Andy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers (1986) is an outstanding example from the artist’s great final painting series. Executed near the end of his life, the monumental piece — the largest painting by the American Pop artist ever to come to auction — takes up the themes of religion and loss that were so key to his work.
The idea for a group of works based on Leonardo’s Renaissance masterpiece was proposed to Warhol in 1984 by Milan-based gallerist Alexander Iolas. Warhol leapt at the idea of putting his own stamp on one of the best-known images in the world, and produced an exhaustive series of variations — some freehand, some showing outlines, some, as in this example, using a photostat of the oil painting as the source image for a silkscreen. In all, Warhol would make over 100 different renditions of the Last Supper, 22 of which were displayed in 1986 in a space opposite the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, home of Leonardo’s original. Viewed by an estimated 30,000 people, the works took Milan by storm.
The series touched off a complex game of visual semantics whose rules were muddied by the fact that Warhol’s versions were in many ways clearer than the late-15th-century painting. A controversial restoration earlier in 1986 had left only half of Leonardo’s picture cleaned; the public could arguably get a better view by going to Iolas’ gallery.
At the same time, and underscoring the Pop process of manufacture, the doubled image was a reminder that Warhol’s works were not originals in the traditional sense. This interrogation of originality versus reproduction had come up again and again in his art. The ‘Dollar Bills’ were not dollar bills. The ‘Brillo Boxes’ were not Brillo boxes, exactly. But where to draw the line? By 1986, of course, Leonardo’s Last Supper had become not only part of the art historical canon, but part of popular culture.
The work had featured prominently in the background of Warhol’s own life, too: his mother’s Bible featured a reproduction of the image; another copy apparently hung in the family’s kitchen. It is perhaps no coincidence that in creating this particular Last Supper variation, Warhol worked from a print of an old oil copy of the Renaissance painting — a source already removed from the original, and already a proto-Pop artefact.
It may come as a surprise to many of Warhol’s fans (as it did to some of his friends) to discover that he was deeply religious. He seldom missed mass, and even had an audience with Pope John Paul II in 1980.
In the early 1980s, religious iconography would feature more prominently in Warhol’s art as he began to confront his mortality. Sixty Last Suppers marked the culmination of a process of acceptance: the final image of communion and forgiveness.
To some critics, Warhol’s artistic appropriation of the iconography of advertising and pop culture represented the substitution, in the modern age, of capitalism for religion. But in Sixty Last Suppers, Warhol both celebrated Christianity and injected new life into religious art, charging it with contemporary currency.