“When [Warhol’s] Last Supper was displayed in Milan, in a kind of citywide two-man show with Leonardo, 30,000 people flocked to see it, hardly any of whom went to see the ‘other’ Last Supper…. When the final multivolume Popular History of Art is published, ours will be the Age of Warhol—an unlikely giant, but a giant nonetheless”
“I enjoyed working with him, with his Last Supper, but nowadays there are no artists who can be compared with his genius; the new Leonardos are Armani, Krizia and the other Italian designers.”
The final tour-de-force of Andy Warhol’s illustrious career, Sixty Last Suppers reclaims the ghosted image of the painting that ushered in the Renaissance—challenging Leonardo as to whose canvases was fresher and more powerful. Made in the last year of the artist’s life, Sixty Last Suppers emerges as a final encapsulation of many of the tenets which defied the artist’s celebrated career. 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. For Warhol, who had riffed off da Vinci’s Mona Lisa decades earlier, the opportunity to confront Leonardo in this setting was an irresistible opportunity that proved to be the impetus for the Pop master’s last great burst of creativity.
For the exhibition entitled Warhol—Il Cenacolo, which ran from January 22, 1987 through March 21, 1987. Enraptured with his new subject, Warhol executed two series based on two distinct sources. The first, a series of silkscreens derived from a 19th century copy the da Vinci from which Sixty Last Suppers, The Last Supper (Pink) (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh), and The Camouflage Last Supper (Menil Collection, Houston) belong, and a second series of hand painted works molded after a line drawing, from which The Last Supper (Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Last Supper / Be Somebody with a Body (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh) belong. While only twenty-two of the multitudes of paintings and prints that Warhol had created around the theme were displayed at the Credito Valtellinese, it is estimated that nearly 30,000 visitors flocked to see what would be both the artist and the gallerists last exhibition. Upon his return to New York, Warhol passed away following a gall-bladder operation on February 22, 1987, shortly thereafter Iolas succumbed to AIDS. “The exhibition was a farewell, agood-bye,” explained Corinna Thierolf, “as shocking as it was wonderful, from which this Last Supper series subsequently derived a quality of mysterious enchantment. The theme immediately calls to mind Christ prophesying his own death at the last meal in the company of his disciples. This parallel challenged a number of fans and interpreters of Warhol’s art to attempt to uncover a hitherto secret hiding place in the soul of the artist, who, although known to have come from a very religious family, appeared to have defined his life’s goal in terms of the dictum ‘I want to be a machine’—a purpose that stands in clear contradiction to the transubstantiation believed to have taken place at the Last Supper” (C. Thierolf, “All the Catholic Things,” in C. Schulz-Hoffmann (ed.), Andy Warhol: The Last Supper, exh. cat., Bayerische
Staatsgemaldesammlungen, 1998, p. 24).
By the time Warhol appropriated Leonardo’s Last Supper, it had long been part of popular culture. Turning to the cheapened household copies, Warhol recreated the classical image over and over with revitalized vigor. Indeed, the photograph of the venerated mural that Warhol implemented as the basis for his silkscreened pictures was a reproduction of an engraving that is most closely linked to a widely-distributed copy of the original Leonardo done by Raphael Morghen in the 1800s. Warhol’s decision to use a copy of the original was in part due to necessity. As his studio assistant at the time, Rupert Smith explained, “Andy worked on the project on and off for a year from photographs, but I could never get a really great photograph out of the real Last Supper books because the images were always so dark” (R. Smith, quoted in J. Schellmann, Andy Warhol: Art from Art, Cologne, 1994, p. 77). However, Warhol soon became enamored with the quest to find cheap knockoffs of the Renaissance masterpiece. In one…updated Vasari type book,” Smith continued, “we found line drawings of every famous painting. Andy used that because it gave a clear definition. He also used a kind of maquette, a sculpture of The Last Supper we found on the New Jersey turnpike in one of those gas stations; it was white, made to look like marble, but it was really plastic. I think I paid $13 for it. And then Andy found another one in the Time Square area where the Mediterranean Iranian rug dealers sell Christian paraphernalia and towels and electronic gear on the side. He said to pay a couple thousand for it; it was big and all enameled. Andy photographed this one thinking we would use it, but 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” (R. Smith, quoted in J. Schellmann, Andy Warhol: Art from Art, Cologne, 1994, p. 77).
