catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 10 :: 2006.05.19 — 2006.06.02


Art, faith and Warhol

Journeying between the modern and postmodern

Subscribe to the Jubilee 2006 podcast (RSS | iTunes) to download audio of this session. Dayton Castleman graciously provided the introduction below and photographs of Dr. Chaplin's Warhol presentation.


When considering the history of modern art, there is no more iconic American artist than Andy Warhol. Born Andy Warhola, "Warhol" has become a household name that conjures up images of Campbell's Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Jackie Kennedy among many others. Andy Warhol is synonymous with Pop Art, and Pop Art served as a clear and critical lens into (and shaper of) the post-World War II development of American popular culture. It is this particular function of art, as a window into the prevailing world-view of a culture, that makes it a powerful means of strengthening the muscles of cultural discernment for the Christian, a concept central to the vision of the Jubilee Conference.

The Andy Warhol Museum, the largest museum in the world dedicated to an individual artist, is located just blocks from the Pittsburgh Hilton, the site of the 2006 Jubilee Conference, and was the site of this year's art-related breakout session. The session was facilitated by Dr. Adrienne Chaplin, professor of Philosophical Aesthetics (philosophy of art) at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada.  Dr. Chaplin was invited to present a glimpse into Warhol's life and artwork, and how it might relate to the formation of a Christian world-view. She explored how Warhol's artwork hints at an inner conflict between the fame and recognition that he discovered as an artist, and, more subtly, the influence of his upbringing in the Eastern Orthodox church. It's at the intersection of these influences in Warhol's life that students were invited to explore the relationship between the art he produced and the way in which he viewed the world.  Where do we see Andy Warhola in the work? Where do we see Warhol? What difference does that make to us today?

Unfortunately, *cino readers (and listeners) cannot participate in the second installment of the breakout session, which was a walk-through discussion with Dr. Chaplin in the museum galleries, engaging these and other important questions. As students were invited to respond the artwork in person, it amounted to an enriching and valuable opportunity to begin examining the way in which artwork communicates, and the way in which we, as Christians, may engage our culture and our selves with a wise, sharp and Christ-centered vision.

Feel free to respond to Dr. Chaplin's talk with your own exploration of the artwork of Andy Warhol, in the museum which is the world wide web:


Hi, it's good to be here.  I recognize a couple of faces from last night, which is always nice. … I also am glad to make mention of the co-author Hillary Brandt who has done an excellent job in doing most of the actual writing around it.  We had wonderful teamwork on this book and I feel it's a kind of way of the body of Christ should work, being the hand and the foot to each other.  And she had many gifts I didn't have and I could conceive of something she didn't have and the result was rightly so, and so I was delighted to…

I would like to start by thanking Dayton and the Jubilee conference team for inviting me to this year's conference.  I'm very honored to be speaking here at this CCO event, which by one very unbiased fan—I'm not sure if he's here.  Is Gideon here?  No, he's not—he called it without qualification, the greatest campus ministry on planet earth.  You can't get much bigger than that, which I'm sure you'll all agree with.  Now, if I had been speaking in the main auditorium, you'd all be standing up on your chairs now and shouting.  I'll forgive you for that.  It's not my first time at a Jubilee conference.  As a student at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto in the early 80s, I was part of a group of students who drove down to Pittsburgh in a mini-van in order to experience this unique event.  Part of that experience was sleeping on the floor of one of the rooms with quite a crowd of students, and to my embarrassment, that's the only thing I remember of the entire conference.  I don't remember going to any sessions.  I don't remember any speakers.  So do not [do] as I did and I hope you will remember some of the sessions you go to this time.


I'm also very honored to be speaking in the Andy Warhol museum, the largest museum in the world dedicated to one artist.  I'll be visiting the museum yesterday, in fact for the first time, and it's a truly impressive collection.  The one in Toronto is gearing up to having its show from July to October this summer, so I'm well-prepared to receive him.

