Sunday, March 21, 2010

Andy and the Fame Game

When I returned to SF, I saw that Baker had written about the Warhol portrait that is part of SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary celebration. I was reminded of the notes that I took when I saw the exhibit of paintings by Warhol, Ten Jews of the Twentieth Century (exhibited at the JCM in 2009). The series 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. The museum also displayed an edition of the final-silk-screen print portfolio, the photographs that Warhol used as source images, several preliminary sketches, and a preparatory collage. The drawings and source photographs had not previously been exhibited alongside the finished pictures which made this a unique opportunity to understand Warhol's process and technique.

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?
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, 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:
Baker's review at SF Gate:

1 comment:

A Cuban In London said...

I love Andy. And you gotta love his chutzpah. Many thanks for the historical background to the post. Really appreciated it.

Greetings from London.