Indeed, in turning his found copies into a copy of his own, Warhol became part of the infinite legacy of Leonardo’s own Last Supper—the collective of an icon written and rewritten throughout history. “Yet among all the reworkings of The Last Supper,” Francesca Bonazzoli has explained “the one that remains exemplary is the clever iconographic use to which Andy Warhol put it in the last exhibition before his death…. Warhol’s idea was to work on the added value of Leonardo’s image. Producing multiple reproductions of a photo of a copy that was itself a copy of the original only served to confirm The Last Supper’s fetishistic value. Like miraculous images, the image-icon does not need to be authentic in order to become a fetish and exercise its power of attraction for the public. Warhol thus revealed the inherent quality of Leonardo’s Last Supper: its existence as an image that can always be interpreted, modified, and reproduced. It is a fetish for mass veneration, one whose fame has grown more through imitation than through direct observation of the original” (F. Bonazzoli and M. Robecchi, Mona Lisa to Marge, Munich, 2014, p. 45).
In early 1962 Warhol exhibited a series of single Campbell Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, building on this rhythm the artist spent much of that year and part of 1963 exploring the nature of repeating imagery. Perhaps inspired by the visual bombardment of seeing row upon row of products displayed on supermarket shelves, Warhol began to explore the seriality of the soup can—printing up to 200 cans on a single canvas. Thus, an enduring fascination began with serial composition and the aesthetic qualities of repeated imagery. A recognition of Warhol’s belief in the power of the image, this motif would extend through his most famous works, including his paintings of Hollywood stars, self-portraits, car crashes, suicides and flowers. By multiplying his subjects, Warhol attested that their resonance could permeate through the generations. Over emphasizing the mass-produced and over popularized qualities of his subjects, Warhol’s deliberate repetition sought to create a numbness akin to the barrage of information constantly pushed by American advertising. Indeed, the Pop master’s explorations of seriality would become one of the most paramount and enduring tenets of his career, reaching a visual apex in his final masterpiece Sixty Last Suppers.
Here, Warhol’s serial work subverts the very notion of original representation as it aspires to the “unpresentable presentation” of the infinite (J. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. G. Bennington and I. McLeod, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 125). There is no limit to this image. By completely covering the canvas with images, Warhol suggests that the picture plane continues into infinity and that there are always more images beyond the frame. Indeed, this implied repetition exterior to the painting takes place in the imagination. Gilles Deleuze points out that “repetition is itself in essence imaginary... it makes that which it contacts appear as elements or cases of repetition” (G. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, New York, 1994, p. 76). What is here substantiated is an imaginary instance of Leonardo’s Last Supper beyond its past, future, and cultural ubiquity. By infinitely multiplying the image on one canvas, Warhol makes the viewer even more immediately aware that the image is a replicate by showing a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Reproducing sixty images of The Last Supper on one canvas reveals the already infinite nature of the act of copying. Moreover, these repetitions are rendered by Warhol in a grid pattern which implies the infinite through the Euclidian geometry of the picture plane where the parallel lines never meet and infinite perpendiculars frame the same image. Reveling in the nature of seriality, Warhol shows a prescient understanding of the past and the future of the images in this work. The work as a whole, rather than the singular silkscreen, is analogous to the Nietzschean moment—the gateway from which eternal recurrence precedes and recedes--since the painted canvas is the object of an infinite artwork come into being as a tangible presence, a commodifiable object.
Additionally, as with his serial screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Marlon Brando and his Death and Disaster series, the repetition found in Sixty Last Suppers echoes the contemporary media that Warhol was so fond of. From the photograph to film, television and even the Amiga computer, Warhol had—since the 1960s—fully embraced the visual complexity of the technical world. While in these earlier examples the overlapping vertical screens often appeared to mimic the 16mm celluloid film strip, Sixty Last Suppers—with its abutting black-and-white rectangles— evokes stacks of miniature television screens with the details of Leonardo’s image faded by their shadows. Indeed, by the time Sixty Last Suppers was painted, Warhol had fully embraced TV, launching his own Warhol TV which aired from 1980 to 1982. While the movement of the repeated images in his works from the 1960s serve to heighten and confuse the trauma of the original “The grid in Sixty Last Suppers is clean, without blur or overlap, and the dark shadows give the image a soft glow echoing that of a television screen. The repetition here is static, locking the image in time” (A. McDonald (ed.), Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2017, p. 88). Referencing the Leonardo’s mass circulation, while also recogn izing the transgressive element in multiplying the figure of Christ repeatedly over a single canvas, Warhol leaves his viewer with an openended question about whether there is a loss or gain the image’s spiritual aura at the hands of endless repetition.
