Warhol’s Landmark Portraits Make Their Way Back to D.C.
For pop artist Andy Warhol, maybe timing really is everything. When his show “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” premiered in Washington, D.C., in 1980, critics panned it as exploitative, even as audiences lauded it. Thirty years later, in the age of wardrobe malfunctions and racy YouTube videos, 10 colorful portraits of influential Jews hardly raises an eyebrow.
Any time an artist departs from the norm, people get uncomfortable, said Susan W. Morgenstein, guest curator of “Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century in Retrospect,” an exhibit at the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery.
The display comprises Warhol’s 10 portraits of renowned Jews: French actress Sarah Bernhardt; Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; philosopher and educator Martin Buber; physicist Albert Einstein; Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis; the comical Marx brothers; former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; composer George Gershwin; novelist Franz Kafka; and writer Gertrude Stein.
Besides the 40-inch-by-32-inch prints, this show includes reproductions of the photographs on which Warhol based the portraits, clips from media coverage of the original exhibition, and letters among the original collaborators who selected which Jews to feature.
“When Warhol was first working, using that medium the way he did was so unusual people were so insulted by the very fact that he did it,” Morgenstein — who was a curator of the original exhibition — said of the artist’s use of silk screens, collages and photographs. Critics didn’t accept Warhol, considering pop art commercial and part of the print world, not “real” art. “They were almost saying Andy Warhol has some nerve to take on a serious subject,” Morgenstein said.
Today, however, “Warhol has come into our visual vocabulary so it’s not a surprise. You can get a program for your computer that will Warholize your images. We’re all so used to seeing it in our visual vocabularies that we don’t have that same visual slap in the face, slap in the eyes that one would have had in 1980,” said Morgenstein. “I think the critics this time looked at it as art and how it fit into art history rather than whether it had some sort of sociopolitical statement to make.”
But making a statement was not Warhol’s goal, the curator pointed out. His art gave already well-known people like Marilyn Monroe and China’s Mao Zedong a certain star quality. “By putting these people in his pantheon, so to speak, he raised them to that level, not that they weren’t there in the minds of some,” Morgenstein said of the 10 Jews.
The exhibit’s focus was also a departure for the artist. “Warhol really took on a number of challenges he’d never faced before,” Morgenstein said. “He’d never done people who were no longer living; his subjects had always been alive.”
Working on 10 subjects rather than 10 versions of the same person or many versions of the same photograph was also new to him. In his previous portfolios, each image connects to the next. This time, “they aren’t referential. You don’t hop from one to the other; you don’t look at these in serial form. You look at these individually,” Morgenstein explained.
The print of Meir for example is dominated by blue, a color in the Israeli flag. Warhol’s use of red in the piece suggests her power and pink reminds us of her femininity, a combination still met with interest today. Warhol used six silk screens and 10 colors to perfect her image.
While each figure got his or her own print, the three Marx brothers — Groucho (Julius Henry), Chico (Leonard) and Harpo (Arthur) — share a print, with three photos of each brother in varying levels of clarity. In total, the nine heads incorporate the largest number of silk screens of the lot, at 15, and the most colors, at 21.
For Morgenstein, a standout piece is Warhol’s depiction of Bernhardt. “From the point of view of being confronted by a face, the Bernhardt I find very impressive,” she said. “He cropped Sarah Bernhardt out of a much more distant photograph of her. It showed her knees in it. He brings the head very forward, almost to the Plexiglas. You’re almost seeing it at the glass or it’s trying to crawl out of the glass. It’s a very dimensional piece to me. You think of Warhol as flat, flat, flat, flat, but because of the way he’s used the red in that piece, she’s very present.”
Morgenstein hopes that audiences this time around appreciate each print’s individuality. “I hope they spend enough time to look at each face. That’s not the usual take-away from a Warhol suite, from a Warhol portfolio. Normally one looks at them as a piece — you know, the 10 are a work. In this case, they’re 10 works.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.