The Forgotten Warhol

Warhol throws people's own words and ideas back at them - a psychological game, and also a slapstick prank a la Marx Brothers.

David Stromberg
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David Stromberg

When the exhibit "Andy Warhol: Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century" opened at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1980, critics asked where Warhol's sudden interest in Jews had come from, with some even suggesting that this "random" choice of subject was "exploitative." Of course it was - exploitation had always been a Warhol tool in trade. But there was little random about Warhol's choice for the exhibition, which is now enjoying a revival showing at the museum.

As a devoutly religious man, whose family was descended from the Slavic Rusyn (Ruthenian) Catholic Church, Warhol (1928-1987) was more than a little familiar with the Jews' biblical history. He also had a historical connection to the catastrophe of World War II - his family's region of origin, where he still had relatives, was forced by the Nazis to become part of Hungary, and was later annexed to Soviet Ukraine. And his entire career as a visual artist included relationships with Jewish members of the art world - artists, dealers, collectors, museum officials. In fact, the first person to present Andy Warhol as a visual, as opposed to commercial, artist was a Jew named Irving Blum, who in 1962 exhibited - and then bought for himself - the entire original series of Warhol's Campbell's Soup can paintings.

The exhibition of important Jewish figures allegedly grew out of Warhol's casual question to art dealer Ronald Feldman, "Do you have any ideas?" Feldman and Israeli art dealer Alexander Harari suggested the series as the continuation of an earlier print Warhol had made of Golda Meir. They drew up a long list of Jews with the highest cultural, scientific, and political achievements, but looked at in the most shallow and associative way - with a Warholian sort of dismissiveness - these subjects metamorphose into something different or even opposite: Kafka becomes a coy male model; Sarah Bernhardt resembles Lolita; Louis Brandeis looks like a mad scientist; and so on, with Einstein, Freud and Gertrude Stein, among others.

Several critics responded to the original hanging of this show with the same accusatory chants of commercialism they had been hurling at Warhol for 20 years. Hilton Kramer wrote in The New York Times of Warhol's "customary insouciance," and exposed his predisposition against the artist by claiming he had "already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner." The Village Voice's Kim Levin dismissed the project as "hypocritical, cynical, and exploitative."

But 28 years of publications, exhibits, documentaries, and fictional films with or about Warhol have not only proven his staying power, they have also contributed to the continuing reevaluation and newfound relevance of his work. Seeing the show today is surprisingly refreshing, and urges us to think about society's - as well as our - evolving relationships with each of these "Jewish Geniuses," as Warhol called them.

Perhaps it was Warhol's use of such catch phrases that deflected critics' perception of these works as having future relevance. When he flew to Miami, for the show's world premiere, he was given a tour of the Art Deco District - asking his tour guide, "Are there any Art Deco people there?" - and at the opening was photographed partaking of his usual hobnobbing. As often, the works seemed secondary to the event. But Andy Warhol is no longer "the most famous living artist," and the current show lacks any of the media hoopla surrounding the original presentation - it's a Warhol exhibit that few people know about, and isn't even listed on the official Warhol Web site.

It's under these less conspicuous circumstances that the show's curator, Richard Meyer, invites us to reconsider "Warhol's Jews" and assign it the critical meaning it was originally denied. And actually, the physical re-hanging goes a long way in helping us recontextualize the works. The show is crammed into one medium-sized hall with dark brown, angled walls. To see every print, source photo and text, one has to mouse around various nooks and corners. This lends the exhibition a certain coziness - a modesty that feels very Jewish - and creates a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the portrayed subjects.

In his catalog essay, Meyer also claims an educational merit to the project: Not only did Warhol not know who Martin Buber was until Feldman suggested he paint him, Meyer, an associate professor of art history at the University of Southern California, acknowledges that he himself knew little about Buber before he saw Warhol's print. In his review, Kramer commented on the "lurid treatment" of the Jewish philosopher with "scarlet line drawings ... against random touches of green and purple," a color palate that by Kramer's aesthetic judgment was an insult to the history and meaning of Buber.

But Warhol was concerned neither with the perpetuation nor the desecration of the meaning of Martin Buber. He is said to have chosen the photo because of Buber's resemblance to his idea of Moses. In a TV clip in the museum's media center, we see a reporter asking Warhol why he decided to open his show in Miami. "I didn't really have anything to do with it," he answers, and then urges the reporter, "But if you can come up with a good answer, if you can tell me what to say ..."

What seems like impertinence is actually Warhol drawing out his interlocutor's presumptions and unspoken expectations. He throws people's own words and ideas back at them - a psychological game, and also a slapstick prank a la Marx Brothers - the subjects of another portrait in the series. This strategy, which underlies much of his work, distracts us from our own implicit agenda while making us self-conscious about it. It pulls out of us our desires, and gives them back to us in a way other than what we expected or even wanted. In this it greatly resembles reality.

David Stromberg is assistant editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.