Loving Liz: Andy Warhol's Sacramental Vision

"When I look at Warhol, what I feel is maximum redemption of lost material. He puts meaning back where there was deadness."
—Wayne Koestenbaum

Appears in Spring 2012 Issue: Legacies
March 1st, 2012

"Why do I, as a Christian, even need art?"

This question was posed by a student objecting to the requirement that he take a fine arts course for graduation from a Christian college. The student noted that, having been "called into the ministry," he had given up time-wasting distractions such as watching television and playing video games. Where did the visual arts fit, he inquired, into a life dedicated to Bible reading and church service? Put another way, are the visual arts more akin to mindless amusement or to seeking the knowledge of God?

This problem—distinguishing between entertainment and elucidation—is intensified when we consider the art of Andy Warhol. With the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner, perhaps the greatest American painter of Biblical subjects, the connection with faith seems self-evident. For example, in Tanner's The Annunciation we see a manifestation of grace by which Mary is transformed from a young woman into the mother of God. Her moment of revelation and faith becomes ours.

Andy Warhol's Silver Liz, a 40 x 40" silkscreen painting made in 1963, might seem to have discarded all that was sacred in Tanner's art and embraced, with full abandon, the transient banality of celebrity, fashion, and entertainment.

There is a mythology, partly cultivated by Warhol himself, that his paintings are shallow celebrations of popular culture. His art has often been targeted by critics, both within the Christian community and beyond, as a cynical burlesque of "art." It is true that Silver Liz challenges much of what is often expected of a picture. Having cropped the image to minimize pictorial space and narrative, Warhol thrusts Elizabeth Taylor in our faces.

Warhol has often been charged with being obsessed with consumerism. Ironically, the issue that many of Warhol's critics have with Silver Liz, as an aesthetic object, is that it is not sufficiently consumable. In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant described the sublime as the spectator's rationalized experience of awe. To experience the sublime, for Kant, is to transform the sublime rather than being transformed by it.

But while some Christian critics of modern culture have rightly critiqued the effects of Enlightenment rationality, some have, nevertheless, failed to meaningfully distinguish their own conception of the function and purpose of art from Kant's experience of the spiritual sublime. Indeed, there may be an especially strong attraction to this experience of the spiritual in art for the Protestant who seeks an internalized experience of God. It may be that some of the most celebrated contemporary Christian artists offer the viewer an experience of romanticized spirituality that is easily consumable with little danger of being transformative.

Silver Liz is antithetical to a Kantian sublime or consumable spirituality. For some critics, Warhol's rejection of the sublime is interpreted as a rejection of the sacred. I would propose the opposite. The starting point for engaging Silver Liz as sacred encounter is to recognize the Orthodox origins of Warhol's visual theology.

Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, was raised in a Byzantine Catholic church. Silver Liz has more in common, aesthetically and spiritually, with the sacred Byzantine icons than with a Renaissance portrait. Silver Liz, intentionally, challenges a mode of pictorial representation that had dominated Western painting since the Italian Renaissance. Returning to a theological aesthetic that predates the Renaissance, Warhol may be described as a very old master. However, if one's idea of art is a pretty image depicting a recognizable subject by a medium developed in the 14th century, Silver Liz, and most of contemporary art, will not oblige. If, on the other hand, one is open to a work of art as critical exploration of a method of seeing that contends with the realities of the contemporary context and seeks to find there an image of the eternal, then Silver Liz is a manifesto of the sacred revealed by the transforming power of love.

The perception of Warhol as a purveyor of banality is premised on a popular misconception that the significance of a work of art is as a mimetic depiction of subject matter. If the subject matter of Tanner's painting was drawn from the Bible, the work may satisfy even the visually illiterate. However, this approach distorts Tanner's painting, reducing it to didactic

Biblical illustration. Warhol's Silver Liz refuses to be reduced in this way. Silver Liz is an all-ornothing proposition, banality or sacramentality.

