The Faith of Andy Warhol

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Andy Warhol was a devout Catholic.

That's a weird sounding sentence, isn't it? It doesn't say that Warhol -- the hipster icon, godfather of Pop Art, and gay trailblazer -- was a lapsed Catholic. Or an indifferent Catholic. Or ironic Catholic.

It says that Warhol was a devout Catholic. He prayed and went to Mass. He volunteered in a soup kitchen. Andy Warhol was a believer.

I was reminded of Warhol's Catholicism recently when I was witness to two supposedly incongruous exhibits. The first is in the form of a book, the just-published Andy Warhol: The Complete Commissioned Magazine Work. This is a massive, gorgeous volume that collects all of Warhol's magazine work. It covers Warhol's entire career (the artist died in 1987); particularly good is the art Warhol produced as a young artist in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. In the days before the digital revolution a talented artist could actually go to Manhattan and get steady paying gigs.

Warhol did work for McCall's, Glamour, Bazaar, and these fashion drawings, magazine covers, and Christmas renderings are the most charming art he ever created. Before doing silly things like painting soup cans and Brillo boxes, part of the Pop Art scene he created, Warhol was a real working artist. 

On almost the same day that The Complete Commissioned Magazine Work was released, a new exhibit was mounted at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. This fall the Shrine is displaying the art of the Byzantine-Ruthenian church. Ruthenians were a small group of Eastern Catholics who eventually became incorporated into Czechoslovakia. Byzantine Catholics are known for creating and venerating dazzlingly gorgeous religious icons, portraits showered in golden light that depict the saints. Ruthenian art is a part of this tradition, and is on display in all its splendor at the Shrine.

Andy Warhol's family was Byzantine-Ruthenian, and in the early 20th century they came to America, settling in a Catholic section of Pittsburgh. Warhol's mother Julia was deeply pious, attending St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. She took her children to Mass, and encouraged Andy, who was sick a lot as a child, to learn how to draw. Warhol drew pictures, went to church, and cut out magazine pictures of movie stars. In those three elements we find his entire life's work.

Warhol moved to New York in 1949. He then went on to become the most famous artists of the latter 20th century. Warhol is associated with irony, disco, Pop Art paintings of everyday objects like Campbell's soup cans, and cool. But he never lost the faith. Even during his high-flying Studio-54 days, Warhol would appear at Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer several mornings a week -- and as a volunteer at soup kitchens. When his mother moved to New York to live with him, Warhol would warn visiting guests not to curse. Warhol also paid for his nephew to go through seminary and become a priest.

A good, if rare, overview of Warhol's faith is Jane Daggett Dillenberger's book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol. There is an entire section dedicated to the over one hundred drawings Warhol made of the Last Supper. When Warhol died in 1987, his eulogist John Richardson said that there were "two Andy Warhols" -- the whimsical Pop Art celebrity and the shy and pious Christian.

It's unfortunate that the saintly Warhol has been lost to the Pop Art Warhol. Particularly lovely in The Complete Commissioned Magazine Work are Warhol's Christmas illustrations; to my eye, they are much more beautiful than anything Warhol produced during his period of highest fame, the reproductions of Brillo boxes and Day-glo portraits of notables like Mick Jagger and Mao.

But the secular world has claimed Warhol as its own, and it's almost impossible to retrieve someone once they are launched into the modern firmament of hip. When I visited the Byzantine-Ruthenian exhibit at the Shrine, a women saw me taking some film footage and asked what I was doing. I said that I was there doing a story on Andy Warhol. She got a disapproving look on her face, and slowly walked away. The synapses in her brain were unable to comprehend what Warhol could have to do with St. John Chrysostom.

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