"Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered": Contemporary Jewish Museum

Article excerpt

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 or 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 artists's controversial 1980 series of ten portraits of famous Jews from the twentieth century. The acrylic screenprints depict subjects such as Gertrude Stein, Saigmund 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 artists 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 on to 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 . …