Andy Warhol, whose name at birth was Andrej Varchola, was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He died of a cardiac arrhythmia in his sleep after gall bladder surgery in 1987 at the age of 58.
Warhol’s family practiced Byzantine-Slavic Catholicism and, although he kept it very private, was deeply religious throughout his life. According to the pastor of his church, Warhol visited every day, lit a candle, and prayed for 15 minutes. He also kept an altar with a crucifix and a well-used prayer book on his bedside table.
But he kept his religious beliefs safely guarded from not only the public, but also his close friends. One friend, art historian John Richardson, who was privy to Warhol’s private faith said in his eulogy at the artist’s funeral that Warhol financed his nephew’s priesthood studies and that he volunteered at a shelter serving meals to the homeless.
Trust Andy to have kept these activities in the dark. The knowledge of this secret piety inevitably changes our perception of an artist who fooled the world into believing that his only obsessions were money, fame, glamour, and that he could be cool to the point of callousness. Never take Andy at face value.
Warhol’s deep Catholic faith is further revealed in the series of over one hundred works based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, Last Supper. The series was commissioned, but was taken on by Warhol with an “almost obsessive investment.”
It would be easy to think that Warhol, living as an openly gay man at a time when that was much less acceptable, was living in contradiction to the teachings of the church. But he also professed celibacy, and since the Bible condemns specifically homosexual sex and not simply being a homosexual, it seems he was able to rectify the contradiction.
Warhol’s political beliefs don’t share the same kind of conviction as his religious beliefs. His response to politics is ambivalent. He once said that he felt like he should be Republican because he hated paying taxes but that “artists just can’t be Republican, can they?” And then claiming political agnosticism, he said,
Well, the reason I don’t sort of get involved in [politics] is because I sort of believe in everything. One day I really believe in this, and the next day I believe in doing that.
But still, liberals have some reason to want to claim him for their own. He was an icon of 1960s counterculture in the U.S. And his portraits of political figures often seem like liberal statements, perhaps most notably his menacing portrait of Nixon with a handwritten appeal below to “Vote McGovern.”
But one must always remember to separate art from the artist. Some of those political portraits were commissioned, like the pro-McGovern Nixon and his portrait of Jimmy Carter. And Warhol’s main artistic concern with those pieces was the same as with his Campbell’s soup cans: mass reproduction, replication, advertising. He said about political propaganda,
Every time I go out and someone is being elected president or mayor or something, they stick their images all over the world, and I always think I do those. . . . I always think it’s my work.
So I think we’ll have to take back Warhol from the left and call him what he called himself: non-political.