April 10, 2017
One of the things that makes Leonardo da Vinci’s fraught and perpetually flaking masterpiece The Last Supper so figuratively enduring lies in the way it manages to represent several thorny convergences. The most obvious: the trompe l’oeil lines of perspective that seem to extend the room where da Vinci painted it, converging on a vanishing point in the distance. Then there is the subject matter: Jesus and the twelve disciples assembling for a Passover meal on the night before his crucifixion. There’s a contentious convergence: religious scholars and others eternally arguing whether the real Last Supper was actually a Passover seder or what exactly the real Last Supper’s best-known spinoff (the Catholic rite of the Eucharist) symbolizes. And there’s the questionable one: a host of secret symbols possibly hiding in da Vinci’s tableau, colluding to foreshadow some dark conspiracy, as hypothesized in pop fiction like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Last but not least, there’s the literal convergence: the painting being an ill-fated collision of da Vinci’s scientific and artistic impulses. The artist painted it, circa 1496, using a then-new and unproved technique of painting not with fresco, or wet plaster, but secco, or dry plaster. The result was an artistic tour de force that had already begun deteriorating while da Vinci was still alive. The myriad restoration efforts undertaken in the centuries since have often made matters worse—not to mention the bizarre 1652 decision to put a door through it, or the 1943 bomb that destroyed the ceiling above it but left it intact. For a painting infamous for flaking away, The Last Supper has long legs and many layers.
This year, with the holiday weeks of Easter and Passover (which begins today, April 10) overlapping perfectly, the convergence count is not only higher, it is more complex. In Milan, for the first time in thirty years, one of Andy Warhol’s storied Last Supper paintings is on display at Museo del Novecento through May 18. The series was first exhibited in 1987 in a gallery across the street from the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where da Vinci’s painting is located.
Over the last three decades, Warhol’s Last Supper paintings have taken on a kind of totemic significance, owing not just to their monumental size (Sixty Last Suppers is one of the largest, almost three feet wider than the twenty-nine-foot da Vinci) or pregnant subject matter, but to the fateful air of tragedy around them: they were the last paintings Warhol finished and the last ones he showed.
That legacy has taken on new significance with a recent New York Times story by Blake Gopnik shedding new light on the circumstances of the artist’s sudden death at 58. After the opening in Milan in late January of 1987, Warhol had returned to the US, tired and drained. Suffering from a long-weakened gallbladder, Warhol put off going to the hospital as long as possible. But by the time he was admitted, Gopnick’s article revealed, gangrene had set in. The overdue operation to remove the gallbladder was a success, but Warhol’s debilitated immune system wasn’t up to the challenge of recovery. He died later that same night, February 22.
But lest Dan Brown read this and start obsessing over the eerie 2/22 date or the presence of corporate symbols on some of the Last Supper canvases and start theorizing that GE is, say, the modern incarnation of Opus Dei, hold your horses. Warhol had a bit of fun mixing the pop with the papal, and used logos that could be interpreted simply: the Wise owl-eye or the GE swirl for the Father, say, or the Dove soap logo for the Holy Ghost. There are no conspiracy theories here.
But there are plenty of intriguing convergences in the Last Supper works, explains Jessica Beck, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh who helped organize the Sixty Last Suppers exhibition and who argues that the series can be viewed as a key to the Gospel according to Andy.
Having curated the provocative and illuminating 2016 show at the Warhol Museum, Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body, Beck was primed to pick up on any overlooked aspects in the works. Much of the discourse addressing his Last Suppers has tended to focused on Warhol’s relatively unknown religious side, that he was raised Byzantine Catholic and went to church every Sunday. This aspect of the artist has been explored in books like The Religious Art of Andy Warhol (1998) and been trumpeted by religious scholars eager to make a claim for the soul of the twentieth century’s most influential artist.
This interpretation of the religious works has led some Warhol watchers to discount the series as glib and facile Catholic kitsch. But neither viewpoint holds water, said Beck, detailing that Warhol’s engagement with the subject matter verged on obsession. The Last Supper series began in 1984 as a commission from the Milan-based gallerist Alexandre Iolas, but Warhol kept working on it long after the commission was fulfilled, turning out a huge body of work yielding more than 100 pieces over a two-year period.
Da Vinci’s original painting having been in particularly bad shape at the time, Warhol used a variety of second- and third-generation source materials, including a painted plaster rendering of the scene bought in Times Square and a photo of a diagrammed engraving from Cyclopedia of Painters and Painting (1913). He also used projectors to draw and paint the scenes and characters freehand for the series and returned to painting directly on some of the canvases instead of relying on silkscreen. There was nothing facile about the works.
