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.
ANTONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).