As you know, the CCO statement is a brilliant and succinct summary of what Christian student work is all about, and it says, "Transforming college students to transform the world."  Transforming college students to transform the world.  And in fact I think it's a brilliant summary of what Christian life in general is all about: transforming people so that I can transform the world.  And this transformation, as the first verses of Romans 12 indicate, also implies transforming people's minds and their thinking.  One of the things I hope to do this morning is to explore the meaning of Christ's lordship, not only for our personal lives, but also for our studies, our vocations and to society at large.

One of the people I know had a profound influence on the CCO was Pete Steen.  …How many of you have heard his name?  That's pretty good.  Okay.  I'd only met Steen once.   It must have been one or two years before his early death at the age of 48.  He was in Toronto for some ICS event and I had invited him for tea at our student house in the Chinese area of Toronto.  And I clearly remember his infectious enthusiasm when talking to us around the kitchen table.  And Peter, I learned later, was a driving force in the Coalition and spoke and preached at literally hundreds of churches and campuses and colleges and small groups.  And Perry Recker wrote an in memoriam for Pete Steen in Christian Renewal and he said this about him:

Communicating a biblical Kingdom vision of live and motivating people to appropriate the fruits of Christian scholarship in order to live their lives to the greater glory of God in every area of life was for Pete Steen a passion that consumed his life.  Countless are the students who benefited from that passion as they spent long hours listening to him lecture, preach, teach and exhort, often in the early morning hours in an all-night coffee shop or another one of those ubiquitous golden arches.

When doing my research and reading on Andy Warhol over the past weeks, the thought occasionally occurred to me, "What if Pete Steen would have met Andy Warhol as a student?  What if the CCO would have been around when Andy Warhol went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology here in Pittsburgh?  What if Pete Steen had discussed the interconnections between religion and art with the future 'pope of pop'?"  It's an interesting thought, isn't it?  What if they would have met?

Although only separated in age by 8 years—Andy Warhol was born in 1928 and Pete Steen in 1936—by the time Pete Steen was doing his college outreach between 1972 and '74, Warhol was already a well-established and successful artist in New York.  He had completed his studies at the Carnegie Institute in 1949 and had left for New York in that same year.  He had started to work as a successful illustrator for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and also as a designer for the Miller shoe company, earning as much as $100,000 a year—a phenomenal sum for that time.  He had designed stage sets and window displays.  He had dyed his hair straw blonde, before resorting to his trademark platinum wigs due to early balding.  He had made his first picture of comic strips and his famous silk screens of dominoes, Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe's image.  Between 1962 and 64, he had produced over 2,000 pictures in his studio—he was incredibly prolific—famously called The Factory (that is the famous red couch, as well), a hang-out place for experimental artists and Warhol superstars.  He had produced the movie Sleep consisting of the 6-hour long shot of a sleeping man—I suggested to Dayton that we would show this as an example of his work, but he wasn't interested—and Empire, and 8-hour long shot of the Empire State Building.  Warhol said he liked these movies because you could leave the theatre, have a drink, come back and not have missed anything. 

So by the time Pete Steen started visiting colleges in the early 70s, Warhol had produced the first album of the rock band Velvet Underground and the novel entitled A, which consisted of telephone calls recorded in his factory studio.  He had also been shot at close range by one of his workers in The Factory, a disturbed woman called Valerie Solanis, and had almost died from the two bullets piercing his stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus, and both lungs.  It was 1968 and he was just forty at the time. 

After recovering from the operation and taking up work again, he made a series of disaster pictures, painted commissioned portraits of the wealthy and famous, and wrote another book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again.  Then, in 1987, he died very unexpectedly as a result of a minor gallbladder operation.  His funeral in Pittsburgh was a simple and private affair, limited to all his closest family and friends.  A simple mass was said, and he was buried near his parents in St. John's the Divine Byzantine Catholic Church.  They created just a small and simple tomb.  The priest who buried him had never even met Warhol.

By contrast to the modest burial service, a huge memorial service was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, a few weeks later.  The service was attended by over 2,000 people, consisting of the international jet-set and celebrities of the time.  It was at this packed memorial service that one of his closest friends, John Richardson, spoke about a side to Warhol, which very few people at that time knew about.  And these were his words—I quote, he started his eulogy like this:

Besides celebrating Andy Warhol as the quintessential artist of his time and place, the artist who held the most revealing mirror up to his generation, I'd like to recall a side of his character that he hid from all but his closest friends: his spiritual side.  Those of you who knew him in circumstances that were the antithesis of spiritual may be surprised that such a side existed, but exist it did and it's the key to the artist's seeking.