For one thing, the da Vinci painting represented intensely familiar emotional ground. A reproduction of the painting had hung in his mother’s kitchen when he was a child, and another one, in the form of a prayer card, was the bookmark in her bible, which Warhol kept close to him after her death.
But as Beck explains in a story in the upcoming May issue of the Gagosian Quarterly, there are far more complex and fascinating convergences to be seen in Warhol’s work, surprisingly intertwining several disparate themes.
“The Christ paintings have been interpreted as a secret unveiling of Warhol’s religious life,” said Beck. But as My Perfect Body showed, Warhol’s complicated relationship with his physical life was a far more fertile and forceful aspect of his world.
“I really started to unpack all these ideas about beauty and pain and perfection, as well as desire and seduction,” said Beck, having just returned from the March 24 opening of the Last Supper show. “Then I got really interested in the AIDS epidemic and Warhol’s reaction to it. And I also started looking at how his religious imagery has these sexualized undertones, recalling depictions of Christ as this perfect body, lean and muscular.”
Warhol’s own strained relationship to his body and mortality began in 1968 when he was shot and almost killed by the deranged actress Valerie Solanas. The incident took a great toll on Warhol, haunting him mentally and physically. He never fully recovered, having to wear a rupture band —a girdle-like compression undergarment—to keep his torso’s organs stable, and he did whatever he could to avoid doctors and hospitals.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when gay men in New York and other cities started dying of a new, mysterious ailment, Beck said, that Warhol’s fear of sickness and death seemed to snowball.
“You can see it right there in The Warhol Diaries,” said Beck. “When gay men started dying of this and there started being stories about it in the paper, there was a lot of fear involved—and a lot of fear in it for Warhol, who talked specifically about being afraid of getting ‘gay cancer,’ which is what AIDS was first called.”
Indeed, in a 1984 entry in The Warhol Diaries about Warhol’s last longtime boyfriend Jon Gould having pneumonia, Warhol talks about having his housekeeper wash their clothes and dishes separately. Gould died of AIDS two years later at the age of thirty-three—the same age that Christ is said to have died, coincidentally—while Warhol was immersed in the Last Supper series. “I don’t think he went to the funeral,” said Beck. “There was this sense that people had told him that Jon died, but that he already knew and didn’t want to hear about it.”
And yet in works from the series that pair Christ with another Warhol-favorite image of a bodybuilder (often proclaiming Be A Somebody with a Body!), Warhol does seem to be aware of and want to explore both his denial of death and desire for youth. Beck sees Gould, a handsome, devoted gymgoer who ended up weighing just 70 pounds at death, as standing in for both the Christ and bodybuilder figures, representing both strength and decay, vanity and virtue, the ephemeral and the eternal.
“In the four-year period they were together, there are so many photos of Jon—Jon in a speedo, Jon looking very fit, Jon working out in the park,” said Beck. “Sometimes I think that the bodybuilder who stands next to Christ in some of the paintings is Jon. At the same time—because the body becomes such an important part of the story of Christ—for Warhol the whole body was also very closely related with pain. Remember that after the shooting he had to wear that rupture band every day of his life.”
Certainly there is no shortage of dark symbolism in the Warhol oeuvre, from the 1960s disaster pieces to the 1970s memento-mori skulls to the 1980s guns, funeral crosses, and more. The last works that Warhol is considered to have authored were a series of 120 prints for Parkett magazine, which were supposed to have represented something typically Swiss. The mailed package, opened the day after the artist’s death, was found to contain prints of skeletons. (Memento mori, indeed.)
Today, the Skeletons prints look more joking than haunting, as do some other pieces in the religious canon. That’s decidedly not the case with the somber and formal Sixty Last Suppers, which has a reserve and dignity. Even at 1:60 scale, the classic Warholian repetition rendered in simple black-and-white, reinforces the striking geometry and pictorial structure of the original image, suggesting some of the reasons that da Vinci’s doomed masterpiece has had such a lasting presence, and drawing entirely new lines of perspective towards a more intangible and thought-provoking vanishing point. Copied from copies of copies, Warhol’s Last Suppers easily have as many layers (and maybe legs as long) as da Vinci’s original.
Andy Warhol: Sixty Last Suppers is on view at the Museo de Novecento through May 18, 2017.