To make the case for a sacramental reading of Silver Liz, it is necessary to first establish the terms or criteria by which we engage its aesthetic. The work of art has a trinitarian structure of content, form, and material. Warhol did not invent this structure; it is the image of the Trinitarian creator of creativity itself. Therefore, when the artist creates in a method that is true to this structure, the work is a realization of Truth. The artist works within a spiritual context in which that image of the creator in creation is both marred and awaiting restoration. When the artist successfully creates a work of art that realizes its true Trinitarian structure, that work of art becomes a foreshadowing of a more glorious salvation of creation.

The content is the work of art's invisible and immaterial element. This content is akin to the idea or conception of the work—but more than that. The form is the visible, but also immaterial, aspect of the work of art. In many cases the form is pictorial, but more significantly, the form is a composition of visual elements. The work of art's material is the physical substance in which the content and form are incarnated. The work of art's life is generated by the exchange between the content and form, the form and material, and the material and content. In most cases, when a work of art fails, it is because of a broken connection somewhere in this trinitarian structure. However, where there is a strong and intimate connection, the work of art intrinsically evidences a unique revelation of the sacred.

How is this trinitarian structure of exchange evidenced in Silver Liz? The exchange between the content and form is the subject matter. In Silver Liz, this subject is the movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, born in 1932 (four years after Warhol), was a child star and became one of the most celebrated actors of her generation. She won an Academy Award in 1960 and, that same year, signed a record one million dollar contract for her role in Cleopatra. That film, released the year Warhol made Silver Liz, further added to her fame and infamy. Taylor became as well known for her life off the screen, including health and marital problems, as she was for her acting on it; by 1963, Taylor had been married four times and once widowed. Taylor's life, sensationalized in the tabloids, embodied a tragic disconnection between image and reality. Warhol prophetically selected Taylor at a moment when that rupture was becoming increasingly apparent.

The exchange between form and material is the process of creation. In Silver Liz, this is a three-stage process of painting. First, Warhol spray-painted a field of silver. Second, he used the silkscreen to establish the placement for her face and features. These were painted in acrylic; the areas of flat color, with pure value and hues (acra violet for her face, phthalo green for her eye shadow, purple for her eyes, and cadmium red for her lips), evoke her basic facial features. Third, over these areas of paint, Warhol silkscreened, in black ink, an image of her hair and features. This silkscreen image gives the painting both visual definition and— because the silkscreen image does not exactly register with the areas of color—distortion. In painting after painting, Warhol would calculatingly manipulate this process to create multiple images of the same subject with slight, but often significant, unique variations of expression.

Perhaps the most visually complex dimension of Silver Liz is the shape and treatment of her hair. Liz has big hair; it frames her face like a halo. This evocation of the sacred is further suggested by the overhead light, evidenced by the highlights in her hair. The exchange between the black ink and silver paint, between positive form and negative space, creates a visual impression that the top of her head is dissolving into space.

The way in which her hair frames her face is clearly intended, in the original publicity photograph, to draw attention to her glamour and beauty. However, the specific contours of her hair create a second, hidden, portrait. At the right side of her face, from our point of view, the contour of her hair turns her cheek into the profile of a nose of a person looking toward the right. Her eye, at the right, operates in both faces. The two-dimensionality of Warhol's silkscreen method further reveals this second face, which is less obvious in the publicity photo. It may be noteworthy that this profile face has a distinct visual echo of Egyptian painting, perhaps a reference to Taylor as Cleopatra. This further develops a tension between Taylor as a person and her on-screen role.

These two faces, the glamorous Liz and the somewhat deformed profile, raise questions about our perception of beauty. Warhol perhaps meant to reference the well-known optical illusion that is called either "young girl-old woman" or "my wife and my motherin- law." Recognizing these two faces in one, we further realize the complexity of Warhol's proposition. Silver Liz is not a blind celebration of glamour; it explores the tenuousness of beauty. Not only is our own perception of what is "beautiful" fickle and impressionable (hence the power of the publicity still), but it is also rather tenuous. What is perceived to be "beautiful" may easily slip into the opposite.

