When I returned to San Francisco after a week in Southern California, I saw that Baker had written about the Warhol self-portrait that is part of SF MOMA’s 75th Anniversary celebration. I was reminded of show that I saw at the JCM last year, when I saw the exhibit of paintings by Warhol, Ten Jews of the Twentieth Century. The exhibit depicted ten luminaries of Jewish culture: Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, and Gertrude Stein. The exhibition at the JCM was the first showing on the West Coast of a complete set of paintings that Warhol made in this series.
Obsessed with fame and media hype, he had appropriated images from popular culture and created unforgettable — and highly marketable – portraits of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Warhol’s portraits, typically produced in multiple, defy customary expectations for a unique or psychologically revealing view of the individual. By openly embracing commercialism and the trappings of fame, and by employing photography and silk-screening, he challenged concepts of originality and self-expression. He also proved Duchamp’s theory that if you are successful, anything you label art will be accepted as art.
When it premiered in 1980, Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century aroused both conversation and controversy. While some Jewish audiences embraced Warhol’s series, several leading art critics dismissed it when they were first exhibited.
Unlike many of Warhol’s portraits, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century depicts subjects whom the artist never met, because none of the subjects were alive at the time. Warhol was evasive when asked to divulge his selection criteria for the series and once told a reporter that he chose these ten subjects “because I liked the faces.” The idea for Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century originated with Ronald Feldman, a New York gallerist, who commissioned it with Israeli art dealer Alexander Harari. Warhol dubbed the series his “Jewish Geniuses.” So, in essence, this is not really about Jews per se, but another variation on Warhol’s obsession with celebrity; in this case, celebrities of genuine merit whose achievements are not confined to the red carpet du jour.
The way it exploited its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive – or would be even more if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner,” New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote in a review that appeared the day before Yom Kippur. Other New York critics were equally harsh. A review in Artforum accused Warhol of pandering to a “synagogue circuit” and the Village Voice noted that the series “will certainly sell well in Miami and Tel Aviv but it’s profoundly hypocritical, cynical, and exploitative.”
In hindsight, however, some critics have come to view Warhol’s superficiality and commercialism as “the most brilliant mirror of our times,” contending that “Warhol had captured something irresistible about the zeitgeist of American culture in the 1970s.” I will leave it to the reader to decide what this really says about that decade or indeed, it’s artistic progeny such as Jeff Koons.
Warhol adored intense Hollywood glamor. As an sickly child, a bizarre man and an outsider, he worshiped the beautiful people. If he couldn’t be one of them, he would try to possess them through his art, art which celebrated their beauty while simultaneously devaluing their unique iconic status. He once said: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re so beautiful. Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”
Sales validate the product — true then, true now. He may have been the first to so successfully manipulate the art market but the coming decades would prove that he would not be the last.
Baker’s review at SF Gate: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/03/12/PKR01C9AF6.DTL&type=art#ixzz0ipbFLjI8