Jessica Beck is the Associate Curator of Art at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. She has curated many projects, most notably Andy Warhol: My Perfect Body, the first exhibition to explore the complexities of the body, through beauty, pain, and perfection, in Warhol’s practice.
I’ve got these desperate feelings that nothing means anything. And then I decide that I should try to fall in love, and that’s what I’m doing now with Jon Gould, but then it’s just too hard.
— Andy Warhol, diary entry, 1981
He became more and more like a medieval alchemist searching—not so much for the philosopher’s stone as for the elixir of youth.
— John Richardson, “Eulogy for Andy Warhol,” 1987
In the final decade of his life, Andy Warhol returned with gusto to painting, working freehand on a dramatic scale. Sealing his place within the canon, he spent this period engaging contemporary issues of technology and politics while also making copies after the masters Botticelli, de Chirico, and Raphael. But none of these subjects could compare in number to the more than 100 paintings in Warhol’s Last Supper series, produced between 1984 and 1986. The dilemma with the current literature on these paintings is that it often makes little reference, and in some cases no reference at all, to the major crisis affecting Warhol’s community at the time of their completion: the AIDS epidemic. The ambiguity in the literature on Warhol’s subject matter in the last decade of his career stems in part from the conflict between his Catholic faith and his homosexuality. This tension is often ignored in discussions of the work, with the result that the paintings appear one-dimensional. Once these issues are brought to the forefront, a broad discussion of mortality and salvation can emerge as the crux of the Last Supper paintings.
In 1984, the art dealer Alexander Iolas, an Egyptian-born former ballet dancer and an eccentric collector of Surrealist and other early modernist art, commissioned Warhol to create a series of paintings and prints based on Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Last Supper. Warhol’s final exhibition during his lifetime, Warhol—Il Cenacolo, featured twenty-two of these works and was staged in 1987 in the refectory of Milan’s Palazzo delle Stelline, which then housed the bank Credito Valtellinese. The venue was selected for its proximity to Leonardo’s masterwork, which was painted in 1495–98 just across the street, in the refectory of the Dominican cloister Santa Maria delle Grazie.1 While only two dozen works were exhibited at the opening, Warhol had spent two years, most of 1985 and 1986, producing over 100 additional renditions of The Last Supper. The commission, the last of the artist’s career, became a near obsession for him. In prophetic fashion, these images of the eve of Christ’s crucifixion marked the end of Warhol’s own career and, indeed, his life. Just a month after returning to New York from the opening in Milan, he was admitted to the hospital for gallbladder surgery and died.
The materials Warhol produced in relation to The Last Supper are remarkable for their quantity and their diversity, including works on paper, large-scale paintings, and even sculpture. Within the series two distinct styles emerge, one that stayed true to Leonardo’s original by screen-printing the source image on canvas, the other departing from it by combining hand-painted images of Christ with commercial-brand-logos and text pulled from newspaper headlines and advertisements. Ultimately both versions present commentaries on suffering, one through repetition, the other through signs and symbols.
Few works of art are as celebrated and studied as The Last Supper, yet the original as Leonardo executed it on the refectory wall has not existed for 500 years.2 Painted with an experimental technique on dry plaster, the image began to deteriorate within a few years after its completion. Shifting trends in conservation and decades of painstaking repair have only succeeded in salvaging select details. Yet time has not muted the emotional vibrancy of the disciples, or the complexity of the perspectival lines and dueling gestures among the figures’ hands and feet, which symbolically point within and beyond the pictorial field. No matter how faded by age, these elements continue to perplex and inspire art enthusiasts and scholars worldwide. Art historian Leo Steinberg contended that the strength of Leonardo’s masterwork lies in its inherent duplicity: since the nineteenth century, writers have argued over which event—the reveal of Christ’s betrayer or the celebration of the Eucharist—is more clearly indexed by the dramatic gestures among the disciples.3 Adding to the sustained interest in the work is the way it’s studied, often from copies—engravings and other reproductions—that have varied over time as the original has deteriorated. Leonardo’s Last Supper is a kind of meaning machine. Although Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers (1986) was not exhibited at the Palazzo, it is one of his strongest assessments of this multiplicity of meanings at work in Leonardo’s original.
