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Jewish Social Studies 7.1 (2000) 127-140

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Andy Warhol: His Kafka and "Jewish Geniuses"

Bluma Goldstein


In October 1980, an exhibit featuring portraits of "famous Jews" opened at the Jewish Museum in New York; in June of the following year, a scaled-down version of the show had its "West Coast Premiere" at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. 1 Entitled "Andy Warhol: Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century," the exhibit featured silk-screen prints and acrylic paintings--the Berkeley museum showed only the serigraphs--based largely on known photo-graphs of a variety of Jewish figures no longer alive: Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers (three brothers in one frame), Martin Buber, Louis Brandeis, George Gershwin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Golda Meir. For the most part, Warhol's standard techniques of cropping photographs, outlining faces and figures, and overlaying collage-like blocks of color onto them seem to have little specific connection with the particular character or significance of either the portraits or the represented figures. The multicolored, fragmented surfaces Warhol applied in the 1960s and 1970s to portraits of celebrities in the world of entertainment and politics usually complemented or enhanced the poses and public images of those represented--think of his portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Mao Tse-tung, or Richard Nixon.

With the possible exception of the Marx Brothers, the "famous Jews" display none of the star quality of many of Warhol's other portraits; yet the cliché seems to rule in a similarly superficial, commercialized effort to lend the portraits a veneer of flamboyance or "modern" hip. In a rather quirky review of the New York exhibit, Carrie Rickey found in the paintings of Jews "an unexpected mix of cultural anthropology, [End Page 127] portraiture, celebration of celebrity, and study of intelligentsia," but she also observes that "Warhol had recast their visages to make them fit his pop iconology." 2 Roberta Bernstein, who has a fine critical appreciation of Warhol's artistic abilities, notes in a discussion of his printmaking that, though his talent as portraitist functioned primarily to reveal only the surface and therefore was "entirely suitable for his portraits of glamorous celebrities and socialites, its appropriateness for historical figures of the type in this portfolio [of the ten twentieth-century Jews] is questionable," and, she adds, his "unique ability to make insightful selections is not as apparent here as it is in other works." 3

In this article, I want to explore two separate aspects of the politics of art that emerge from the production and content of this exhibition. On the one hand is the sociocultural and political significance of the confluence of Warhol's successful endeavor to market--in a profitable venue--the portraits of what he referred to in his diaries as "the Ten Jewish Geniuses" 4 and the eagerness of major Jewish museums to mount and advertise the exhibit and to sell expensive portfolios of the exhibited serigraphs. On the other hand are the cultural and political implications of Warhol's rendition of one of the more interesting portraits, that of Franz Kafka, and the ways in which it supports a rather commonplace view of the writer by altering, even effacing the photo-graph on which the portrait is based and thereby also obscuring other, more complex, compelling readings of Kafka's life and writings, a practice shared by many interpreters of the writer and his work.

"Marketing the Jews"

Warhol's preoccupation with money and status is common knowledge and is reflected in his many prints of dollar signs and paper money. But it is also readily apparent in his brazen and candid commercialism and his persistent attention to and exploitation of a commodified art market, indeed his appreciation of business itself as an art form. "I started as a commercial artist," Warhol once remarked, "and I want to finish as a business artist. . . . I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." 5 His notorious interest...


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