Now, for many people in the cathedral, this was the first time they had heard of Warhol's religious background and religious life.  Since then, much has come to light, both through interviews with close friends and family and through increased knowledge about his ethnic roots.  Like many other second generation Americans of immigrant parents, Warhol had long been reticent about his ethnic background and valued his anonymity in that respect.  "I am from nowhere," he always used to say if people asked. 

It is now known, however, that both his parents were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from Mikova in the Slovak republic of the former Czechoslovakia.  As most other Russian immigrants, they lived in the Ruthenian section of Pittsburgh called Ruska Dolina.  A central feature of this immigrant community, as it had been back then in Slovakia, was the orthodox Byzantine Catholic church, with its special Eastern Orthodox church calendar and its celebration of Christmas in January, its strict customs and conventions of religious observance, and, last but not least, its folk art.  From early childhood through his college years, Andy had been a part of this community, attending the lengthy Byzantine church services and observing strict rules for Sunday rest.  His brother recalls that he was not even allowed so much as to pick up a pair of scissors on Sunday.

But even after he had left the family home and had moved to New York, he continued to attend weekly mass and is said by close friends to have regularly popped in churches to pray during the week.  He would go two or three times often in the week.  It's now suggested that even some of the artistic traditions of his religious ethnic background may have found their way into Warhol's work.  At least two art traditions in particular have been identified as such.  First, the tradition of decorating Easter eggs, also called pysanky….  And second, the liturgical tradition of icon painting.  Now, let me say a few things about each.

The tradition of painting beautifully decorated Easter eggs, well known in Ukrainian culture, has been a long-established tradition of the Carpatho-Rusyn tradition.  In its western regions, floral patterns and a wide mix of colors are prevalent, whereas in Eastern regions, geometric patterns dominate with earth tones of red, yellow, orange, brown and black.  There are several techniques for doing the painting.  The popular teardrop style, for example, is done by literally pulling a drop of wax across an egg.  A more intricate one uses a stylus to draw lines of wax on the egg, which is then dyed.  As the wax repels the dye, you can repeat the process by adding another layer of wax and paint, going from the lightest to darkest color.  The same pattern can be executed in different colors and thus produce multiples of an egg.  It is now known that Warhol's mother used to do pysanky in order to sell them locally and although the art of doing it was traditionally reserved for women and girls, Warhol's mother had taught her son the technique in order to help her with the business, but also to occupy him as a young child during his frequent bouts of illness.  Now, this process not only gave Andy a very steady hand and an ability for fine line drawing, but also laid the basis for his later silk screen technique, using polymer paint on canvas, and he even used the same motifs.  So for example, there it is in the silkscreen of a butterfly and in addition to that his famous flowers.  So it's interesting to see a link between that Easter egg decorating and the technique he used for these kinds of works.

The second influence was the Byzantine sacred art of icon painting.  Icons have been aids to devotion and prayer and windows to a spiritual reality.  They can also serve as illustrations to help us understand and remember biblical stories or the stories of the church and the saints.  Now one way of displaying such icons in Byzantine churches is by mounting them on a large wood-carved screen called the iconostasis.  An iconostasis separates the chancel of the church from the nave or church hall and to some this symbolizes the curtain in Jewish temples that separated the altar from the rest of the temple.  Sometimes, an iconostasis could hold more than five rows of icons, often hung in a particular narrative or theological order.  now Warhol would have been looking at such an iconostasis every week when attending his local Byzantine church in Pittsburgh.  Looking now at Warhol's endless variations of repetitive serial compositions—from diptychs to triptychs to numerous polyptychs—it's hard not to believe that his early impressions would have played some role in his developing sensibility.  And indeed if you look at all of these serial paintings, you could say that each has its own icon status and it is of course in particular the case with Marilyn Monroe's, which even have a gold background.  It is a very striking resemblance with the icons he would have seen in these churches.  So these are the icons of our time clearly.  Even the tins of soup get an iconic status.

