During the final year of his life, Andy Warhol devoted himself with obsessive zeal to creating works after Leonardo da Vinci's famed mural The Last Supper. It would turn out to be Warhol's last great series, as he died in early 1987, soon after a selection of these works premiered at an exhibition. Warhol was attracted to Leonardo's masterwork because, as he explained in a final interview, "It's a good picture. It's something that you see all the time. You don't think about it" (A. Warhol, quoted in P. Taylor, "Andy Warhol: The Last Interview," reprinted in Andy Warhol: The Late Work, exh. cat., Düsseldorf, 2004, p. 119). In his version of The Last Supper, Warhol takes an image that has become familiar to the point of banality, and transforms it through his signature format of the repetitive silkscreen. He offers a fresh and provocative meditation on both the Renaissance masterpiece and religion's role in contemporary art and life.
The present work is an especially powerful example of Warhol's Last Supper series, its composition reduced to a spare monochromatic color scheme that allows for dramatically different inflections of the subject in the contrast between the black on white and black on black canvases. The diptych format has strong religious connotations, familiar from Christian devotional altarpieces. Yet the exact nature of Warhol's commentary on religion in the modern world remains tantalizingly ambiguous. In his hands, The Last Supper could imply a critique of the commodification of a religious image, stand as a veneration of the celebrity-like status of the painting, or even offer a Pop celebration of Warhol's own religious faith.
In the mid-1980s, Warhol became fascinated with the idea of making artworks after various paintings from the history of art, translating them into his own Pop vocabulary through the silkscreen. In his "Art from Art" series, illustrations from art history texts took the place of the commercial images or press photos that he so brilliantly manipulated in his art since the early 1960s. Warhol was inspired to use Leonardo's Last Supper upon the suggestion of Alexandre Iolas, one of his first gallerists, who had relocated to Milan. Warhol immersed himself in the project with a passion that far exceeded the exhibition's demands. Some of the silkscreen compositions were included in the exhibition, which opened on January 22, 1987 to an enthusiastic audience. The show was held in the gallery of a bank in the Palazzo Stelline across the street from the famed church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, on whose refectory wall Leonardo painted his mural. Visitors were invited to visit the original, which was partially obscured since it was in the process of being restored, although very few took up the offer. Instead, several thousand visitors swarmed Warhol's exhibition, hoping to catch a glimpse of the "Pope of Pop" himself, turning it into a media frenzy. While in Milan, Warhol fell ill and returned to New York, where a month later he died from complications following gall bladder surgery.
In The Last Supper, Warhol engages in a dialogue with one of Christianity's most famous and ubiquitous images, and one which also had personal significance. Warhol was raised in a Byzantine Rite Catholic community in Pittsburgh, and a reproduction of Leonardo's painting hung on the wall of his family's home. His mother also included a mass card depicting the painting in her old Slavic prayer book. Warhol indeed drew on such widely available and inexpensive reproductions, rather than on photographs of the original mural. The source for the silkscreen, according to his assistant Rupert Smith, was a photograph of a 19th Century copy of the painting found in a shop that sold devotional items, located near the Factory. By repeating the image on a single canvas, Warhol both referred to the image's mass circulation, while also recognizing that there was a transgressive element in doubling the figure of Christ in a single canvas (ibid., p. 118), leaving an open-ended question about whether there is a loss or gain in the image's spiritual aura due to its endless repetition.
Concomitantly with its seemingly endless reproduction, Leonardo's masterpiece had gradually become less and less visible, recognized since the 16th Century as deteriorating due to the artist's experimental choice of mediums, then later damaged by bombs during World War II. Also, overpainting and restoration work obscured what remained of the original painting. Warhol, in fact, joined the protest against the ongoing restoration by signing a petition shortly before his death. The diptych's black on black side conjures a melancholy mood that both underlines the painting's own slow death, and the narrative moment of Christ revealing he will be betrayed. In the black on white side of the canvas, the silkscreen's smoky ink offers a mechanized counterpart to the expressive sfumato technique that Leonardo famously developed, and provided clarity of image that the original no longer had.
Warhol remained a devoted Catholic throughout his life, to the surprise of many who believed he only worshipped at the altar of celebrity and commerce. Indeed, his memorial service was held at St. Patrick's cathedral in New York. He had a habit of making brief but regular visits to various churches in the city such as St. Vincent Ferrer, where he would often stop by several times a week and hover incognito in the back row. "Church is a fun place to go," Warhol claimed (ibid., p. 121). Indeed, his first exposure to art was through looking at painted icons in church as a boy, an influence that would reemerge in his vision of Pop saints such as Marilyn, Elvis and Jackie. Warhol's embrace of the image of The Last Supper at the end of his life in many ways brought him full circle.