Sixty Last Suppers is a modern image that oscillates between flatness and illusionistic depth, ideas that lie at the heart of Renaissance painting. This monumental work is dramatically rendered in stark black and white. Taking as his source the Cyclopedia of Painters and Paintings, first published in 1885, Warhol screen-printed that book’s facsimile of an earlier engraving of The Last Supper in a tightly structured grid sixty times across the canvas.4 In the way he looked to the source, his process here wouldn’t have been dissimilar from that of the scholars and enthusiasts before him: many celebrated writers of the Enlightenment, for example, such as Goethe, based their study on an engraving created in 1800 by Raphael Morghen, a copy that left out the symbolic wine glass under Christ’s right hand.5 Warhol, who worked throughout his entire career with reproductions as source material, understood the inevitable loss or change of meaning in the facsimile. He also understood how a reproduction can exist in suspended time. By the 1980s, he had fully embraced contemporary media—television, photography, and even the Amiga computer—and had launched his own television show, Warhol TV, which aired from 1980 to 1982. Culture as mediated experience is the appropriate lens through which to view Sixty Last Suppers, with its abutting black-and-white rectangles that look like stacks of miniature television screens, the details of Leonardo’s image faded by their shadows. These were only the latest episodes in Warhol’s sustained engagement with modern media, which started in the 1960s with his Death and Disaster series: before he was referencing television, he was creating paintings that mirrored the 16mm film strip.
In late 1962 through ’63, Warhol created some of his most celebrated works, the Death and Disaster paintings of suicides and car accidents copied from periodicals such as Newsweek and Life. For a suicide painting completed in 1962, 1947 White, Warhol sourced a Life photo by Robert Wiles of a young woman—Evelyn McHale, a twenty-three-year-old model—who had leapt to her death from the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building.6 The young beauty landed on the roof of a limousine, where the vehicle’s twisted metal perfectly cradled her, leaving her body miraculously unmarked and her posture frozen like a sleeping beauty. Warhol printed this image in an overlapping sequence that mirrors the shape and structure of the film strip. The repetition and movement in works like this one heighten and confuse the trauma of the original event—these victims take on saintlike qualities as their suffering becomes beautiful.
By contrast, in Sixty Last Suppers the image is less distorted and the squares seem more aligned with the cube of a television screen than with a strip of 16mm film. In 1947 White, Warhol overlapped the frames of the silkscreen and created movement by printing the image from light to dark, a visual effect that mirrored the flicker and motion of a film strip. 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. The moment, however, at which these images were frozen was indeed one of public suffering for the homosexual body. Branded in the media as the primary bearer of AIDS, the gay male became a symbol of moral and physical decay. AIDS in these years was presented both to show the authority of clinical medicine, with its doctors working to find a cure, and to warn of the perils of sexual deviance, the lesions of the sarcoma that often accompanied the syndrome operating as visible stigmata of guilt. The principal target of this sadistically punitive gaze was the body of the homosexual.7
Jane Dillenberger is the author of the most thorough writing on Warhol’s religious works, her extensive research tracing a trajectory from his Byzantine Catholic upbringing in Pittsburgh to the Last Supper commission. Dillenberger, a theologian as well as an art historian, must have found AIDS too taboo a topic, though, since she makes no reference to the epidemic in her book.8 Warhol’s commingling of commercial branding and images of Christ in these works commented on the cultural climate of the time in ways even the most thoughtful commentators have overlooked.