Now one of his friends and also a biographer called Ultraviolet—I'm not making this name up, that was her name—has been quoted as saying, "Andy's sense of worship was not Christ on the cross on the church icon screen, but Monroe on the silver screen."  I thought that was a nice quote.  But even objects, consumer objects like these—if you look at it from a distance, it's iconographical stylistic quality is very much like that of one of these screens.

But what are we to make of all this?  What deeper relationship is there, if any, between Warhol's religious upbringing and his artistic output?  What kind of relation did Warhol experienc himself between his very private faith, which very few people knew about, and his ever-so-public art?  I mean, he wanted to make it as public as he could, obviously.  Did he ever think there might be such a relation?  After all, he did not have a Pete Steen around or a CCO to give him a hand in thinking through these kinds of issues and explore this further.  How can we make sense of Warhol's work if we want to evaluate it in the light of a Christian perspective?

Now in order to answer this question properly, we will have to raise a much broader question, which has to do with what art in general is all about.  Art, good art I would say, is never just a statement or an illustration of a statement.  Art works more subtly than that.  It also makes it more tricky to read and to interpret.  Art, whether Christian or not, always reflects a worldview—and you have heard this word around—a certain way of experiencing the world which colors the way we see and interpret things.  Such worldview, too, is never a mere statement or theory.  It's always more complex.  Sometimes our stated worldview, the one we profess in words—"I'm a Christian, I'm a democrat, I'm a socialist, I'm a Buddhist, I'm a pacifist"—can even be in conflict with our implicit and our lived worldview.  And the reason that is the case is that while we may think that we are living out of a particular worldview or set of commitments—and it is a particular risk of course as Christians—our lives are very much influenced by our surrounding culture, which may not adhere to those beliefs, so there may be a disconnect there.  And this also applies to worldviews in art.

Worldviews in art can be seen as having two sides.  The first side reflects the culture and the spirit of the time, or the zeitgeist, as it's sometimes called.  You could say that a work of art, alongside many other phenomena, serves as a symptom of the world that we live in.  So you look at the art and you get an idea of the world that we live in.  But there's also another side to a worldview in art.  And this dimension of worldview is trying to transcend that given situation by making some kind of comment on it.  It's beginning to ask questions about the state of the world and all life in general.  Such questions are profoundly shaped by our deeper religious commitments.  Where do we come from?  Where do we go?  What's the meaning of life?  And so on.  And in asking those questions, the type of answers that emerge will also shape the way art presents its material.  So you could way, are we affirming the things we depict on the canvas or the screen or are we deploring them?  You make a comment on the kinds of things you represent.  Are we portraying this event or this scene in the form of a celebration or in the form of a lament?  There's no neutrality there.  It seems to me that Warhol got to the questioning stage, but was rarely able to go beyond that.  There's no doubt that Warhol was deeply influenced by his surrounding culture—indeed the popular culture we call the American Dream.  He was obsessed with money, fame, success and consumer goods.  And in many respects, Warhol was a very troubled and very anxious man.  He worried, for example, incessantly.  He worried about money, even though he had loads of it.  After his death, it took Sotheby's several days to auction his estate for a total gross amount of $20 million US dollars.  And he worries about money.  In his diaries, if you read those, he lists down every expense he has made in the day, up to the cab fare of $3.50 to a lunch engagement.  So he was obsessed with detailing spending, which of course has some reflection in his poor upbringing.  He was worried.

He also worried about fame.  He wanted to be seen and noticed and attended every possible show opening imaginable and was obsessive about anything anyone would say about him.  He worried about his health.  He hated hospitals and ironically, he postponed seeing a doctor about his gallbladder problems because he was afraid he might not survive the operation.  Now he survived the operation, but he due to a minor complication, he did die.  He worried how he looked and took up weightlifting and boxing to stay fit.  He worried about safety—admittedly with some grounds after actually being shot, of course.  And he worried about being lonely.  Although having countless friends and admirers, he did not have a long and stable relationship and was often lonely, especially in the holiday times. 

