Thursday, July 24, 2008

Last Week in NYC of Warhol’s Jews

Last Week in NYC of Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered at Jewish Museum (New York), with catalogue by Richard Mayer with contributions by Gabriel de Guzman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

The retrospective exhibition “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered” will close at the Jewish Museum in New York on August 3, 2008. At this exhibition of these 1980 prints and paintings, Jewish history meets Pop history, providing a good lens through which to view secular Jews’ views of themselves in late 20th century America. Though these portraits of famous 20th Warhol was attracted to faces (he preferred Golda Meir and Martin Buber to Louis Brandeis), and he treated the Jewish luminaries to the same technique he used for society arrivistes and rock stars. But this project was conceived, researched, organized and presented by Jews who embraced it and appreciated Warhol’s no-nonsense non-discriminatory portraiture. Looking back, it represents a moment when American Jews – now part of the post-1960s ethnic-pride movement, were willing to publicly celebrate famous Jews for their Jewishness, not just their achievements. For the previous 150 years American Jews have been hearing the mantra “we must be judged as contributing Americans – not just as Jews.” Suddenly Jews were felt secure enough to publicly play the game of “Who’s a Jew?” with a positive spin. Not since the early days of Zionism, when European artists such as Alfred Nossig created popular works of Jewish heroes (but those figures were biblical, not contemporary) had art and public relations merged so effectively on behalf of Jews. Warhol’s famous Jews express a moment of Jewish pride. Whether critics declare them more kitsch than art or vice versa, no one can see them either ironic or “Too Jewish.” century Jews were, like all of Warhol’s AD-ventures of this period, a commercial enterprise, Warhol was no Philip Johnson, - accommodating Jews as a career move. Warhol and the (Jewish) art dealer Ronald Feldman seemed to have entered into this venture in the mutual spirit of naiveté, discovery and fun.

The show will on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from October 12, 2008 through January 25, 2009. The well-illustrated catalogue provides a straight-forward background essay on the history of the original project and on how these images have been subsequently perceived. Embracing the project as an opportunity for Jewish education, perhaps on the assumption that more people are familiar with Warhol than with Martin Buber or Sarah Bernhardt (who was baptized a Catholic), the catalogue also provides biographies of all the Jews depicted.

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