Andy Warhol painted Mao, machine guns and Marilyn Monroe, but the public was scandalized in 1980 when he painted Jews.
The New York Times claimed that Warhol’s “Ten Portraits of Jews in the Twentieth Century” “reek[ed] of commercialism, and their contribution to art is nil,” and The Philadelphia Inquirer called the portraits “Jewploitation.”
But this month, Andy Warhol Museum Chief Curator Aaron Levi Garvey, a Jewish curator and historian originally from New York, installed them at the museum.
“I never understood calling these portraits commercial or vapid,” Garvey said. “What of Warhol’s work isn’t commercial? He worked with the idea of what an icon is.”
The 10 Jewish subjects that Warhol, art dealer Ronald Feldman and JCC of Greater Washington Gallery Director Susan Morgenstein selected in 1980 were actress Sarah Bernhardt; United States Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis; philosopher Martin Buber; physicist Albert Einstein; psychologist Sigmund Freud; comedians the Marx Brothers; Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir; songwriter George Gershwin; and writers Franz Kafka and Gertrude Stein.
The installation at the Warhol, Garvey said, was initially conceived as a gesture of solidarity coinciding with the five-year commemoration of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Then the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7 happened.
Fear of controversy over highlighting Jews during a period of escalating violence and brutality in Israel — as well as personal antisemitic threats that Garvey said were made against him via email and voicemail — could have caused the Jewish curator to postpone or cancel the exhibit. But he’s no stranger to anti-Jewish hate and decided to go through with the installation.
“People used to carve swastikas into my desk when I was in high school, and I experienced major antisemitism in college,” he said. “I want viewers of ‘Ten Portraits’ to learn and be open to dialogue.”
The portraits share a room on the fourth floor of the Warhol with Keith Haring’s “Untitled (Elephant)” — a literal elephant in the room alongside a figurative one, Garvey noted.
In the lineup of Warhol’s “Jewish geniuses,” as the artist nicknamed them, the views and figures represented are complex. Kafka abandoned Judaism. Bernhardt hid her Jewish identity. Stein supported the Vichy government of France, an actively anti-Jewish regime. Einstein is quoted as saying: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state” in a 1938 speech entitled “Our Debt to Zionism,” even though he was offered the position of president of Israel.
One of the many things that makes “Ten Portraits” so timely and provocative is that it asks viewers to consider what being a Jewish icon means. All the portraits are of Ashkenazi Jews and speak to a certain image of Jewish identity. However, rather than Jacob Riis-esque tenement photography or depictions of Jewish suffering and tragedy, Warhol highlighted Jewish exceptionalism in the arts, government and sciences.
“I want viewers to think about all of these people in multitudes, in a non-linear fashion,” Garvey said. “It’s about Jewish exceptionalism but in a multitude of ways. All of the subjects contain multitudes. In the wall text, I put that Martin Buber was a Zionist philosopher. Someone told me I couldn’t say that, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s what he was,’” Garvey recalled.
Garvey said that the museum’s internal response to the installation has been mixed, including various complaints that misidentified Garvey’s ethnicity and some inflammatory antisemitic remarks. But nonetheless, Garvey and Warhol Director Patrick Moore co-signed an exhibition statement calling for peace and solidarity.
“Patrick didn’t have to put his name on the wall text with mine,” Garvey said. “I told him he would get flack for it, but he did it anyways.”
The Warhol’s fourth floor also contains Warhol’s “Zeitgeist” series, including a screenprint of Nazi-era German architecture, as well as a series of screenprints of machine guns, a screenprinted map of the Soviet Union, a screenprint of a “self-defense against rape” poster, and “The Big C,” a memorial to the AIDS crisis.
The fourth floor is a testament to Garvey’s chutzpah as a curator and ability to hold contradiction and stand his ground.
“Kafka, who’s in the portraits, has a word named after him — ‘Kafkaesque’ — for ‘scary, daunting, questionable, dark times,’” Garvey said. “These portraits can literally show how us we develop new language for thinking about dark times. Or, you can just come look at beautiful people and have some solace.”
And the portraits are beautiful, with stark squiggles beneath Kafka’s piercing dark eyes, quadrants of technicolor rendering Gershwin’s profile, and all three Marx Brothers in playful triplets of orange, red, and black linework. They’re elegant and arresting. Their sheer size is overwhelming. There’s something delicate in each portrait’s face. They showcase what Warhol did best: Turn people into icons.
“The only face out of this group most people could recognize is probably Einstein, so it puts a face to these legendary people,” Garvey said. “I would love to see what 10 portraits Warhol would make for this century.”
The installation of “Ten Portraits” comes at the same time as The Frick Pittsburgh postponed “Treasured Ornament,” a planned exhibition of classical Islamic art.
Frick Executive Director Elizabeth Barker told The Pittsburgh Tribune that the reasoning behind postponement was that “When war broke out in the Middle East, we were as heartbroken as everyone, and we realized that we were about to open an exhibition that a forgiving person would call insensitive, but for many people, especially in our community, would be traumatic” and that “we didn’t want to put our front-of-house people in the impossible position of discussing the war because we care about them and don’t want them to be vulnerable.”
Adam Hertzman, a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the Tribune-Review: “Few people in the Jewish community would have been concerned about an exhibit on Islamic art because we understand that has nothing to do with Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.”
Barker later issued an apology for “the offensive and utterly wrong impression that I equated Islam with terrorism and that I saw Jews and Muslims — communities with millennia of peaceful interconnection — as fundamentally opposed.”
At The Warhol, Garvey faced the challenge of giving appropriate talking points to docents about “Ten Portraits” when the ongoing Hamas-Israel war adds a layer of complexity. However, rather than cancel the exhibition as the Frick chose to, “Ten Portraits” continues to be displayed.
“I wish The Frick could have had a conversation with The Warhol institutionally, and we could have used the exhibits together,” Garvey said.
“Ten Portraits” addresses some of the thorniest questions of Jewish identity. Is assimilation into Western institutions or loud-and-proud exceptionalism the better position for Jews? Where does Israel fit into the conversation?
Golda Meir is as explicit of a connection to the modern state of Israel as you could get, but Bernhardt, Kafka, Brandeis and Freud died long before its founding. And Warhol himself wasn’t Jewish. He created the images but had little investment in Jewish history or culture.
It’s easy to forget that Warhol was not just soup cans and celebrities. Valerie Solanas hated him so much that she shot him. He was a gay man and a devout Byzantine Catholic, living in contradiction.
In contemporary art, critics and curators drum up much discourse on whether museums should focus on the beauty and grandeur of history (think “art for art’s sake” or the Old Masters) or the social-political issues of the present (think diversity initiatives and archival materials). With “Ten Portraits,” Garvey proves that the best art and the best curation can do both. PJC
Emma Riva is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.