Finding Warhol’s Soul in Pittsburgh

To quote art writer John Richardson: “To believe the envious Truman Capote, Andy [Warhol] was a Sphinx without a secret. In fact, he did have a secret, one that the kept dark from all but his closest friends: he was exceedingly devout—so much so that he made daily visits to the church of Saint Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”

During my 1999 interview with Janet Daggett Dillenberger, author of The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, she tuned me in to the spiritual themes present his work. Armed with a newly discovered awareness of a man I previously associated with celebrity not Christianity, I soaked in an extensive exhibit of his Last Supper masterpieces at the Guggenheim Soho in early 2001, and a smaller but still inspiring exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

So when I journeyed on a press trip to Warhol’s boyhood home of Pittsburgh this summer, I savored the opportunity to play in The Andy Warhol Museum. While this museum only carried a few fragments of The Last Supper, the curators carved out a room to display Warhol’s personal mementos. Here sat the prayer books, rosaries, and other religious artifacts that Warhol kept out of the public eye. Viewing the very items that fed his soul brought out my inner voyeur—I sensed Andy would not want anyone gawking at these pieces. Yet I couldn’t stop staring at the religious icons that lent a new-found understanding to the icon known as “The Pope of Pop.”

In September, I visited the Metropolitan’s Museum of Art’s exhibit “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” eager to soak in 45 of Warhol’s works, alongside another 100 works by about 60 other artists, who offer their responses to his work. The potential for spiritual synergy abounds!

Every so often a piece grabbed my gaze, like Jeff Koons’s whimsical sculptures. But as I weaved my way around the crowds, I started to feel a bit like a teenage boy sneaking a look at his father’s porn collection. This celebrity-laden world that revealed who we really worship titillated my senses but never reached my soul.

But when I got to the section of the exhibit titled Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities, I could feel the tone shift, with artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Gilbert and George Queer beginning to break down the boundaries of gender. In their work, I can feel the stirrings that inform the queer theology now emerging from the academia into the mainstream.

Silver Clouds, 1966.

I left this section expecting to be ushered into Warhol’s final phase of his work—the satirical yet spiritual Last Suppers. Instead, my final stop consisted of a room filled with bouncy silver clouds. Along the wall, pink silk-screened cows gave me a model-like stare. Why did they bring in the clouds and cows from Pittsburgh but forget to include the Christ? How could any exhibit of Warhol’s greatest hits omit the largest and last contributions he created? (Warhol died in 1987 following complications post-gallbladder surgery.)


Wallpaper Cow, 1966

Still, if you are looking to take in a fuller embodiment of Warhol’s influence, check out this exhibit when it travels to the Warhol Museum from February 2 to April 28, 2013. After strolling through the depictions of consumerism, celebrity, and queerness, be sure finish this exploration of the iconography behind the icon by viewing bits from the Last Supper (1986) and his private soul.

(Photographs are not permitted in any of the museum’s exhibits but with The Warhol: DYI POP app, those with an iPhone or iPad can transform their photos into Warholian works of art–without, of course, the Factory fun.)

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).