Now, I'm not saying that as a Christian you should never worry or that Christians are generally worry-free.  Being a bit of a worrier myself, I can identify with some of Warhol's worries, but it's clear that the concerns which were uppermost in his mind are not the kinds of concerns and priorities which should dominate us as Christians.  In fact the Bible specifically warns us not to worry about those kinds of things.

Now near the end of his life and to the astonishment of those who entered his studio after his death, Warhol had embarked on a major series of paintings based on Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.  I'm going to show you two images of the wall before it was cleaned and then one after it's cleaned.  so there's less color, but more definition.  Now several cheap reproductions of this masterpiece had for years been circulating in religious popular culture and his brother John told later that one such reproduction hung on the walls of the Warhola family's kitchen.  Now the version which Warhol used as a base, however, was a small print he had found in a 19th century encyclopedia.  And Warhol had copied this print by hand in paint on a huge canvas in his studio.  So you only see a fragment of this.  It was the entire wall of his studio, the whole painting.  And after that he used this hand-painted version as a base for numerous other works, often using only details of it, and adding other elements such as advertising locals, including Dove soap for the Holy Spirit, and price tickets symbolizing the cash value of religion or art or both.  Here is the pink Last Supper.  A version of this also hangs here, but we'll see that later when we go on the tour.  Here is the 116 Last Suppers, again one of these examples of serial repetition, and so is the next one.  So you only see a detail—it is a huge wall with just the heads of Christ.  We will talk about the effect of repetition later when we have our discussion, but this is just to show for a moment.  He even did a camouflage Last Supper.  Camouflage again was one technique he used a lot.  he did a self-portrait with and a major abstract as well.  He did a Last Supper in the same style.  A motorcycle one.  And here we have the one with Dove soap.  Not too difficult to see the symbolism in that obviously.

I look forward to discussing this more with you later on, but especially the next image I would like to discuss with you, because he used the same image of the Last Supper of Christ for an installation called Ten Punching Bags, a complex multi-layered piece that invites a number of different interpretations.  So I'm not going to stand still at it just now because it's in the museum and I would love to have a discussion with you about what kinds of meanings it invokes in your own thinking.

Now in all these works, Warhol never gave much weight about how he might have seen the relation between the role of religious in his life and his art.  So when asked in an interview—the last one he was able to give actually—why he chose to paint Leonardo's Last Supper, he merely responded by saying that someone had asked him to do it, which was true.  It was an art dealer, a gallery owner in Milan who said could you do a painting.  When asked if theme of the Last Supper meant anything to him, he just said, "It's a good picture."  And finally, a few questions later, when asked whether there was any connection between fantasy and religion, he said, "Maybe.  I don't know. Truth is a fun place to go."  He doesn't give much away, does he? Now in all this, I think, Warhol represents a typical postmodern stance of non-commitment, a cultivated stance of nonchalance and indifference that looks at the world with a kind of cool detachment.  You're not committing yourself to anything.  Unlike his modernist predecessors, Warhol did not have any great aspirations for art.  He did not aspire to be prophetic.  He did not aim to create a new and universal language, another grand narrative.  He didn't seek to change the world.  However, in the process, he lost a sense of direction, a sense of going somewhere.  He also lost a sense of identity.  He became what in postmodern jargon often is called "a floating self," someone who is drifting.  It's interesting, in the museum, there is one room which has an installation of Warhol consisting of a set of floating helium balloons.  And I was walking through the gallery yesterday and [thinking] that it was nice, that it was almost like a metaphor for Andy Warhol, this drifting existence…There is no kind of going through somewhere or going to anywhere.  It just floats around.

Now when you listen to his conversations, there's a similar feel to that.  Last week, I had a root canal operation on my tooth and I had to sit in this dentist's chair for two hours and I thought, well, I'll take a CD with me with conversations with Warhol at that time.  So I listened for two hours to these conversations and in between kind of a semi-conscious state, these conversations also drifted from nowhere to somewhere, they didn't have a particular purpose.  It was just tapes of telephone calls or …you had the same sense that this was his life, just going from nowhere and leading nowhere.  It had that same meandering feel to it.

