San Francisco

“Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered”

The eightieth anniversary in 2008 of Andy Warhol’s birth provoked the exhumation of little-known material from the artist’s seemingly bottomless archives—for instance, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” the important exhibition organized by the Moderna Museet and the Stedelijk Museum, included rarely screened videos and audio recordings among its seven-hundred-plus items. “Warhol’s Jews” was a smaller, more focused look at still more underexamined work: the artist’s controversial 1980 series of ten portraits of famous Jews from the twentieth century. The acrylic screenprints depict subjects such as Gertrude Stein, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Golda Meir in tight head shots overlaid with scrawled lines and planes of garish colors. Warhol’s undoubtedly market-serving gesture has been castigated as cynical, exploitative, and anti-Semitic on the one hand, and embraced as honorific on the other. The strength of this exhibition, an abbreviated version of which was on view last year at the Jewish Museum in New York, was that it engaged with rather than dismissed these debates.

Drawing on an impressive wealth of ephemera, the show detailed the portraits’ origins as well as their ongoing circulation. The series grew from a suggestion of Warhol’s (Jewish) gallerist Ronald Feldman, and the exhibition included Feldman’s handwritten list of potential subjects: everyone from Chopin to Arthur Miller to Sammy Davis Jr., the last entry on the page. The diversity of these names points to the malleability of Jewish identity and the complexities of birthright, cultural heritage, assimilation, and conversion. Source photographs, preparatory drawings, and proofs illustrated the ways in which the artist selected, cropped, and manipulated the images before arriving at the final products.

Curated by art historian Richard Meyer, the exhibition presented the portraits less as discrete aesthetic objects (in fact, they hold little interest in that regard) than as windows onto Warhol’s methods of production and his critical reception. Vitrines housed newspaper reviews of the series from when it first appeared, including scathing ones decrying its “Jewploitation” or sniffing that the endeavor is “vulgar . . . [and] reeks of commercialism.” The latter indictment, by Hilton Kramer, was blown up and printed on the museum wall. By foregrounding this bad press, Meyer broaches the way in which Warhol’s representation of Jewishnesses intersects with money, fame, gallery politics, and publicity. In the catalogue, he asks: “Why did Warhol, a practicing Catholic who otherwise displayed little interest in Jewish causes or culture, create a series devoted to great Jews?” The answer is in part economic, and the show details the frenzied art industry within which the works were born and disseminated.

The series was produced in an edition of two hundred, the ten portraits presold as a package deal; later paintings based on the original silk screens (and likewise on view here) were sold at higher prices. The exhibition emphasized Warhol’s unabashed embrace of the business of art and the culture of marketing. We were shown that the portraits were always understood as merchandise (an Interview advertisement displayed their 1980 price), but there was, oddly, no current auction catalogue to indicate how they have increased in value over the past three decades. Though the portraits have not figured prominently in criticism, they have had unexpected afterlives as book covers, magazine illustrations, and prized collector’s items. In a fitting coda, Bay Area monologuist Josh Kornbluth was inspired to create for the exhibition a performance—“Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?”—which interrogates the intersection of art, celebrity, and Jewish stereotypes.

Although the works themselves are less than riveting, the show’s installation sustained visual interest. With its vast range of archival documents, including television footage of Warhol at a Miami opening, extensive press coverage, and exhibition brochures, “Warhol’s Jews” provided a map of art-historical research methods, illuminating not only the labors entailed by a particular artistic practice, but also those required in putting together such an exhibition.

Julia Bryan-Wilson