The Last Supper... Andy Warhol's...Χρόνια Πολλά...

Guggenheim Museum SoHo
June 1999-Summer 2001

More than 60 silkscreens, paintings,

and works on paper from the collections

of Peter Brant and Heiner Friedrich are on

view in the first extensive U.S. presentation

of Andy Warhol's monumental final cycle

The Last Supper (1986).

In 1984, gallerist Alexandre Iolas

commissioned Warhol to create a

group of works based on Leonardo Da Vinci's

Last Supper (1495-97) for an exhibition

space in the Palazzo Stelline in Milan,

located across the street from

Santa Maria delle Grazie,

home of Leonardo's masterpiece.

Warhol exceeded the demands of

the commission and produced nearly

100 variations on the theme. Indeed,

the extent of the series indicates an

almost obsessive investment in the

subject matter,

which takes on an added significance

in light of the revelation of the secret

religious life revealed after Warhol's death,

which occurred only a month after the opening

of the Milan exhibition in January 1987.

The cycle also refers to the artist's use of

Leonardo's Mona Lisa 20 years earlier,

and to his series begun during the

mid-1980s based on Renaissance

and Modernist masterworks.

 As he did with

most subjects,

Warhol approached

The Last Supper through mediations of the original, working from a cheap black

and white photograph of a widely circulated 19th-century engraving and a schematic outline drawing found in a 1913 Cyclopedia

of Painters and Painting. The former served

as model for the silkscreens, the latter for

the so-called handdrawn paintings,

which were made by tracing the

simplified contours of the encyclopedia

illustration as they were projected onto

the canvas. While Warhol had practiced

silkscreening since the early 1960s and

throughout the '70s, he took up tracing only

in 1983 during his collaborations with artists

Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Some compositions appropriate Leonardo's

entire pictorial design, while others explore

details of individual figures and groups,

singularly or in repetition, differing in orientation,

scale, and color. This varied handling denies the

visual unity of Leonardo's exemplary

demonstration of one-point perspective

as well as the painting's spiritual content

by favoring a visual multiplicity and by

including references to popular culture.

Advertising logos for Wise Potato Chips,

Dove Soap, and General Electric (a feature

of Warhol's pictures that can be traced

back to his Campbell's soup cans of the

early 1960s) are superimposed on the

figures of Christ and the Apostles,

creating a hybrid of the sacred and profane,

high art and commercial design.

The seemingly heretical irreverence

for these distinctions reflects the

inevitable transformation of a deeply

religious work into a cliché whose

spiritual message has become muted

through repetition. As Warhol's final

series, The Last Supper serves as a powerful

reiteration of the principles that informed his

entire artistic enterprise.

Andy Warhol's final series of paintings,
"The Last Supper," which was made in late
1986 and is now on view at the Guggenheim
Museum SoHo, was a commission. The idea
was hatched by the late Paris dealer, Alexander Iolas,
who arranged for the work to be paid for by the Milan
bank Credito-Valtellinese. The pictures were hung in
the bank's new premises, just across the street from the
Church of Santa Maria della Grazie, where Leonardo da
Vinci's noble, dilapidated original can be seen. Warhol,
as was his way, used commercial reproductions as
his source material.

The works have since been acquired by two

heavy hitters of the art world, collector Peter

Brant and Heiner Friedrich, the art dealer who

was a progenitor of the Dia Center for the Arts.

The paintings have been lent to the Guggenheim

for what museum director Thomas Krens, another

heavy hitter, describes as "an extended period

of time." Big guns are firing here, or misfiring.

"The Last Supper" suite is an anthology of Warhol riffs.

The painting appears whole, as a double-silkscreened

image, washed in the medicine-bottle hues he loved --

green, blue, yellow, rose-red -- and in details, executed by

Warhol in deft outline. The show includes two big versions

of the painting, Christ 112 Times, in which he repeated the

image (as he had done from the very beginning of his

post-commercial career, when he made paintings of

repeated dollar bills).

The sculptor George Segal later said of these paintings,

"We were amused by that because this Japanese girl

Yayoi Kusama was already at the Green Gallery with

her repetitions of penises. So such ideas were in the air �

when the dust finally settled, the one who said it best would

be the one with the most conviction to deal with the idea."

There is a black-light Last Supper, a camouflage

Last Supper, a couple of almost unreadably

Minimalist Last Suppers (one black on dense umber,

one yellowy white on white), and various Last Suppers

incorporating commercial logos for the likes of Camel

\and Wise potato chips.

