Why Warhol Pops! 🤩💥
After a several monthslong closure of our local art museum due to Covid-19, I am so thrilled that the Speed Art Museum in Louisville re-opened its doors to visitors on July 3rd. As you might guess, I visited on re-opening day with a mask on my face, hand sanitizer in my purse, and following all of their new social distancing rules. The museum hosted its brand new exhibit featuring works of Andy Warhol, which can be viewed through November 29, 2020. What a way to welcome us back!
Who is Andy Warhol?
Andy Warhol was an American artist born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, PA to immigrant parents from Slovakia. He emerged as the leading proponent of the Pop Art Movement in the 1960s. Many of you may know of him as the eclectic guy who painted the Campbell Soup cans or re-printed Marilyn Monroe way too many times! But there is far more to Warhol than that. The current exhibit in Louisville gave me much insight into the complexities of Warhol, which I was not familiar with and which I want to share with you. Interestingly, at least for me, is that he grew up in an Eastern European working-class immigrant community, consisting largely of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, in Pittsburgh and was extremely entrenched in a strict Byzantine Catholic upbringing. He attended church regularly (often daily) with his devout mother, studied the religious iconstasis that is so prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox church, and routinely volunteered at food kitchens for the homeless. Upon finishing college in Pittsburg with a Fine Arts degree, he moved to NYC and landed a job with Glamour Magazine as their ad illustrator, and thereafter with several other fashion magazines such as Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle, McCall's, Seventeen, Rolling Stone, Life, and Esquire. Soon he began looking for a unique way to make a splash onto the fine arts scene and was given the idea to paint everyday objects. He first ignited the pop art world in 1962 with his Campbell's Soup Series, because rumor has it he ate them for lunch every day for 20 years. Ugh! The 32 canvases of painted labels, one for each flavor, were displayed together to appear as products on the grocery shelf.
What is Pop Art?
Artists have incorporated everyday household objects into still life paintings for many centuries prior to Warhol. But it wasn't until Warhol in the 1960s that commercially popularized objects and media-obsessed personalities were celebrated on canvas and print. That was the beginning of the Pop Art Movement and Warhol was its founder. The pope of Pop Art had the eye to know EXACTLY how to depict American culture. Those were the post-war decades in America and the economy was booming. After the Great Depression and the subsequent thrifty years of WWII, people were once again anxious to spend their money, and THAT they did!. Buying and spending became a national obsession. By painting or printing these objects and figures, Warhol not only satirized the public's obsession with items and individuals but also celebrated their fame! So Pop Art really is nothing more than art that depicts things or people that are popular at the time! In popular culture, topics are replicated with such frequency, primarily by the media, that the repetition, alone, elevates the item or person to iconic status. One example of peoples' "obsession with celebrity" is reflected in Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe, already a popular movie star during her life, was elevated to iconic status after her death by overdose in 1962. Warhol's image of her against a gold background evokes the religious tradition of painted icons that he so frequently scrutinized in his church. In Byzantine icons, gold coloring is representative of the eternal light of God. This transformed the Hollywood starlet into a Byzantine Madonna. Warhol actually made many paintings and silk-screen prints of Marilyn Monroe after her death. In Marilyn Monroe 30, he replicated numerous nearly-identical Marilyns by screenprint with variances in shading and coloring. With this, Warhol was trying to exemplify that her image was reproduced SO FREQUENTLY, over and over again, in newspapers, magazines, movies, and TV that her persona was manufactured, commodified and consumed like a product.
Re-Imagining Masterworks in Pop Fashion!
This is the part of the exhibit that particularly fascinated me. Not only was Warhol inspired by the traditional Eastern Byzantine icons that he was regularly exposed to throughout his life, but he also received inspiration from many Western Renaissance masterworks by artists like Leonardo DaVinci, Raphael, and Botticelli. He reinterpreted various components of classic masterpieces with a pop culture twist! Paintings like DaVinci's Annunciation and The Last Supper are two such examples. With muted tones, Davinci's Annunciation is reverent and devout illustrating the meeting of the Angel Gabriel and Mary. Warhol, however, bursts the canvas with bright, bold tones and paints only the space between their gesturing hands. Hence he captures the essence of DaVinci's painting by illustrating the zone where the heavenly and human realms communicate. He even emphasizes the mountain in the background, which Davinci painted as a faded afterthought, by using a pastel lavender.
Warhol also re-worked Davinci's The Last Supper. In fact, he painted and printed over 100 'Last Suppers' in the final years of his life. One message, although I believe of lesser importance, that Warhol was trying to convey with his MANY 'Last Suppers" was that DaVinci's masterpiece had been so extensively reproduced and so heavily marketed that the painting's intended aura and meaning had become blunted or even lost. Excessive commercialization had simply reduced the masterpiece to an object.
Warhol's neon pink and black, two-toned Last Supper diptych reflects his struggles between his faith and his doubt, as well as between his homosexuality and salvation. I think these are the stronger messages of his many Last Supper works. Having been a life-long Byzantine Catholic, he struggled to balance his faith and beliefs with his homosexual lifestyle that was not accepted by his church. In 1986 he painted his pink Last Supper a NEON pink color that was certainly ripe for that decade. Unfortunately, the 80s was also a decade ripe with the AIDS epidemic, particularly effecting the male homosexual community. During that time Warhol witnessed his closest circle of friends confront their mortalities by succumbing to the "Cancer disease" of AIDS (The Big C, as he called it.) He painted numerous Last Suppers in which he isolated Christ and the disappointed downward gaze on His face. Warhol may have sensed that death was near for him, as well, although he ended up dying in 1987 from complications of gallbladder surgery. His Last Supper renditions portray his confrontation with his own mortality.
Reverently Pious meets Kitschy Secular
Warhol reminds us that art is a commodity. Many of his works combine kitschy commercialization with pious topics often dissolving the boundary between the sacred and the profane. He often combined high sacred art with lowly commercial design. Warhol's art centers on the mystery of transformation. His transformations were simple images that he carefully constructed with the intention to obscure a more complex vision. From Jesus nightlights to Pope commemorative buttons to Marilyn Monroe and Muhammed Ali votive candles, Warhol brings to view the spending obsessed consumer culture of America.
When reviewing Warhol's art throughout his lifetime, his genius was his ability to transform the everyday boring items into icons and to transcend the celebrity into the sacred. By using Byzantine iconography as a foundation for his imagery, he imbued mundane objects, as well as media-propelled celebrities, with the real presence attributed to icons. Through his imagery, Warhol also revealed his real-life struggle between the deep faith that was instilled within him and his sexuality which was at odds with it.