Interview with Molly Dubin on Andy Warhol's "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century"

Dec. 16, 2013
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Tyler Friedman: “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” by Andy Warhol is not the gathering of assorted portraits; rather, it was conceived of as a sort of suite. It was commissioned as a body of works. I thought we should begin with a bit of background about the canvases. 

Molly Dubin: It’s really rather interesting doing research about the exhibit and all the writings that have come afterwards concerning the controversy, which has come hand in hand with the completion of that suite in 1980. And the interesting thing is that Warhol didn’t have a lot of input as to how the exhibit came about. He was in New York working at the time, and from what I can gather it was a bit of a lull in Warhol’s career and he was looking for some new concepts and new ideas. He had always done work in terms of portraiture and he was maybe looking to expand on that concept, and as it happened, one of the art dealers in New York approached him about works of art having to do with Golda Meir. This art dealer said to Warhol, “You know, I happened to have this interesting conversation and it got me thinking that it might be really interesting and profitable to do a suite of works focusing on prominent Jewish individuals.” Warhol thought it was a really great idea, but he wasn’t really intimately involved with the selection of individuals that ultimately wound up being included in the suite. From what I can gather, this art dealer in connection with the art dealer for the JCC [Jewish Community Center] of greater Washington, which is where the exhibit was first displayed, came up with a list of probably over a hundred potential individuals all who would’ve aptly fit the role of ‘Jewish genius,’ as Warhol liked to refer to these individuals. Then the list wound up being worked down to a grouping of ten, which is fitting, I don’t know if they had in mind at the time that it was the same number as you would need for a minyan [the quorum of ten Jewish adults required to carry out certain religious ceremonies], but it works out that way. Some of the women might not necessarily be counted as minyan if you were approaching this from an orthodox standpoint, but interesting nonetheless that they wound up with ten.

TF: You mentioned that when the show premiered in 1980 it was not a hit with the critics, to put it mildly. One critic referred to it as ‘Jew-sploitation,’ another took offense that the works did not seem to evidence the slightest grasp of the subjects’ significance. Thirty-some-odd years on, do these criticism still hold?

MD: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this exhibit at this time. Of course, we’ve never had this suite here displayed in Milwaukee, so that was another impetus. But there are galleries and museums around the world that thirty-three years after the creation of the works have been asking this same question which is based on the controversy that it generated all those years ago and the reasoning behind it. Do we still look at it the same way? A generation and a half later when you have people inundated with people being celebrities just for being celebrities without any real talent behind their being famous – of course the Kardashians being a grouping that comes to mind – and all of the reality TV shows that you have out there and these people who are really famous for no particular reason other than the fact that they’re on TV and have become part of the pop culture, I have to think that people are going to perceive these a certain way or that younger generations will look at it differently and maybe some of those who had judged it in terms of one group of standards with everything that has happened since then, are maybe able to now look back at it and say, maybe there’s more to this. So, one of the main reasons that I wanted to have this show is to open up that dialogue and engage some of the individuals in their twenties and thirties and to ask them what their perception of the is work is now in the greater pantheon of pop culture.

TF: Could you say a little bit more about the content of the controversy? Why was it so controversial? Was it because Warhol was himself a Catholic, or because the works seemed to be undertaken because of their profitability? 

MD: Well I think several things are at play here. You mentioned earlier that some of the critics talk about as being ‘Jew-sploitation’ which is something that I have written about in connection with the exhibit as well. And I think the controversy was also fueled by how the portraits came about. It wasn’t as if Warhol sat down and said, “Well there are a tremendous amount of talented Jewish individuals in the world who have really done so much to impact the world in so many disciplines, I think it’s really important that I do some type of documentation through my artwork.” That wasn’t the case. It was a situation where he and art dealers were looking for something that might resonate with a greater audience and something they thought would be really profitable. So you don’t really have it coming from a genuine place in terms of its development. On the other hand, it’s very reflective of Warhol and his philosophy, which is all about crass commercialism and his love affair, if you will, with crass commercialism, and turning commercial art into fine art. But he started out as a commercial artist and he successfully made the transition and he really, I think, was one of the foremost individuals and artists who showed the world it doesn’t have to be that definitive line between what is considered commercial and what is considered the avant-garde.

TF: It seems that his original formula of turning commercial art into high art is reversed in the case of the Jewish portraits. The Campbell’s soup can becomes an object of aesthetic appreciation. Whereas in this case, he’s taking great philosophers, scientists, artists, and thinkers of all stripes and then turning them into, if we’re to believe the critics, into something common. So instead of turning the commercial into the artistic, he’s turning the artistic in to the commercial.

MD: To a certain extent, that’s where the crux the controversy lies. That’s exactly it. Is there this reversal? And does he have any understanding of the contributions of these individuals and how they impacted society? You feel like you would want the artist behind these works to have some grasp of that, and it really isn’t necessarily evident.

