Sarah Bernhardt from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980 © 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York/ Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York/ www.feldmangallery.com
Since its creation in 1980, Critics have lambasted Warhol’s “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” as one-dimensional and exploitative. Several recent shows have reawakened the controversy surrounding the project. After traveling to San Francisco and New York in 2008-2009, the series is now on display in a retrospective at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. In response to these shows, many contemporary reviewers have repeated the argument that Warhol was motivated solely by profit and that he trivialized important historical figures. Perhaps it is time to check our cynicism and explore how the series fits into his oeuvre and intellectual interests.
The skepticism regarding Warhol’s motivations stems from the fact that he was not Jewish and did not select the individuals portrayed. New York art dealer, Ronald Feldman suggested the series. Warhol and Feldman then asked Ruth Levine, a Washington area curator to help them choose appropriate subjects.
While the idea for the show did not originate with Warhol, Jews had always featured prominently amongst Warhol’s subjects. Feldman approached the artist only after seeing a portrait that Warhol had previously made of Golda Meir. The artist also painted his friends and acquaintances, many of whom were Jewish. His famous 1963 portrait of Ethel Scull depicted the young Jewish American as though she were a glamorous movie star. The Sculls’ fortune and avid patronage of the arts allowed them to achieve social prominence. Just a few decades earlier, they would have been perceived as “nouveau riche” and their ascent would have been difficult, if not impossible. To make the portrait, Warhol screen-printed images of Ethel voguing for a photo-mat camera onto solid blocks of color. While he may not be telling us much about Mrs. Scull, Warhol is exploring Ethel’s cultural significance in a simple, effective way.
Like most of his portraits, Warhol’s “Jewish Geniuses” (as he called them) have been accused of telling us little about the people depicted. Plumbing the depths of each person’s psyche; however, was not Warhol’s goal. He turned his subjects into symbols that collectively captured the zeitgeist and reflected his view of the modern world. When considered together, his portraits tell us about the artist’s fascination with social mobility and the idea that in the twentieth century, anyone could become somebody through the strength of their talent and personality. Warhol, who transformed himself from the anonymous son of poor Slovakian immigrants into the darling of the art world, was a perfect illustration of this phenomenon.
While he may not have explored each subject in great depth, Warhol understood the cultural significance of the series. He was aware that a large market for these pieces existed and even wrote in his diary that they would sell. At the same time, Warhol appreciated that a sizeable audience indicates that a work has succeeding in connecting to its time and place. “Ten Portraits” toured art centers, museums, synagogues and Jewish community centers in the decade after their creation and are still periodically displayed today. The series has even inspired a one-man show, “Andy Warhol – Good for the Jews?” currently being performed by Josh Kornbluth at the Washington JCC.
Perhaps we can better appreciate Warhol’s Jews if we look at the series for what it is, not great art, but good design. Great art explores a subject in depth, whereas a smart piece of design communicates a message in a meaningful, intelligent way to a specific audience. Warhol’s project achieves its goal: turning photographs of important Jewish figures into an iconic series of images. It emphasizes the continued relevance of the subjects through its modern style. At the same time, Warhol linked the project to tradition by thinking in terms of archetypes. When asked about how he chose his subjects, Warhol responded that he liked their faces. From the standpoint of fine art, we might hope for something a bit meatier, but from a design perspective, variety within a series is crucial. Warhol portrayed a beautiful young women (Sarah Berndardt) an attractive young man (Franz Kaftka), a mother figure (Golda Meir) and a grandfather (Martin Buber). Initially, the artist did not even know who Buber was, but chose him partially because he looked like Moses. By showing us images of people of both genders and of all different ages and talents, Warhol is visually creating a sense of community, an effect that we would not have if the artists had simply chosen to portray a collection of venerable, bearded older gentlemen. In the end, Warhol’s series continues to resonate with people today and communicates the breadth and variety of accomplishments of the Jewish people.