While Warhol exposes the transient nature of our perception of beauty, Silver Liz is not a cynical rejection of the possibility of true and lasting beauty. In fact, Silver Liz is a beautiful painting. However, tellingly, its beauty does not mainly reside in appearance but also in its sacramental structure. The exchange between the material and content of the work of art is its presence. In Silver Liz, this is an experience of sacred encounter. Silver Liz participates in one of the overarching themes of Warhol's art, namely the cycle of life, death, and redemption. Silver Liz is a portrait of life. She was a person then alive, a person who was public, dramatic, and symptomatic of the modern American life. Silver Liz is also an image of death. Silver, as a material, tarnishes. The image on the silver screen fades away. The fame of the move star dissipates. Part of the initial shock of Silver Liz is its stark exposition of mortality. Most significantly, Silver Liz is a vision of redemption. This is where Warhol's art elevates itself to a creative dimension beyond the pedestrian work of art that celebrates life and acknowledges death, and touches immortality.

Engaging the content, form, and material of Silver Liz, we can consider the work of art as a proposition of a method of seeing. As a proposition in seeing the world, Warhol's art precipitated a seismic shift in both the history of art and culture more broadly. In Ric Burns's Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, cultural critic Dave Hickey, who was born in 1939, said,

There is no way that anybody who is much younger than I am can understand how profoundly different the world before Andy and after Andy looked . . . He literally changed the way the world looked . . . You change the world by changing what people look at, the priorities that they place on it; and so he changed the world. The cultural consequences of that are really profound.

In developing a method of seeing evidenced in Silver Liz, Warhol was alert to how the culture we consume ultimately consumes us; it shapes our priorities and perceptions, and thereby shapes us. However, he addresses this problem with an attitude of love and faith. Rather than diminishing and subsequently dismissing culture, Silver Liz seeks the image, however dim, of truth, goodness, and beauty in its subject and, through the form and material of art, draws those qualities out. Rather than cultivating a culture of ideological division, Silver Liz is a visual poetry of redemption. It proposes a different, more beautiful, method of knowing.

In that same documentary, Wayne Koestenbaum, a Warhol biographer, noted, "We want to redeem the garbage in our life. When I look at Warhol, what I feel is maximum redemption of lost material. He puts meaning back where there was deadness." Yes, but how does Warhol redeem Liz? Warhol redeems Liz by showing her as redeemed. Warhol had selected Elizabeth Taylor as a subject for his art at a moment in her life when the image that she, and Hollywood, had cultivated for more than a decade was on the verge of falling apart. There was a disconnect between her image and her self. In Silver Liz, Warhol restores an equilibrium of content, form, and material. The work of art, in its very structure, introduced a structure of healing where there had been brokenness. Silver Liz evidences a transforming grace that reveals fullness where there was fragmentation.

Warhol proposes a vision of Liz restored from her own state of disintegration. Because he loves her, Warhol recognized the reality of who she was, as well as the beauty of who she could be. Silver Liz demonstrates that there is no one or thing that, seen by the eyes of love, cannot be beautiful. The author of 1 Corinthians 13 notes that to have total knowledge of the truth but to not have love is to be a clanging cymbal. The same author goes on to directly connect love with sight. 1 Corinthians 13:12 is often quoted in making a case for the visual arts: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." What is less often noted is that this verse describes an effect of a love that perseveres where knowledge fails. In Silver Liz, the invisible content, realized in form and material, is the redeeming power of love; to answer my student's question— we all need more evidence of the redeeming power of love.

 

Dr. James Romaine is a New York City based art historian who is an Associate Professor of Art History at Nyack College. He is the cofounder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art.

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