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The first time I encountered Andy Warhol's The Last Supper (Christ 112 Times) (1986), it was not in the galleries of The Modern. It wasn't even in the United States, for that matter. My first exposure to the painting was when I was exploring Paris last summer and stumbled upon Le Grande Monde de Andy Warhol (The Large World of Andy Warhol) at the Grand Palais.
I'd spent the past few days whetting my artistic appetite at the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, and the Musée de l'Orangerie, and decided that seeing an exhibition of American Pop Art – by one of Pop's most famous artists – would be a welcome break from all things Impressionist. And I wasn't disappointed: the exhibition displayed many of Warhol's most famous celebrity portraits, in addition to several key works from his Mao series, his Disaster series, and numerous other self-portraits.
But the work that stayed with me, weeks after leaving the exhibition, was the single key work from his Last Supper series: The Last Supper (Christ 112 Times).
I must have sat and stared at it for an hour and a half when I first encountered it in the Grand Palais. The poignancy of that experience never entirely left me, and I was incredibly excited when I discovered that Christ 112 Times was going to be included in Andy Warhol: The Last Decade. Every time I visit it in our galleries, it's like I'm visiting an old friend. Anyone who has wandered through The Modern's exhibition with me will tell you that I still get giddy whenever I see it.
For one thing, the painting has a presence. I'm not implying that Warhol's other pieces don't have presence, just that I find Christ 112 Times’ presence to be particularly powerful. It's ironic, given Warhol's prior experimentation with repeating images. His Marilyn portraits come immediately to mind: Warhol used an image of the young starlet, whose distinct beauty was part of her value as a celebrity, and repeated that image over and over until we, as viewers, become inundated with it. This oversaturation ultimately takes away from the uniqueness (and thus, the value) of the original image. The viewer becomes so overwhelmed with Marilyns that the original, singular image loses a significant amount of its power, celebrated status, and meaning.
Applying Warhol's treatment of repetition and value to an image of a religious deity, particularly Christ, has all sorts of tricky theological implications, but they all ultimately lead to this: does repeating the image of Christ one hundred and twelve times dilute the power of that image, despite the religious significance of its subject matter?
This is the question that enthralled me that afternoon at the Grand Palais, and it is probably best left to the individual to decide. All that I can contribute is this: Warhol was devoutly religious, and was therefore intimately acquainted with the tradition of religious icons. Icons, or images of religious deities, are not worshipped in and of themselves, but are instead meant to act as conduits that focus the mental and spiritual energy of the faithful on reaching a state of prayer or consciousness that brings them closer to God.
The Last Supper (Christ 112 Times) is certainly soothing, almost mesmerizing to look at. The repetition of the image is more meditative and Zen-like than it is overwhelming, and it invites calm and introspection. The relationship between Warhol's stereotypical Pop technique of repetition and his overtly religious subject matter is fascinating to me, and Christ 112 Times definitely remains as vivid an experience today as it was the first time I saw it.
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