By the early 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was beginning to sweep through major cities in the United States and abroad. The syndrome first came to wide public notice with an article in the New York Times in 1981 under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” which shared reports from doctors in New York and San Francisco who were diagnosing homosexual men with a rapidly fatal form of cancer.9 Out of the forty-one patients tested, eight died less than twenty-four months after the diagnosis. Panic and anxiety spread quickly within the homosexual community and the term “gay cancer” was adopted to describe the disease. By May 1982 the Times had firmly connected the disease with homosexual communities through the headline “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials.”10 Headlines from 1981 onward became more alarming as public figures and celebrities, most famously Rock Hudson, began to die of AIDS.
Warhol’s first reference to “gay cancer” in his diaries came on February 6, 1982, not even a year after the New York Times article, in reference to Joe MacDonald, a male model whom he had photographed in the 1970s and who would die of AIDS in 1983. Warhol recounts,
I went to Jan Cowles’s place at 810 Fifth Avenue where she was having a birthday party for her son Charlie. . . . Joe MacDonald was there, but I didn’t want to be near him and talk to him because he just had gay cancer. I talked to his brother’s wife.11
Just a few months later he referenced the New York Times directly in an entry from Tuesday, May 11, 1982:
The New York Times had a big article about gay cancer, and how they don’t know what to do with it. That it’s epidemic proportions and they say that these kids who have sex all the time have it in their semen and they’ve already had every kind of disease there is—hepatitis one, two, and three, and mononucleosis, and I’m worried that I could get it by drinking out of the same glass or just being around these kids who go to the Baths.12
In each of the eight references to “gay cancer” in The Andy Warhol Diaries, Warhol expresses fear of contracting the disease from the most casual of encounters and the underlying tone of his remarks is loaded with judgment.
Warhol’s anxiety about health and illness had started during his youth, with an early onset of Saint Vitus’s Dance, but it peaked in the 1980s with the growth of public paranoia over AIDS and the targeting of homosexual men. The work starts to reflect these worries as bodybuilding imagery is juxtaposed with benevolent images of Christ, the same Christ from the Last Supper works. Given Warhol’s phobias over disease and illness, it is easy to imagine the shock that he would have felt in 1984 when he found out that his boyfriend Jon Gould, his last long-term relationship, had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. By 1986, Gould had died from AIDS, at the age of thirty-three.
Despite an age difference of twenty-five years, Gould and Warhol were involved for five years, traveling together, working together, and for a short period living together. Warhol was infatuated with Gould at times, writing desperately about his feelings in his diaries and photographing him obsessively. Gould is one of the most photographed subjects of Warhol’s late career, appearing in over 300 of the 1,500 contact sheets Warhol produced between February 1981 and September 1985.13 No matter how much the artist tried to put it out of his mind, he had to realize that the deadly AIDS virus had been incubating in the body of the young man whose bed he had shared. Crucial to this narrative, it was within days of Gould’s death that Warhol started painting what would turn out to be his final series of paintings: The Last Supper.14
Given the sociopolitical climate in which Warhol was producing these paintings, and taking into account his private relationships, it is confounding that the link between the AIDS epidemic and the Last Supper series remains tangential in the current literature. In paintings like The Last Supper (The Big C) (1986) Warhol both flaunts and conceals a connection to AIDS. Hand-painted via a projection process, like his Campbell’s Soups of 1961–62, this Last Supper leaves parts of the canvas unfinished. The figure of Christ recurs four times, while hands appear repeatedly. Thomas’s finger pointing to the sky, intimating that heaven knows he is free of guilt, appears prominently next to the “eye” in the Wise potato-chip logo.15 Pulled from a New York Post headline, the phrase “The Big C” is centered under Christ’s face on the lower-left portion of the canvas. Dillenberger asserts that “The Big C” references Warhol’s fear of cancer, a conservative account that presents only half the story. The source material for this painting, in the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, is a collage made up of headlines from the New York Post, motorcycle ads, and clippings reading “the Big C” and “AIDS” cut from a front-page article in the Post. Warhol ultimately left out the AIDS headline while keeping the more covert “The Big C,” but given the direct references to “gay cancer” in his diaries, it becomes clear that this image of Christ was connected for him to the rapid rate at which people were dying around him. “The Big C” was synonymous with AIDS. The image of Christ, offering his flesh in the Eucharist, was a symbol of salvation during a time of heightened suffering, an unusually personal and emotional image for Warhol. By 1987, the year he debuted his Last Supper paintings, AIDS had become an uncomfortably common occurrence in his circle of friends and colleagues. Iolas, the gallerist who gave him both his first exhibition, in New York in 1952, and his last one, Warhol—Il Cenacolo, in Milan in 1987, died of AIDS just five months after the opening of the later show; in January of that year, when the show opened, Iolas was in the advanced stages of the disease and was relegated to a sanitarium. Warhol surely felt that the disease was surrounding him.
