Monday, December 16, 2013

Warhol portraits at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum

The exhibit of large-scale silkscreen prints by Andy Warhol that opened yesterday at Milwaukee's Jewish Museum is titled prosaically, “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century.” Warhol’s subjects have familiar names if not always recognizable faces: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers and Golda Meir are among them. Warhol himself called the suite of portraits “Jewish Geniuses.” The difference in the titles is more significant than the differences amongst the subjects of the work, something about which the exhibit takes special notice.

Gertrude Stein
These portraits and the exhibit are interesting for several reasons. The compositions and style will not surprise anyone familiar with Warhol’s work—and who isn’t? The Warhol brand as well as his distinctive use of color and line in combination with the photographic image have made him and his style not simply familiar but iconic. The most famous of his portrait images, Marilyn and Mao, have arguably become as recognizable as their original subjects, perhaps more so.

That is exactly why an exhibit like this one is valuable for anyone who wants to understand the depth of Warhol’s oeuvre. If it seems tempting to dismiss any particular body of work by Warhol as redundant, well, you know that his own answer to that charge could easily be inferred from his endless repetition of the Campbell’s soup can.

Sara Bernhardt
As it is, seen together in this fashion the compositions in this suite of 10 portraits seemed to me less repetitive than jazz-like improvisations on a theme. There is a cubist element to these that is absent from the Marilyn/Mao series, too. Most of the compositions involve the layering of abstract geometric shapes over and behind the more familiar trope of enhancing the photographic image with colorful linear effects.

The ones that I found personally most appealing didn’t merely stand out compositionally but also seemed to resonate with the character of the individual who was being depicted. This is perhaps ironic on two levels. First, Warhol was more interested in the subject’s status as a celebrity than any element of personality. Second, as the exhibit text reveals, “All of the subjects were dead…. They would not be able to contest the image that Warhol was using of them.”

Franz Kafka
That said, I found the portrait of Kafka most compelling. The fragmented visage may be interpreted as rising out of or sinking into the inky and infinite depth of the background. The colors that splinter his face do not, as might be expected, make Kafka seem tortured. Rather, his piercing gaze appears supremely confident, even prescient.

Sara Bernhardt is captivating. Her direct gaze cuts revealingly through the insistent abstraction of Warhol’s jumble of squares and lines.

Gertrude Stein, by contrast, who also looks directly towards the viewer, has become so abstract as to be completely opaque, as impenetrable perhaps as some of her own writing.

The triple portrait of the Marx Brothers is the only one that includes more than the single subject. Warhol takes advantage of this by repeating the three brothers with progressively more abstract renderings. This composition most clearly echoes the soup cans.

Marx Brothers, detail
Returning to the question of the exhibit titles, the distinction between the two is not insignificant. Although the attribution of ‘genius’ may be considered subjective, the fact is that each of the 10 subjects was particularly accomplished in their respective fields. The descriptive text provided by the museum asserts, “The group he selected is interesting for their differences,” and then takes pains to identify similarities amongst these diverse individuals.  Warhol’s “geniuses” were undoubtedly selected, as were Marilyn, Mao and many others, for their celebrity rather than their individuality, their personality or even their particular accomplishments, important as those are.

I’ve heard of Louis Brandeis, to pick just one example, but I have little doubt that I’m not alone when I admit that his biography is completely unknown to me. In fact, my enjoyment of the portraits of Kafka and Stein was clearly influenced by being at least somewhat familiar with their own creative endeavors.

The exhibition text adds the biographical context that is missing from Warhol’s treatment of his subjects and, likely, most viewers’ awareness. Warhol’s “geniuses” premiered at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1980. According to the Jewish Museum website, they were “met with both admiration and hostility.”  The same museum reprised the show in 2008 with the title, “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered.” 

Interest in Warhol has hardly waned. One of his canvases recently set a new record at auction of $105 million. See the story.

The current exhibit continues through March 30, 2014 at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information, go to Jewish Museum.

1 comment:

  1. The Jewish Museum in NYC is also showing the originals currently.

    You didn't happen to notice that the left eye of Gertrude Stein is in the style of Picasso drawings, his portrait of her being quite famous?

    The Golda Meir is a rare picture of her smiling benevolently, the lecturer from MCA having postulated that he identified her with his beloved mother.

    I found the Einstein quite curious in its black, white and gray plainness, as if Warhol was acknowledging that he couldn't grasp the mind of or hold a candle to this scientist. Buber too is plain in the original (see NYT review) as if for the same reason as einstein, though in Milwaukee's print the face is virtually obscured by the dark colors I think he obscured as if he had no idea what Buber was about or saying; certainly there was no I-Thou interaction.
    > >