In 1985, Andy Warhol was commissioned by his friend and dealer, Alexandre Iolas to create a series of works based on the Last Supper for an exhibition in Milan. The works were shown in a space for the Italian bank, Credito Valtellinese in the former refectory of the Palazzo delle Stelline, which was located directly across the street from Leonardos Renaissance masterpiece in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie.The opportunity to confront Leonardo in this setting was irresistible and proved to be the impetus for Warhol's last great burst of creativity.
Even when using centuries-old subject matter, Warhol's work is invariably tied to contemporary events. For example, when the tour of the Mona Lisa to the United States in 1963 caused a media sensation, Warhol was inspired to create his own versions of the Renaissance icon. Similarly, the controversy surrounding the restoration of Leonardo's Last Supper in the mid-1980s may have played a role in Warhol's choosing to accept the Iolas commission. Warhol himself signed a petition against its restoration in 1986, stating "I only know that it is a mistake to restore the Last Supper: it is unbelievably beautiful just as it is! The old things are always the better ones and should not be changed" (Quoted in Andy Warhol:The Last Supper, Munich 1998, p. 48).
Despite Warhol's original intention to use a photograph of Leonardo's mural for his painting, its deleterious condition caused it to be too dark in reproduction, prompting him to use a reproduction of a copy after the painting. "The actual photo of the Last Supper he used, I bought at a Korean religious store next to the Factory. It was one of those copies of the 19th century version that had been re-done, like you'd buy in Woolworths" a friend of Warhol's recalled. (R. Smith quoted in J. Schellmann, Art from Art, New York 1994, p. 77). In addition to the reproduction's enhanced contrast, the use of a kitsch version of the masterpiece, many times removed from the original provided additional layers of subversion as well as lending an absurd Warholian quality to the entire enterprise.
In this version of the Last Supper, Warhol has also combined this dubious and kistch image of the Leonardo painting with a layer of candy-coloured camouflage. Layering artifice upon artifice in this way he deliberately creates an art-historical enigma. Warhol's use of the shadow and of camouflage in his late work allowed the artist to indulge a long-held desire to create abstract paintings without departing from his own essentially realist vision. For, although both these two important series of works appear abstract, they are in fact both photographically transferred images of 'real' things from the 'real' world. Taking the innovation of his Shadow paintings a step further, Warhol's use of camouflage develops the notion of reality as disguise by offering up a section of army camouflage for scrutiny. Using a sample of fabric purchased from an Army surplus store as his subject, Warhol both playfully satirised the flat patterning of abstract form to be found in the work of the Abstract Expressionists and asked his usual questions about where the borderlines exist between what is considered real and what is not. Here, a device for veiling or for disguise is in fact the reality, in what may be a sardonic reference to the soon to be covered-over and 'restored' Last Supper. Like Gerhard Richter's abstract paintings of the same period, and in particular the artist's earlier abstractions of Titian's Annunciation the Camouflage-abstraction in this painting suggests the idea that the true reality of things is imperceptible and only really interpretable through the approximation of fictive models.
At the same time, like Alighiero Boetti, who also used camouflage with reference to the world of fashion, there is a powerul element of humour in this work as Warhol was highly conscious of camouflage being an Army fashion. The notion of camouflage as a decorative surface is deliberately stressed reflecting a typically camp subversion of the material's conventional macho and military associations. Rendering the camouflage pattern of this work in bright sugary pinks, Warhol has doused the entire image of Leonardo's masterpiece in the camp and garish colours of the fashion world in such a way that the work seems to subvert everything it represents from the 'high' art of the Renaissance and Abstract Expressionism to Christianity and the military. In this way, this work is one of the artist's last great artistic reinventions.