January 12, 2009
In an inspired bit of cross-disciplinary thinking, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco commissioned monologist Josh Kornbluth to devise a performance based on Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered, the museum's current exhibition of Andy Warhol's famous 1980 portrait series depicting ten well-known Jewish luminaries. The celebrities depicted in the series include: Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers (considered as one subject rather than three) Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, and Gertrude Stein.
The resulting performance, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, provides an illuminating, touching and deeply personal journey into one monologist's response to the portrait series. What I love best about Kornbluth's monologue is its ability to reflect the personal feelings of the performer while at the same time echoing sensations that I myself experienced while wandering around the museum's exhibition halls an hour before the show. Like Kornbluth, I felt confused and a bit put off by Warhol's gaudy "flatnesses," the famous faces masked by impenetrable wedges of color and scar-like outlines. Furthermore, I couldn't understand why this 20th century Catholic master of commercial art would choose to make a study of ten Jews. Why not five Jews? Or ten scientologists?
Stuffed like a knish with Jewish humor, Kornbluth's monologue dives into the series, looking for a way to connect with the portraits and ultimately the artist behind them. The hour-long performance takes us from the nonplussed opening sentiment of "Warhol's Jews. Hmm. I didn't know he kept Jews," to the ultimate realization that Warhol is kind of like a door leading us to "I and Thou" -- the core philosophy of existence espoused by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (who happens to be one of Warhol's ten Jews.) As such, the monologue takes us from feeling distanced from the portraits to feeling a boundless relationship with them -- and their famously enigmatic creator.
The geniality and warmth of Kornbluth's performance helps to draw us into his personal journey, which is woven together with anecdote from his past. Part sermon, part art lecture and part Borscht Belt standup routine, Kornbluth's latest monologue is not only good for the Jews; it's also good for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. By giving museum goers an intelligent and refreshingly different angle on the series, the museum helps us understand them better in a fun and non-didactic way that makes me want to re-visit the exhibition (and, by association, other shows at the museum) in the future. It would be great to see more museums looking for such ways to cross-fertilize and thus enrich their exhibitions.
Kornbluth's show plays until January 22. Warhol's Jews runs until February 3.