The work is fastidiously hung in two long narrow

galleries, lined with pillars (a few are painted gold)

and with pale blond floorboards. It's a pretty lame show.

I am an intense admirer of (much of) Warhol's work,

but so insipid did I find this work, so lifeless, that it

became interesting. So off does the work seem

that it sheds light on that enigma: Warhol when he's on.

Andy Warhol, I have always felt, was a kind of folk artist.

Perhaps most artists in our times are essentially self-taught,

but Warhol had an uncanny ability to pick images out of the cultural slipstream around him, and carpenter seductive, easy and all-too-available content together with cool, Minimalist form.

Sometimes Warhol used "high" art as his raw material,

most famously the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is

so over-known, so familiar from T-shirts, cartoons, ads,

that -- like Rodin's Thinker, say, or van Gogh's Sunflowers

-- it floats in the culture as an emblem, an advertisement for

art, quite independently of its existence as a painting.

Even Warhol's de Chiricos -- first shown in

New York by Marisa del Re -- have a buzz,

because de Chirico's surfaces are already sterile,

like glazed biscuits, and he was such a faker of his

own work that the Warhol versions have an acid bite.

In his second bout with Leonardo, though, Andy Warhol

does not come out a winner.

It's not hard to see why. The Last Supper is,

of course, a famous painting, but -- unlike Elvis,

Liz, the Coke bottle, the Mona Lisa -- it is not an image

you can get quickly, being long, narrow and very, very busy.

Even when a detail is plucked out, as in Christ 112 Times,

it is not a punchy "known" detail like, say, the hands of

Michelangelo's God and Adam touching in the Sistine

Chapel � and a zillion ads. Warhol's Christ seems

wishy-washy, religiose -- an icon nobody quite knows.

The Guggenheim press release, incidentally,

notes of The Last Supper that "Warhol considered

the project crucially important to his life and work.

" It adds that "Although it is not widely known, Warhol

was raised and remained a devout Catholic during his life

." I do not know where the writer acquired his first bit of

information but the second is -- to say the least -- arguable.

Warhol's life was incredibly widely publicized, and his religion

along with it. His church going is a leitmotif in his published

diaries. Bob Colacello's biography, a big seller,

was actually called Holy Terror.

But what effect, if any, did Warhol's religion

have on the making of these pieces? Walking

around the galleries, it was tempting to believe

that perhaps it was the artist's beliefs that damped

down the energy, that removed the dry sulfurous

crackle of the best work and -- paradoxically --

made The Last Supper so spiritless.

I found this possibility so intriguing that I returned to

The Andy Warhol Diaries to check out the period

in question. Now, granted the diaries were trimmed

down from 20,000 pages and that the artist is not

always forthcoming -- or truthful -- in what remains.

But from the evidence, his Last Supper commission

does not appear as some grand climacteric.

Warhol's record of 1986 starts with some art biz

as usual. He presents Sly Stallone with one of his

ad-inspired paintings, Be Somebody with a Body

(He would re-use this motif in one of

The Last Suppers in this show).

Arnold Schwarzenegger dithered

over whether or not he wanted to

commission a wedding portrait of Maria Shriver.

Warhol went to the 75th birthday of the Oreo cookie

and got truly excited at the notion of getting booked to

paint the iconic treat. "When the cameras were on

I ate the cookies and said, 'Miss Oreo needs her

portrait done' he told his amanuensis Pat Hackett.

"So I hope the bigwigs get the hint.

Oh, it would be so good to do."

Warhol first mentions his Last Supper

show briefly in a November entry, then

moves briskly on to a discussion about doing

paintings of mineral water bottles for Michel Roux,

creator of the Absolut campaign. Warhol arrived

in Milan on January 21, 1987. He noted,

"My Last Supper show was closing down

that day and my other show was opening,

so there was lots of publicity.

" That is the second and last mention of the work.

It was in Milan, too, that Warhol felt the first twinge

of the gallbladder problem that would result in his death.

He pretended, even to his diary, that it was the flu.

Back in New York, there was an Italian shoe

manufacturer who wanted his portrait done, and there were curtains to be done for the New York City Ballet. But Warhol died early on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 22.

Was The Last Supper series Andy Warhol's last completed suite of paintings? Absolutely. Was it a deeply felt final coda?

I don't think so.

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