Reexamining Warhol's Jews

Artist's 'Jewish Geniuses' are still a source of controversy after 30 yrs.

Warhol Jews 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Warhol Jews 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For an artist by no means unfamiliar with controversy, the 1980 exhibit of Andy Warhol's "Jewish Geniuses," at the Jewish Museum in New York, a series of 10 portraits of famous Jews, proved particularly fraught. "The way it exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive - or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner," New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote in a review that appeared the day before Yom Kippur. Other New York critics were no less harsh. A review in Artforum accused Warhol of pandering to a "synagogue circuit" and the Village Voice noted that the series "will certainly sell well in Miami and Tel Aviv but it's profoundly hypocritical, cynical, and exploitative." The exhibition - which features portraits of Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, Golda Meir and the Marx Brothers - is being shown at the Jewish Museum almost 30 years after it first appeared. As the title suggests, viewers are being asked to reconsider its legacy. Arranged by art historian and curator Richard Meyer, "Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered," presents silk-screened versions, one of five editions of the paintings Warhol made and several preliminary graphite drawings. The exhibit returns to these pictures with a "fresh set of questions," suggests Meyer in an essay featured in the catalog. While commercial success was central to Warhol, a Catholic who otherwise showed little interest in Jewish culture, Meyer suggests there was more behind his series of Jews than simply a desire to sell. Inspiration for the series came not from Warhol but from his friend, the art dealer Ronald Feldman, one of many Jews in the art world Warhol befriended. Feldman and Israeli art dealer Alexander Harari suggested the series of Jews as an outgrowth of an earlier print of Golda Meir. A list of almost 100 Jews that originally included the likes of Bob Dylan, Karl Marx, and even a few non-Jews was whittled down to a final 10. And according to Warhol, who was famously evasive when it came to explaining his decisions, the selection process was largely determined by which faces he liked best. This kind of seeming haphazardness when it came to explaining his choice of subject, and Warhol's ambition to "finish as a business artist," shaped both the production and unfavorable critical reception of his work throughout the '70s and '80s, including the portraits of Jews from the 20th century. In reality, the reaction to Warhol's Jews was not that different from critical reception to an exhibit at the Whitney just one year before. Reviews of the 1979 exhibit of Andy Warhol's portraits of the '70s - which featured celebrities, fashion designers, dealers and many others - were generally unfavorable. Kramer who panned the portraits of Jews, argued that Warhol's art "belongs less to the history of painting than to the history of publicity." But three decades later, much has changed, and Warhol, contrary to some predictions, has proved his staying power. Critics failed to recognize "what the crowds at the Whitney already knew: Warhol had captured something irresistible about the zeitgeist of American culture in the 1970s," writes Meyer. It was statements like "They're going to sell," a reference to the portraits of Jews taken from Warhol's diary, that led people to believe that his only motivation was financial. But Warhol understood marketing as central to the meaning and mission of his work, all of which was made to sell. Warhol asked people to think of his paintings as mirrors and "he was perhaps the most brilliant mirror of our times," said Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum, at a recent lecture at the Jewish Museum. He urged a group of largely elderly listeners to really "look closely" at the pictures: "Things aren't always as they seem." The series of portraits displayed at the Whitney were all made to look the same: Their faces are whitewashed, their lips are stenciled in bright red and their eyes are hidden under layers of eye-shadow. In Time magazine, Robert Hughes likened the portraits to "autistic cake icing." Many viewed the series of Ten Jews as an extension of the other portraits, brushing them off as empty, consumerist art, whose only raison d'etre was to increase the Warhol coffers. But where the glitterati were shorn of their subjectivity, the Jews were not. "Here you find a richness and depth of culture that he didn't find in the other people he portrayed," said Sokolowski. Interestingly enough, Jewish communities around the country welcomed the series of portraits with far greater enthusiasm than the critics. Throughout the early 1980s, Ten Portraits toured synagogues, Jewish community centers and regional museums where it elicited a sense of "cultural affirmations and ethnic/religious pride," writes Meyer. Now, 30 years later, the title of the exhibit reflects a more nuanced approach. Though Warhol was said not to know who Martin Buber was before he appeared on the list of potential Jews (Warhol chose him because of his resemblance to Moses), Warhol had long had relationships with Jewish dealers, curators, collectors and the like. Whether reflective of a broader change in attitudes to this series of portraits or merely the perspective of the curator, the new title "Warhol's Jews" rejects the idea that exploitation was the sole motivation behind the series, and suggests instead the artist's real claim on his subject.