and then the Greeks, who worshipped the human body. But beauty and riches are in no way related to being well: just think of all the beautiful people who get cancer. And then in so many good-looking murderers. And that should do it”, (10).

Assuming these ideas and linking them to the religious roots of Warholian inspiration, writer Giorgio Montefoschi says in the catalogue of the Roman exhibition that the artist proves that we know nothing when facing God (11). Therefore, according to this interpretation, behind the void there would be space for God. Is this so? We believe so, but some precisions must be made. We believe that something not clearly definable is at stake. The tensions in Warhol’s word have produced critical confrontational interpretations. The religious fact, so important in the artist’s personal and intimate life, is not far off from them. Precisely, the net separation between private life and the public “scene”, ironically understood by Warhol even in masking disguises, offers an interpretation key. For him, the relation with God was an intimate matter, which should be kept in the hidden corner of a private chapel or a home-built altar. Warhol lived there, in that private space, present with himself in all his contradictions, beyond the ephemeral game and the parody of his aphorisms and his scandalous and exhibitionist eccentricities: “The truth, for Warhol, was in the hands of God, not those of liberal humanists. Each aspiration towards the truth in this world was unavoidably shallow and of no value. Art cannot be the keeper of wisdom; it can only reflect, disguise (and enjoy) the world around it.” (12) Therefore this is also where his disapproval of the high sense of art would stem from, the reason why he took part in a game, which was also economically significant, of the serial and pop reproduction.

Therefore, the space for God is and remains empty. There is no space for God in Warhol’s art. Better yet: God is alone and always “off” his works of art. And this is the guarantee of his safeguard. We believe that prove of this are, among others, his religious art works in acrylic and ink silkscreen on canvas, such as Raphael Madonna-$6.99 and The Last Supper, where Rafael and Leonardo’s famous images are reproduced several times on the same canvas, which also bears an oval-shaped label with the price (US$ 6.99). This is a ruthful and non-sacred reminder that everything is on sale, also art, which therefore includes every religious representation. It isn’t unfounded to find in this attitude a certain nostalgia of the eastern icon, an irreparably lost power of representation, and that therefore, its privacy must be preserved in a completely private level. Then we have the inevitable irony of the serial repetition of the pop icons.

In any case, and beyond any further reflection, we believe it would be deceitful to search –as some have done- Warhol’s religiosity in his representations of religious art. On the contrary, they would rather indicate its absence. Instead, Warhol’s artistic religiousness lies in attempt to push his God off of his artistic representation, which is ironically and paradoxically condemned to the representation of fetishes, or to say it as Warhol himself, “Golden Fleece”: that is a buffoon with divine features, with whom, on the other hand, he has let himself be seduced.

(1) A. Boatto, Warhol, inset of the editorial office, attached in Art e Dossier, October 1995, 5.
(2) We recall J. Daggett Dillenberger, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, New York, Continuum, 1998, despite the fact that in some aspects he seems to us to be rather forced. Cfr., also P. Gilles, American Catholic Arts and Fictions, Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics, Cambridge (Ma), University Press, 2003, 278-284.
(3) Catalogue in: G. Mercurio (ed.), Andy Warhol. Pentiti e non peccare più! (Repent and sin no more!), Milan, Skira, 2006. Exhibition from September 27th 2006 to January 7th, 2007.
(4) Cfr. A. Warhol, La filosofia di Andy Warhol (1975), Milán, Bompiani, 2006.
(5) Cfr. G. Mercurio, “Andy Warhol ci ha ingannati”, in ID., (ed.), AndyWarhol, cit., 18 s.
(6) Ibid, 18.
(7) Ibid, 20.
(8) Cfr. P. Gilles, American Catholic Arts…, cit., 279.
(9) J. Baudrillard, “Andy Warhol”, ibid, 39.
(10) A. Warhol, La filosofia di Andy Warhol, cit., 62 s.
(11) G. Montefoschi, “Cosa c’è dietro il vuoto”, ibid, 45.
(12) P. Gilles, American Catholic Arts…, cit., 282.

Antonio Spadaro, S.J. Article published in La Civiltà Cattolica 2007 III 54-60 issue 3769 (July 7th, 2007).