So you can also ask, I mean, it had a certain kind of emptiness about it and thinking of last night's talk and that one would ask Andy, "What is your sense of identity?  How do you identify yourself?"  That is what you wish for him in a way.  He had no sense of self in that respect.  And you could also ask the question, "What does it say about our society, that we do admire it so much, that we are drawn to this kind of art?"  Ed Knippers said in conversation I've had over the days with him we got the artists we deserve. in some ways it's a picture of where we are.

Now Christian artists no less than non-Christians are children of their time.  We cannot escape the conditions and presuppositions of our surrounding culture no matter how independent we think we are.  I alluded to that earlier.  And because of that, we should always be on the alert for how our culture influences our thinking and our doing, including how we do our art.  What attitudes or assumptions have we unconsciously adopted which may not reflect a biblical view of life and to what extent have our attitudes been shaped by the secular culture around us?

So as you contemplate your own work and future in the arts here today as a Christian and as an artist, there are many factors to consider.  Some of you may already be on track for a successful career in the arts.  This may mean you have to stop sometimes in order to take a critical look at what you are doing.  To what extent are you pandering to the market and thereby compromising your integrity both as an artist and as a Christian?  To what extent have you become so comfortable in your secular environment or your job that you're no longer even aware that you're the only Christian there?  While this may sometimes be a good thing, it can also indicate a level of adaptation that waters down the radicality of your faith and it's cutting edge potential for cultural transformation.

Alternatively, you may be struggling as an art student, either artistically or in your faith or both.  you may not even be sure that art is the thing for you.  You may find that art colleges seem alienating or even hostile.  You may find life as an artist a real challenge.  You may find it a challenge to your faith.  So whether successful or struggling, the challenge to you as the Christian artist is the same: how can you with your talents and with your experience serve as transforming agent for the kingdom of God and work faithfully for the developing of your neighbor to the glory of God?  how can you imagine the Kingdom?

Let me be clear.  I'm not talking about preaching or evangelizing here.  Art, in order to be Christian, does not have to deal explicitly with religious or biblical subject matter, even though as Ed Knippers again demonstrated and indicated last night, a lot of the best art in the history of Western art has biblical subject matter as its topic.  It doesn't have to be only liturgical art and it doesn't have to be didactic, or evangelistic, even though it may be done in good ways in all of these forms.  However, Christian art is about how to find an artistic expression which provides a holistic view of life by recognizing the original goodness of creation, but also the current brokenness of the world.  What is there in your work which can celebrate that goodness and lament its distortion?  And what is there in you work which is openly and honestly bewildered and questioning?  As I see Warhol's work, I sense that there's something of that questioning going on.  As confused as he is and as obsessed with the culture around him and his own celebrity status, he nevertheless was able to allow some of that questioning to seep through.  Perhaps one thing we can learn from Warhol is that it is all right not always to have an immediate explanation for our work.  Sometimes we may trust the holy spirit to work in us in such a way that the work we produce not only surprises others, but surprises even ourselves.  And then we can begin the "art talk", the conversation around the work about the meanings it may have for us, what it suggests, what it evokes and what we think about it.  The best of art brings about the best of conversation, even when—or, perhaps better, precisely—when there is not one single interpretation we can all settle on.  And our times need such art and they need such conversation.  It needs such art that encourages us to dig deeper than our one-dimensional consumer society would like us to go. 

As I speak here at the moment, there's an exciting Christian art conference going on in New York. The theme of the conference is "artist as reconciler."  And the organizers express the hope that artists can be articulators of hope and integration in a fundamentally broken culture and they state that in today's society, artists are often more noted for their rebellion and their addiction or for their apathy.   But what the conference hopes to achieve is to mobilize artists to be agents of cultural shalom, the kind of wholeness and flourishing of which the Hebrew scriptures are so full.

So I would like to end my talk now by endorsing that hope and encouragement and to posit all to you here that whether you're finishing your studies or just beginning, this is the time you can start to reflect on what it means to be a Christian and an artist and indeed a Christian artist.  Warhol may never have had such an opportunity.  You have.  So I say, therefore, go and imagine the Kingdom. 

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