Deeply attune to mortality throughout much of his career, Warhol painted his first Death and Disaster works in the summer of 1962. “That’s enough affirmation of life,” Henry Geldzahler reportedly said to the artist. “It’s enough affirmation of soup and Coke bottles. Maybe everything isn’t always so fabulous in America. It’s time for some death. This is what’s really happening” (H. Geldzahler quoted in V. Bockris, The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, London, 1989, p. 169). With the help of an opaque projector, Warhol translated the front page of the New York Mirror into the monumental, hand-painted image 129 Die in Jet. Brusquely rendered in black and white, this gaunt and domineering canvas leant artistic permanence to the never-ending stream of banner headlines announcing the tragedies of late-twentieth century society. Over the course of two years, Warhol created a striking array of pictures devoted to the grim, dispiriting and mournful realities of life in modern, industrialized America: an electric chair in Sing Sing Prison; corpses amidst the wreckage of crashed cars; suicide victims; people killed by contaminated canned food; quasi-religious tributes to Marilyn Monroe in the aftermath of her suicide; an atomic explosion; a funeral for a gangster; and the brutal treatment of civil rights protesters in Alabama. By turning to silkscreens to reproduce authentic journalistic images on the surface of painted canvases Warhol gave all these subjects an air of grating ambivalence: painful photographic “truth” hijacked by art and artifice.
Predominantly focused on the routine ghastliness of his times, namely capital punishment, fatal accidents, and angst, Warhol contended, “I thought that people ought to think about them: the girl who jumped off the Empire State Building, the women who ate poisoned tuna, the car crash victims. It’s not that I feel sorry for them, it’s just that people go by and it doesn’t really matter to them that someone unknown was killed, so I thought it would be nice for these unknown people to be remembered by those who ordinarily wouldn’t think of them. I still care about people but it would be much easier not to care, it’s too hard to care” (A. Warhol quoted in P. Gidal, Andy Warhol: Films and Paintings, New York, 1971, p. 38). With hindsight, it becomes clear that the greater part of Warhol’s painted oeuvre has a connection to the theme of mortality. In addition to the notion of sustenance, his pictures of mass-produced food items suggested the cycles of economic life and consumer loyalty. His pictures of celebrities inevitably evoked the brief heyday of a professional career, and the portraits he produced on commission glamorously stopped the march of time. The shooting of Warhol in 1968 brought him close to death, underscoring his unflinching obsessions with doom and glamour, and inspiring regularly returns to “Death and Disaster” themes. Sometimes his approach was alarmingly blunt, as in the series of paintings devoted to skulls, knives, guns, and crosses. Even when he produced pictures that were endearingly decorative and ironically “abstract” he dealt with richly symbolic subjects and materials: brooding shadows; the silhouettes of eggs; tangled webs of yarn; drips and splashes of urine; baroque remakes of Rorschach tests; and camouflage designs he explored to when AIDS took hold. In 1986, for what were to be his last self-portraits, Warhol turned his own face into a harrowing evocation of the endless struggle between life and death.
It is in this vein that The Last Supper paintings that Warhol executed at the end of his life are perhaps the most symbolic homages to the theme of Death and Disaster. In selecting the most iconic image in the history of art of the events that led up the betrayal and subsequent crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Warhol alludes to the death of a figure that would significantly change the course of history throughout the world.
