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When Warhol Did his Warhol Shtick

'10 Portraits' at Jewish Museum of Milwaukee

Feb. 5, 2014
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In the early 1960s, Andy Warhol’s star was on the rise. The triumph of post-war consumerism had been addressed by the young Warhol to the pleasure of a counter-cultural Zeitgeist bent on thumbing its nose at the values of the Greatest Generation. With true-to-life recreations of Brillo boxes and portraiture of soup cans, Warhol’s intention was ambiguous: was he celebrating, satirizing or exploiting popular culture? In any case, the world of high art had the wind knocked out of it and the ambiguity of Warhol’s work allowed viewers to interpret according to their own inclinations.

But a generation later, Warhol had lost his sting. Institutionalized and familiarized, style smells of shtick. It was in this environment that “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” came to fruition. Warhol played a passive role. The theme was suggested to him and he selected the subjects from a prepared list. To the ten faces, Warhol did his Warhol thing: brilliant colors, silk-screened superimpositions, repeated images. “I think they’ll sell,” he divulged to his diary.

Of the ten portraits, that of Martin Buber is one of the more interesting, though the subject’s beard of biblical proportions provides perhaps an unfair advantage. The philosopher’s work is also especially illuminating when applied to Warhol’s suite in toto.

In 1923, Buber published “I and Thou,” a short, pithy and poetically murky text that caught the ear of an existentially oriented interwar generation. His basic idea is that there are two fundamental ways that human beings are oriented towards the world: in the relation of I-Thou or I-It.

The latter relation predominates and is manifest in, for example, coldly rationalistic, scientific behavior or our everyday dealings in which we engage one another as tools. But when we are shorn of ulterior motives, distracted indifference and pernicious preconceptions, the stage has been set to say thou.

Warhol committed to canvas ten I-It relationships. And being presented with prefabricated It-hood makes it difficult to upgrade the interaction. The viewer sees the world through the artist’s eyes and through Warhol’s we see apathy and dollar signs.

Enough finger wagging. This is to be emphasized: “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” is an exhibition well worth visiting. There are other eyes to meet. Freud’s penetrating stare, Golda Meir’s optimistic gaze towards a better somewhere, Louis Brandeis’ quietly confident regard…an encounter with these architects of the present reminds us that we always already see the world through their eyes. It is with the individuals, more than their treatment, that one finds engaging artistry.

To fail to discuss the exhibition within a larger context would be a reprehensible omission. Given Warhol’s cultural status as well as the circumstance and controversy surrounding the art’s creation, “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” is a fascinating document that will prove to be of interest in future studies of Judaism and the past century.

Not only is the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee to be thanked for bringing the exhibition to town, but they have also installed the exhibit to great effect. The works come at the logical end of the JMM’s own exhibition on the history of Judaism in Milwaukee, and they are best experienced at the end of the journey. The documents, artifacts and, above all, the photographs convey a sense of thou-ness that lends revealing contrast to Warhol’s works.


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