New York

Andy Warhol

Mr. Merchandising, ANDY WARHOL, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse: how about a print folio of ten famous Jews? A moral nightmare, but a marketing dream. Jewploitation. Warhol had already done “The Ten Most Wanted Men,” and “The Ten Most Beautiful Women,” but these had been ironic variants on police blotter and beauty contest listmaking. Listing ten Jews(the advance on this project termed it “Jewish geniuses of the 20th century”) had no such irony, its only raison d’être was to penetrate a new market: the synagogue circuit. It also turned out to be the only way to get the Jewish Museum to show contemporary art after its retreat from the avant-garde back into the safety of Judaica.

Warhol, always a suggestible kind of guy, was taken by the idea, which seems to have been tossed out by the folio publishers, Ronald Feldman and Alexander Harari. Reportedly, the chief trouble was choosing the Jews. After a few raids on the Bettmann Archive, many lists, choosing from among hundreds of images, Warhol finally selected Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, The Marx Brothers (a three-in-one), Golda Meir, and Gertrude Stein. The result: an unforeseen irony—the prints were so interesting for Warhol, that, on completion he commenced a series of paintings of these ten Jews. In the publishing industry, they call this a backward deal—if the low-budget paperback is successful then publish it in hardback for the more dignified buyer. The prints are typically graphic, the usual Warhol treatment; the paintings are staggering.

Somehow this segregated ethnic segment—as offensive as it does sound—provided Warhol with enough referents to make the work successful. Unlike the Warhol portraits shown at the Whitney earlier this year, which were superficial treatments of superficial people, the paintings of Jews had an unexpected mix of cultural anthropology, portraiture, celebration of celebrity, and study of intelligentsia—all at the same time.

The subtitle of the Jews show (its real title, “Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century”) could be Big Brains. The only atmosphere as cerebrally intense as the ground-floor gallery of the Jewish Museum is an auditorium where the MCAT is being administered. (The prints, the ostensible reason for the exhibition, are typically Warholian, but do not pack the punch that the installation of the 30 paintings does.)

The paintings are 3 feet square, each photosilkscreened image painted, scribbled, and scumbled by Warhol to give a slightly different reading of each famous character. There you are in the center of these 30 paintings (3 per Jew), focal point of all these Big Brains whose Big Eyes stare at you.

Significantly, it’s the eyes that have it. These windows to the soul are what Warhol does best. (The flattened, shallow quality of the eyes at the Whitney portrait show was the most off-putting thing about it.) Sarah Bernhardt’s heavy-lidded, dreamy gaze. Albert Einstein’s crinkly suppressed eye twinkle. Golda Meir’s penetrating, shit-detecting direct eye contact. Warhol meets their gaze.

Then there’s another surprise: seeing the faces of these faceless dignitaries was quite a jolt. Louis Brandeis looks like a mature James Dean—streetwise and sexy. Martin Buber looks like a Yippie. Warhol has recast their visages to make them fit his pop iconology. What you end up realizing is that Warhol is history painter and iconolater at once, making these overachievers figures on his celebrity register. He suggests that they’ll more likely be famous for 1500 years than 15 minutes. The powerful installation aggressively says, intellectuals have more fun. Enduring celebrities, religious figures. Warhol writes a Jewish hagiography.

God only knows what Warhol’s going to do with his next series, “The Pope Visits New York.” He’ll penetrate another market—the archdiocese circuit—and he might be the only real modern artist to be collected by the Vatican Museum.

Carrie Rickey