TF: I suppose so, but on the other hand, I’d be interested in hearing why, from the perspective of the critics, that is important. One could point out that Warhol is lending his name to someone like Martin Buber. How many people read Buber these days? Warhol is increasing Buber recognition. Couldn’t that be taken as a positive effect of the work?

MD: Could be, but on the flip side of that, if you were among the intellectuals who considered Buber to be this very important figure, they might say, yes, the visibility is raised but is it the kind of visibility that’s wanted? Is the association between Buber and commercialism unwanted visibility? That’s why I think there are so many people on both sides of the issue. That’s why it generated so much controversy. You can see the point of the people who are championing the legacies of these ten individuals saying you can’t make it commercial, versus the people on the other side who maybe say, as you said, what’s wrong with him documenting these individuals and making a suite of artwork raising their visibility and bringing more attention to the contributions of these individuals. So, you can see where the controversy lies.

The other thing that comes along with that is, is there some thought to the fact that, at the time, Jewish individuals were very much at the forefront of Hollywood, music, lots of disciplines, and therefore had money to spend on buying works of art, and so there’s also the thought behind this that he was kind of pandering to an audience that he thought would be able to afford his artwork and, there were many of them that accepted it because the works were purchased in large numbers. So you kind of wonder what that’s about as well because you’ve got it being accepted readily into collections in museums to a certain extent, but again, you’ve got the critics on the other side, maybe some of the intellectuals who are really having a hard time with how he’s approaching this group of geniuses.

TF: We’ve discussed how Warhol plays with the distinction between the high and the low, the commercial and the artistic – are these works, in your mind, in keeping with Warhol’s fixation with fame and celebrity, or do they have something to teach us about Judaism in the twentieth century?

MD: I think, a little bit of both. Certainly anyone who looks at this suite, and the people who are included you cannot deny the contribution, the legacy, the importance of these individuals. For someone like Warhol to have created this suite, it does bring them into another kind of space, where they’re being viewed, discussed, exposed to people who maybe aren’t part of the art world, or aware of people who have a certain notoriety and so it’s being opened to a whole new audience. Many of the individuals that are included have works that continue to impact today’s Judaic realm. You know, the works of Martin Buber or of Kafka, the philosophies and the works of these people are still very much a part of today’s Jewish education and are very much taught in the high schools in the universities. It’s also interesting for contemporary Jewish education to look at these individuals and their placement within the timeline of Jewish educators, Jewish contributors, and looking at how they’ve stood the test of time and how they have become really inspiration for writers, philosophers, educators, who look to these individuals as mentors. I think it’s part of a continuum, it’s looking to the original work, the original body of work, that is still very relevant but also to the generations that have been inspired and have contributed to Jewish education, making it more relevant and more in connection with issues of today.

TF: How do these paintings relate to some of Warhol’s better-known works, the soup cans, or Elvis, or Marilyn Monroe, or Mao? Do these late works reveal a different Warhol?

MD: Warhol always was very drawn to portraiture. He was always drawn to beauty and to the idea of fame, and so I think you’ve got a couple things going on here. They’re different in that this is definitely a grouping of individuals who have contributed, some would argue, on a different level artistically and intellectually. You compare an ‘Albert Einstein’ to a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ or an ‘Elvis Presley,’ I mean, aside from the fact that they both had portraits painted by Andy Warhol, what’s the connection there? There really isn’t. So in the sense that these individuals made truly weighty contributions to society-that is different. His treatment of them, however, is not. And, again, it goes back to the controversy that we talked about earlier, in that the way he’s portraying them is very much like he has done like a ‘Marilyn’ or an ‘Elvis,’ and when you start approaching them in the same way from the same treatment, there can’t help but be a comparison. And even though there maybe shouldn’t be, because of their treatment and because of his process, they are compared in the art historical world.

TF: Do you have a favorite?

MD: Among the ten? He has very few women that are included. There is a seven to three in the ratio of the grouping [TF: Nine to three if you count the Marx brothers individually]. I really enjoy the portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, which is the one we’ve used for a lot of our marketing pieces. But all the pieces have their different aesthetic qualities and attractions and unique qualities about them, so they all generate a sense of interest. And from their sheer size, they draw you in. You’re looking at what normally would be fairly intimate, you’re looking at the close-up of an individual’s face blown up to a really large scale, so there’s an intimacy that happens with the works, but also because of their large scale it really speaks to that issue of celebrity or fame. I think it almost forces the viewer, as they’re taking all in, to work out the juxtaposition of those concepts, which don’t normally go hand in hand. And it asks the viewer to come to some resolution within themselves.

TF: Had you been making the list, who would you have included that was left off?

MD: That’s so hard. I don’t think I want to jump into that pool. There’s just so many. At the time they were created, there certainly were individuals who would come to the forefront. You think of someone like Woody Allen. He’s contributed so much culturally. Or, looking back to antiquity to maybe Maimonides, or someone who from a biblical perspective contributed to Judaic. But it’s definitely an interesting group that we have in Warhol’s paintings. And we are very thankful to the Spertus Institute in Chicago for loaning us the works.


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