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Andy Warhol, Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away
Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away (1985-1986)Courtesy of Southeby's

This exhibition reveals Warhol’s dark preoccupation with death

‘Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away’ explores the influence that the artist’s obsession with mortality played throughout his work

The popular caricature of Andy Warhol as the “king of pop art” brings with it all the connotations of lightness and frivolity that accompany such an accolade. His most famous artworks are radiant with the brightly-coloured vibrancy and glamour of advertisements. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings, and there I am. There’s nothing more,” the artist famously claimed. But a new exhibition exposes a darker side to Warhol that’s been hiding in plain sight this whole time. 

Warhol’s fascination with immortality is visible throughout his work, in his preoccupation with fame and popular culture. But a new exhibition, Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away, focuses on his equally powerful obsession with mortality. His published diary reveals a preoccupation and neurosis about his own health, and his near-death experiences are well publicised (he battled with tuberculosis as a child and he was briefly declared clinically dead on the operating table after being shot by Valerie Solanas), but his spirituality is less known. Warhol was a practising Catholic and, once you learn this, you can’t unsee the influence of religion everywhere in his art and practice: his deification of figures from popular culture into secular saints, his interest in iconography, the many ways he memorialised the relics of everyday life, his general capacity to worship. 

Today marks the 33rd anniversary of his death on 22 February 1987, Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away brings together Warhol’s work that is most explicitly inspired by religious iconography and which confronts mortality most directly, including “Skull” (1976) and “The Last Supper” (1986). Below, we talk to Bianca Chu, the Deputy Director, Curator of S|2 Gallery about Warhol’s darker preoccupations and his obsession with his own mortality.

How does this exhibition reveal a different aspect of Warhol?

Bianca Chu: Warhol needs no introduction, his creative output and recognition are cemented in history. But, often with iconic figures like this, the passing of time can allow for new interpretations. In this exhibition, we aim to spotlight a body of Warhol’s work which focuses on his deeply private relationship with his faith, and the unavoidable condition of mortality.  These concerns are often overlooked in mainstream exhibitions of Warhol but, as we approach the 33rd anniversary of his death, there has been a flurry of moments where these last years have become more at the forefront, such as the recent Revelations exhibition at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. As our exhibition opens just before the major retrospective at the Tate Modern, which will undoubtedly be a spectacular survey of his achievements, we wanted to drill more deeply into the last days of his life – a time when the artist may have been more vulnerable and contemplative.

His interest in immortality is evident throughout his work. How does his obsession with mortality reveal itself?

Bianca Chu: I think that Warhol plays with the tension between the eternal and the fleeting. Portraying celebrities, scenes of death and disaster, everyday objects like soup cans, on canvases, on the one hand, reveals an attempt to immortalise people, events and things, yet it also seems to recognise their fleeting existence. Warhol’s works perch on the knife-edge of double entendre: hailing a person or moment in history as something worth memorialising while, at the same time, declaring those people or events as already in the past. For Warhol, nothing appears sacred or untouchable, life and death alike.

Few people are aware that Warhol was a practising Catholic. Do you think his religion inflamed his obsession with death? 

Bianca Chu: We know that Warhol grew up in a religious household. His childhood home was filled with icons of holy figures and even a photographic reproduction of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” hung in the kitchen, but it would be an oversimplification to state that religion was the reason for his obsession with death. The failed assassination attempt in 1968 would have likely had a deep impact on his perception of death. I also think that Warhol would have seen himself within the greater canon of master artists. Death is a recurrent subject throughout art history, especially in Catholic iconography. It is a universal concern for artists from the Italian renaissance to now; it is the one experience that no one can escape.

“For Warhol, nothing appears sacred or untouchable, life and death alike” – Bianca Chu

Freud discussed what he called the ‘death drive’ as oppositional to the sex drive. Warhol seems to have had an ambiguous or problematic relationship with sex. Does his fascination with death shed any light on his attitude towards sex? 

Bianca Chu: Warhol never openly admitted anything about his sexuality, not even in his personal diaries. He seemingly revelled in the ambiguity and conjecture surrounding it.

How do you feel that his work was affected by his proximity to the Aids epidemic that killed so many of his friends in the New York art world?

Bianca Chu: Alexander Iolas, the Greek gallerist that commissioned Warhol’s first New York exhibition, was in the late stages of Aids-related illness when he commissioned Warhol to make The Last Supper series (1986). This went on the be the last exhibition for them both, as they both died within two months of the opening. It is possible that this final body of work by Warhol was a nod to those people who were inextricably bound to his life and work and impacted by the epidemic.

Many scientists claim we’re close to achieving immortality. Do you think if Warhol were still alive now he’d be signing himself up for cryogenic experiments with eternal life and having his consciousness downloaded onto a hard drive etc?

Bianca Chu: I can imagine Warhol creating his own fashionable factory of cryogenics for all the celebrities and icons of the day. Of course, his studio would have already been the spot for uploading your consciousness to the Warhol cloud.

Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away is showing at Sotheby's S|2 Gallery until 28 February 2020