An upstanding member of art history, part of the canon and a star of popular culture, it is not so much a coincidental result that the endemic vision of Leonardo’s Last Supper had already featured prominently in the background of Warhol’s life as his mother is known to have had a reproduction of the image in her bible, and another copy hung on the walls of the family’s kitchen. Very much a part of the Pop master’s own private universe, this iconic image from his childhood had formed a recurrent background throughout the artist’s life. Thus, it was not only the cult status and the undertones of human mortality that appealed to Warhol, but the content as well. Though common fact now, during his life, it was a surprise for many of Warhol’s fans—and even some of his friends—to discover that he was a deeply religious man. Indeed, Warhol seldom missed mass, and his trips to various churches were often chronicled in his, now famous, diary.
A devout Catholic, who had grown up within the Ruthenian community in Pittsburgh, Warhol made a pilgrimage to Vatican City in 1980. “Fred and I had to leave for our private audiences with the pope,” Warhol would write in his diary. “We got our tickets and then the driver dropped us off at the Vatican…. They finally took us to our seats with the rest of the 5,000 people and a nun screamed out, ‘You’re Andy Warhol! Can I have your autograph?’ She looked like Valerie Solanis [sic] so I got scared she’d pull a gun and shoot me. Then I had to sign five more autographs for other nuns…. Then finally the pope was coming our way. He shook everybody’s hand and Fred kissed his ring and I got Suzie’s cross blessed…and he shook my hand and I said I was from New York, too. I didn’t kiss his hand…. The mob behind us were jumping down from their seats, it was scary. As soon as Fred and I got blessed we ran out” (Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, April 2, 1980).
During the early 1980s, religious imagery and memento mori began to feature again and again in Warhol’s art as he came to confront his own mortality. Gradually, this bleakness of vision, this dark awareness of death, gave way to a more accepting attitude and an interest in redemption and salvation. Several religious figures and paintings came to appear in his art, including several Madonna images. The Last Supper marked the culmination of this process, the final image of communion, forgiveness, sacrifice and—in Leonardo’s depiction—harmony. In fact, his own medical doctors had for some years recommended surgery for the artist’s diseased gall bladder, but Warhol continuously resisted. As the author, Stephen Koch observed Warhol was “gripped by a phobic belief that he would not survive it.” This premonition derived from his near fatal attack when, in 1968, Valerie Solanas shot the artist. A feminist writer whose works included the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM was an acronym for “Society for Cutting Up Men”), Solanas hovered on the fringes of Warhol’s Factory crowd, even appearing in one of his films. On June 3, 1968, she appeared at the Factory and, when Warhol appeared, she shot at him and at his friends, also hitting Mario Amaya. Though three shots were fired at the artist, a single bullet had ricocheted through his spleen, liver, pancreas, esophagus, and both lungs when Solanas had corned the artist underneath his desk, holding the gun against his flesh. Rushed to the hospital, Warhol’s heart stopped on the operating table and as Koch further explained, “in Warhol’s sense of things, he had died and then been brought back, as if God had reconsidered and on second thought returned his life on loan…. He would live the rest of his life feeling a sense of metaphysical specialness and an accompanying metaphysical terror” (S. Koch, quoted in J. Daggett Dillenberger, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, New York, 1998, p. 37). On February 22, 1987, following the gall bladder surgery he was so reluctant to get, for fear of dying on the operating table for the second time in his life, Andy Warhol passed away in the recovery room. His series based on The Last Supper was the last he was ever to paint.
To some critics, Warhol’s Pop imagery appears as a new generation of icons and talismans for the godless modern age. These are replacements in the time of Capitalism for the religious paintings of bygone days. Warhol himself often acknowledged that the United States were a nation fueled by shopping, by money, by possessions. This resulted in his adaptation of advertising images and their conversion, in his hands, into art. This is often used to stress Warhol’s cynicism, his criticism of the systems at play in the modern world. Yet much of the time Warhol was celebrating the United States and celebrating the capitalism in which he thrived. Likewise, if the iconic nature of Warhol’s images is derived from the presence of religious art during his childhood, they are nonetheless far from blasphemy. Instead, Last Supper has become a celebration of religious art. It is in keeping with this that John Richardson, in his eulogy for Warhol, would point to the impact he had in refreshing the outmoded icons of religion. Leonardo’s Last Supper has been reborn for the modern world, reimagined, reinvigorated, charged with contemporary currency. In this way, Warhol injected new life into religious art.