SOME time after the death of pop artist Andy Warhol, undoubtedly the most important and influential artist of his generation, a fact emerged with the force of revelation: throughout his life he had been religious. Warhol not only had a family background steeped in a particular Slovakian Catholic worship of icons but he had regularly attended church throughout his adult life.
A section of Andy Warhol's Self Portrait No. 9 1986.
Only his closest friends knew of this side to Warhol, and he was surely aware that it did not sit well with the public image of him as the cynical parodist of consumerism, the ringmaster of the kinky goings-on at his Factory, the speed-fuelled hipster in leather jacket, dark glasses and white wig.
In a way, knowing this about Warhol changes everything. His images of iconic figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley seem no longer to point to the emptiness of fame but instead aspire to something of their original presence. His obsession with celebrity suggests that movie stars and rock singers are our contemporary saints and gossip magazines their holy relics. We can see Warhol as an artist not of the disenchantment of the image, the inheritor of Charles Baudelaire's dire prediction of the "decrepitude of art", but of its re-enchantment, the attempt to restore something of its original magical power.
It is not surprising that at the time of his death in 1987 he had been working for about two years on a large series devoted to Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, which depicts that moment in the biblical narrative when Christ reveals that one of the disciples gathered there will betray him, and gesturing towards the wine and bread laid out on the table prefigures the Eucharist, in which the faithful incorporate the holy spirit by symbolically consuming his flesh and blood.
It is something like this miracle of incarnation that occurs every time we take an image as real, when we see it not as the representation of something that is absent but as the presentation of an object that is now before us.
Throughout his career, Warhol explored three registers of the image that still have this phantasmic power over us and, sacrilegiously perhaps, sought to link their commonality. They are religious images, pornographic images and advertising images. In each, the image attempts to make us believe, to see or desire something that is not there, and ultimately to make us act in some way.
Looking at Warhol's oeuvre, it is remarkable how often the power of the image to produce the effect of reality, or the possibility of the image to be real, is played on. Throughout all of his silkscreens, photographs, films and even the paintings he made by urinating on sensitised canvas, he aimed at an image that miraculously brought itself about without human, or at least artistic, intervention. Theologians call this special type of image acheiropoietos - literally, not made by hand - and the great example of it was the religious relic Veronica's veil, on which the image of Christ's face was miraculously imprinted after it was used to wipe away his sweat while he was carrying the cross towards Calvary.
In his films, too, Warhol sought to capture actions that could not be faked, that actually took place: eating, crying, sleeping, shooting up drugs, all the way to the notorious film Blow Job, in which we stare up-close at the face of a man while he is being fellated, and whose tics and grimaces are meant to be as authentic as the orgasm that pornography shows as proof of its reality.
For a long time Warhol was seen as the ultimate postmodern artist, systematically undermining the conditions for art: talent, inspiration, taste, originality, the artist's signature, the difference between artistic and other kinds of objects.
In fact, we can see him leading us not towards the end of art but back towards its beginning: that moment when art was not yet aestheticised, historicised, put into a museum. It was when art as we know it did not yet exist and the artist was pledged to religious rather than aesthetic values.
The huge retrospective of Warhol's work due to open at the new Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane next week takes place in the middle of this dramatic re-evaluation of Warhol's work.
The exhibition, typical of the gigantism of contemporary blockbusters, will include about 300 of Warhol's works, sourced from across the country and from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It will include his well-known Campbell's Soup cans, his Marilyns, his film and rock stars, his electric chairs and car crashes, his cow wallpaper, his Chairman Maos, his Silver Clouds, one of his Last Suppers and an almost complete selection of his films.
The new GoMA, with its populism, its kids' activities and its wide open views on to the outside world, is the ideal place to undertake this rethinking of Warhol and the consequences of his work for 21st-century art.
Warhol's work has nothing to do with our usual understanding of art, and GoMA is so far the only gallery in Australia to grapple with the problem of what to do when the most interesting objects it shows are no longer art and no longer belong to a history of art.
Two great artists of the 21st century have understood very well this strange retrospective revolution Warhol brings about for art: American pop artist Jeff Koons and Britain's Damien Hirst. In Koons's Made in Heaven series, which features hard-core tableaus in which the artist and his wife have sex, we have gestures towards the pornographic as one of the few realms where the image still retains its credibility, and an association, in the same way as Warhol, of pornography with art's original religious vocation.
In Hirst's famous shark in a vitrine or his more recent diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, we have again the attempt to produce objects that are there before us. They seek, either through their physical presence or economic worth, to do away with any effort to intellectualise them or allow us any distance from them.
In all of this, Warhol can be seen as the forerunner not of postmodernism but of the present moment in art that has come after postmodernism, the contemporary. It is a moment when theorising fades away before the sheer visual power of the work being made, when art no longer comes out of other art but is itself a thing in the world.
The paradox is that although the best art today is becoming more populist and aligned to the forms of mass culture - Koons and Hirst again, or the Japanese super-flat artist Takashi Murakami - the questions it poses are becoming more complicated and more connected to long-running themes of Western civilisation.
We can only hope that the Gallery of Modern Art in this show manages to balance the two priorities: this is the true task confronting museums today. It must realise that the art it exhibits is increasingly doing away with the need for museums, while making the case that museums are the best place for this to be thought through.
Viewers going to the GoMA to see the Warhol retrospective should realise that they constitute a kind of test case for the continued viability of art.
The strange thing is that people will flock to see originals of works they have seen a thousand times before and that in most cases were copies of images taken from elsewhere.
But this familiarity doesn't stop worshippers gazing every Sunday at the icons of Christ in their church: the images have a magical ability to make them feel that they are looking at something that was actually there in their space.
Warhol is perhaps best known for his quip that in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. The brilliant irony is that it's precisely by facing the obsolescence of art and fame, brought about by their constructions as products, that he achieved for himself a kind of immortality.
And he did so in the only form it has been possible: as an image.
Warhol and his Superstars is at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, December 8 to March 30.