Despite the whimsical title, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? is a serious conversation, about serious stuff. It is about art, and – this is the genius of Kornbluth, that eventually he always gets down to the bones of the thing – about love.
In 1980, Andy Warhol – he of the fifteen minutes of fame and the giant soup cans – painted, in his own inimitable style, ten portraits of famous twentieth-century Jews (George Gershwin, Sarah Bernhardt, Martin Buber, the Marx Brothers, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Louis Brandeis, Gertrude Stein, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka). They were not, shall we say, well received. “[V]ulgar and offensive,” sniffed Hilton Kramer (New York Times), “or it would be, if the artist has not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner.” Artform’s Carrie Rickey sneered that the paintings were perfect for “the synagogue circuit.”
Kornbluth had a similar reaction when he first saw them, years later. After looking at the portraits, he went to the exhibition catalogue and drew all over Warhol’s picture. “I put a Jewish beard and sidelocks and a yarmulke on him. I thought, if Warhol is going to Warholize the Jews, then I’m going to Jewify Warhol.”
Judge for yourself. You can see prints of Warhol’s portraits in the gallery on the first floor of the Jewish Community Center, below Theater J. Except for Einstein, who is done in outline, they are almost photographic – crafted with laserlike precision. Most of them contain small, easily identifiable Warholian touches – a splash of yellow across Kafka’s chest; the slight hint of a double image in Stein’s grim, no-nonsense portrait (taken, we learn, from her passport photo).
Of the ten portraits, the one of Martin Buber is easily the most striking. His head is at an angle; his face is swaddled in a magnificent beard; and there is a faint lividity to him, as though he had been out in the sun a tad too long. He regards us with a cool appraising eye. He could be a medieval blacksmith, or a prophet
What he was actually was a mid-century philosopher, who first coined the term “the I-thou relationship”. Buber observed that most relationships were of the “I-it” variety, in which we see another person as someone who can help us get what we want, or else as an obstacle to our objectives. But in an “I-thou” relationship, Buber proposed, we see each other as real human beings, with wants and objectives as valid as our own. In so doing, he says, we become full human beings ourselves.
Good conversation being all about second looks, Kornbluth proceeds to enter into an I-thou relationship with Warhol’s famous subjects, revealing their human sides to us. Eventually he takes on such a relationship with the famously reclusive and impenetrable artist himself. Warhol spoke in a ghostly monotone, frequently said that his principal artistic interest was to make money, and, when interviewed about the ten portraits, asked the interviewer to “just tell me what you want me to say.” Warhol was thus like a Kabuki actor in a play about his own life. Kornbluth relentlessly teases out the details of Warhol’s early life in an ethnic ghetto in Pittsburgh (like another famous masker, Jerzy Kosinski, Warhol was Rutherian), his illnesses, the misery he suffered growing up, and the wariness he incorporated into his personality. He thus makes Warhol, if not like us, like someone we would have been had we been less lucky.
Having humanized the man whose photo he had once defaced, Kornbluth then attempts the most difficult I-thou relationship of all: with his own Jewishness. His adored father was a virulent atheist and doctrinaire Communist (“Is he good for the workers?” Paul Kornbluth would ask), and Kornbluth is squeamish about his own inclusion among the Chosen People. (He quotes with approval a man who said “I’m not a Jew. I’m Jew-ish.”) Yet in viewing Warhol’s portraits he finds himself drawn closer to a people who could include a Brandeis and an Einstein, a Kafka and a Stein…and in doing so before our eyes, he enters an I-thou relationship with us. And if God is not precisely in the picture yet, both “I” and “thou” are fully appreciated, which means that God is not far from view.
Here: suppose you had the late, great Vladimir Horowitz in your house, or, say, the fabulous violinist Joshua Bell. Would you not ask them to play you a tune, to give succor against the melancholy evening, and remind you of how sweet the world is? And would they not ply their art, knowing that through their skill they could share the rapture within them with you, who lack their sensitivities? Josh Kornbluth is the Joshua Bell of talk. His Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? is an arpeggio which takes us, forcefully and gracefully, to the land of I and Thou, where we, and all, are loved.
Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?
By Josh Kornbluth, with David Dower
Directed by David Dower
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? runs thru March 21, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.