Obsessed with fame and media hype, he 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.
Andy Warhol. Martin Bluber. From Ten Portraits. @ Andy Warhol Foundation.
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 tended to embrace Warhol's series, several leading art critics dismissed it when they were first exhibited. Since its debut, Ten Portraits has continued to confront viewers with these questions: Why did a Pop artist who otherwise displayed little interest in Jewish culture or causes create a series devoted to eminent Jews? How do we reconcile Warhol's commercial motives with the high-minded portrayal of cultural and historical icons?
The way it exploited its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive - or would be, anyway, 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 no less 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."
Warhol adored Hollywood glamor. As an sickly child and a bizarre looking adult. he worshiped the beautiful people. If he couldn't be one, he would try to possess them through his art which validated their value as commercial icons while simultaneously devaluing their unique iconic status their through mass reproductions. 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.
Images courtesy of Ronald Felman Fine Arts and the Jewish Community Center Archives
Ben Blackwell / S.F. Museum of Modern Art. Andy Warhol. "National Velvet" (1963)
Warhol "National Velvet' - part of the current exhibit at SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary Celebration: http://www.sfmoma.org/
Baker's review at SF Gate: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/03/12/PKR01C9AF6.DTL&type=art