Netflix’s The Andy Warhol Diaries (based upon the book of the same name) rightly present the artist as mysterious. He was, after all, notoriously cryptic in his self-expression.  Even among his closest friends, colleagues, and lovers his identity seemed impenetrable, as though peeling off the masks of Warhol revealed only another mask. Some of his masks, or personas, were deeply problematic, as the documentary reveals. Warhol was anything but exemplary: he could be cold, petty, and self-serving.  In a telling part of the documentary we learn that, while making the haunting series, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he paid the models–poor, black and Latinx drag queens and trans women–only fifty to one hundred dollars. He then went on to make hundreds of thousands from their images. We would be right to call his use of their images appropriation. Warhol may be a mystery, but he was no saint, and the Diaries disclose little about him with any finality. Perhaps that is the point. Warhol, like his art, did not exist as a pristine or stable original, but was endlessly elusive. 

While his art is elusive it is not opaque. His works are mysteries, still, but they are closer to the New Testament sense of the word.  The mustērion is the revelation of those things which had previously been concealed (see, for example., Romans 16:25, I Corinthians 2: 6, Ephesians 1:9, Colossians 1: 26-27, Colossians 4:3). It is the Greek word that is translated into the Latin by Tertullian as sacramentum, sacrament. If a sacrament is, as Augustine put it, an “the visible form of an invisible grace,” then Warhol’s paintings present an invisible grace ever afresh to new generations of viewers. This is so because Andy Warhol, née Andrew Warhola, received his first art lessons in the school of mystery that was St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church, where his mother Julia took him several times a week.  

The Iconostasis of St. John Chryostom Church, Pittsburgh. Image from Angelus News. https://angelusnews.com/arts-culture/pop-heart-andy-warhols-complicated-catholicism/

Andy Warhol, beloved of celebrities, crown prince of Manhattan nightlife, grew up in the most unlikely of circumstances. Raised in a poor and industrial neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, the small and effete boy narrowly escaped merciless bullying by drawing sketches of his taunters. His ingenuity was apparent. Those early graceful line drawings showed already a rare capacity for finding beauty in the flat and violent life of mid-century America.  

For a boy whose ordinary vista was the smokestacks of Pittsburgh, the Iconostasis (or wall of icons, pictured above) must have seemed a miracle. The Byzantine icon is intentionally two-dimensional. This is not because the artist was incapable of depicting dimensionality, but because in God’s redeemed world there are no shadows; there is only light. The figures themselves are penetrated by and thus become bearers of that light. It is often noted that the point of convergence in viewing the icon is not the surface of the image but the point between the human eye and the painting. In other words, the icon participates in its own reception. It engages the viewer, and in so doing, the icon gives up its another dimension, which is an eternal one. 

Andy Warhol.  “Ladies and Gentlemen” (Helen/Harry Morales). 1975 Italian private collection © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

Warhol transposed this religious art to the glamorous world of contemporary popular culture, but the principle remained the same: the famous figures—Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy— are transfigured by a light that the artist can only invoke but cannot create. In so doing, the figures became not merely emblems of late modern capitalist America, but signs of a redeemed eternity. Consider the fraught images alluded to above, titled “Ladies and Gentlemen.”[1] These are portraits of New York City’s hidden community of drag queens and trans women in the 1970s. Among them is the image of Helen/Harry Morales (above), whose round afro is highlighted by a peach-coloured halo. The tilt of head and the direct gaze evoke ancient icons of the Virgin Mary. Contrasting monochromes create a two-dimensionality in which a third plane only arrives with your own engagement. Her gaze reaches out and searches you.

In another image, Warhol depicts Helen’s hand pointing upward toward her face. The raised fingers are an exaggerated feminine gesture to be sure, but also connote a fragile devotion whose object is not the Christ child, but the transformed visage of Helen/Harry.

Andy Warhol.  “Ladies and Gentlemen” (Helen/Harry Morales). 1975 Italian private collection © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.
Artist unknown. “Our Lady of Vladimir,” tempera on panel. 14th ce. Constantinople. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7223433

In another portrait in the series, Warhol paints a figure about whom we know very little; all that remains is a signature, which she signed on the back of Warhol’s Polaroid–“Broadway.” In this portrait, Warhol echoes the tilt and downward cast of the crucified Christ’s head. Yet Broadway’s eyes are not closed—they look intensely at the viewer in a knowing smile. The crown of thorns is evoked in matted hair; the pink halo a sign of femininity, but also a portent of blood.

Andy Warhol, “Ladies and Gentlemen (Broadway).” 1975 Italian private collection © 2020. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

If Warhol’s paintings looked backward to religious icons, they also presented a kind of future in which their subjects were represented as vanguards of a new and redeemed humanity–not through the erasure of masks or personas, but precisely through them. The queens’ and trans women’s own efforts at self-transcendence are taken up by the artist, who evokes the divine potentiality that lies dormant in all mortal flesh. Writing on Warhol, José Esteban Muñoz avers that queer aesthetics involves “the aesthetic endeavour that reveals the inherent utopian possibility [that] is always in the horizon” (Muñoz 2009).   Icons call us to a future without shadows–one in which each subject is radiant because they are bathed in the divine light of mercy. Such is a potentiality that refuses the bifurcation of human and divine, saint and sinner, past and present, “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Such is the light that illumined young Andrew Warhola’s vision in the bleak world of Pittsburgh and it is also the light which he shone upon rich starlets and poor queens and thereby conferred upon them divine blessing. That he did so even under the ambiguous conditions described above makes it all the more mysterious (although no less problematic). The Byzantine Easter rite, which Andy Warhol undoubtedly sang, puts it best:

Now all things have been filled with light, both heaven and earth and those beneath the earth; so let all creation sing Christ’s rising, by which it is established.”

Sources

José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Utopia. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 


[1] Very little was known about the drag queens and trans women who were the subjects of Warhol’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” prior to 2014 when researchers from the Andy Warhol Museum pieced together their identities and histories. 

6 thoughts

  1. Just catching up with this … what a great way of deconstructing Warhol’s portraits in the framework of Orthodox iconography. Here’s one more example I stumbled upon a while ago: The Coptic icon depicting Christ with St. Menas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_art). Compare with the figure in Warhol’s Orange Prince. Note the use of orange as background in both works.

    Have also been thinking about Warhol in connection with the assault on Ukraine as well, since he was Eastern European. No doubt any work that emerged from such an event would be as unsettling and provocative as the rest of his portraits.

  2. Ahhhhhh!!!! What a wonderful observation re. the Prince Portrait. Yes–I was thinking about the war the whole time I was writing it. I think that there are many who claim AW as Ukrainian, given the shifting identity of his parents’ home of Miko/Mikova. (See: https://www.artlyst.com/news/andy-warhol-has-western-ukraine-square-named-in-his-honour/). I live in a city with deep Ukrainian roots, and am always struck by the uniqueness of iconophilia as an aesthetic vision. It is hard to not see beauty in everything with such an aesthetic, although it must take a great deal of faith to do so at this moment with this terrible war waging. Thank you so much, Jessica, for your insights!

    1. Yes, you’re in western Canada, home of the first settler group after the British and the French! The Canadian government literally mounted a PR campaign to lure Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans to the prairies. Too bad this story has a darker side since the land wasn’t actually theirs to give away … ;-(

  3. There is an interesting book by Jane Dillenberger, ‘The Religious Art of Andy Warhol’, that goes into a lot of detail about his relationship to his working class and Byzantine Catholic heritage. Apparently his last major work was a series on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, possibly inspired by a prayer card his mother, Julia Warhola, had. She lived with him in New York for about 20 years if I remember correctly.

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