More than a demonstration of reverence for Leonardo’s masterwork, or even an unveiling of his Catholic faith, Warhol’s Last Supper paintings are a confession of the conflict he felt between his faith and his sexuality, and ultimately a plea for salvation during the mass suffering of the homosexual community during the AIDS crisis. AIDS had generated a new way to brand the bodies of homosexual men as symbols of moral decay, targets for both fear and punishment. In this perspective these paintings can be understood as some of the most personal and revealing works of Warhol’s career.
1See Corinna Thierolf, “All the Catholic Things,” in Carla Schulz-Hoffmann, ed., Andy Warhol: The Last Supper (Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz, 1998), p. 23.
2See Sarah Boxer, “The Many Veils of Meaning Left by Leonardo,” New York Times, July 14, 2001, available online at www.nytimes.com/2001/07/14/books/the-many-veils-of-meaning-left-by-leonardo.html (accessed March 18, 2017).
3See Leo Steinberg, Leonardo’s Incessant “Last Supper” (New York: Zone Books), 2001.
4See Thierolf, All the Catholic Things, pp. 23–24.
5See Steinberg, “The Subject,” Leonardo’s Incessant “Last Supper”, p. 36.
6See Ben Cosgrove, “‘The Most Beautiful Suicide’: A Violent Death, an Immortal Photo,” Time, March 19, 2014, available online at http://time.com/3456028/the-most-beautiful-suicide-a-violent-death-an-immortal-photo/ (accessed March 18, 2017).
7See Simon Watney, “The Spectacle of AIDS,” in AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998), p. 78.
8In The Religious Art of Andy Warhol Jane Daggett Dillenberger makes just one reference to aids, and this in relation to Warhol’s Skulls of the early 1970s. She states, “The resurgence of skull imagery accompanied punk culture and is related to anxiety over the spread of AIDS as well as the escalating threats of nuclear war and ecological disasters.” The connection is odd, since AIDS did not surface in public consciousness until the early 1980s. Dillenberger, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol (New York: Continuum, 1998), p. 71.
9Lawrence K. Altman, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” New York Times, July 3, 1981, available online at www.nytimes.com/1981/07/03/us/rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals.html (accessed March 18, 2017).
10Altman, “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials,” New York Times, May 11, 1982, available online at www.nytimes.com/1982/05/11/science/new-homosexual-disorder-worries-health-officials.html?pagewanted=all (accessed March 18, 2017).
11Andy Warhol, “Saturday, February 6, 1982,” The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett (New York: Warner Books, 1989), p. 429.
12Warhol, “Tuesday, May 11, 1982,” in ibid., p. 442.
13“Andy Warhol @ Christies: Jon Gould,” Christies digital sales “Eyes on the Guise,” available online at https://onlineonly.christies.com/s/andy-warhol-christies-members-only-eyes-guise/jon-gould-6/589 (accessed March 18, 2017).
14Bob Colacello, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up (New York: Random House, 1990), pp. 480–81.
15See Steinberg, “The Hands and Feet,” Leonardo’s Incessant “Last Supper”, p. 69.
Artwork © 2017 the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.