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Uncovering Andy Warhol

Uncovering Andy Warhol


Uncovering the Pope of Pop Art

By Abigail Kubert for Spertus Institute

When I used to think of Andy Warhol, I’d think of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Marilyn Monroe, and the inspiration behind my painting phase during quarantine. His artwork was always innovative and uplifting to me—at least the pieces I was familiar with. After all, he’s known as the Pope of Pop, the revolutionizer of all things bold and colorful, and one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

With the world at a standstill, I’m grateful to be interning for Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership this summer. For a project, I was assigned to research Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century, a group of lithographs that Andy Warhol made in 1980. The suite of works will be on display in Spertus Institute’s Ground Level Arts Lab from October 12, 2020 through September 5, 2021.

The series is comprised of ten silk-screened portraits of famous Jews in history. However, when the works were first exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York, they received significant negative backlash. A reviewer for The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “Jewploitation”, a critic at The Village Voice said it was “hypocritical, cynical, and exploitative”, and Hilton Kramer from The New York Times wrote, “The way it exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive.”

After seeing the works myself, I understood. But, why would a famous artist—knowing his artwork would be scrutinized—set out to create and exhibit work that was exploitive? As in turns out, the idea for the series came from Warhol’s art dealer, Ronald Feldman. The original idea was for a series of portraits of Golda Meir (as Warhol had done with other politicians and celebrities.) However, with the help of Susan Morgenstein, from the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, a list of ten names was generated instead: Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, the Marx Brothers, and Golda Meir.

I was only familiar with six of these names at first, so I was disappointed that Warhol’s portrayals didn’t give me any clues about who these people were and what they did. Art critics have also recognized the lack of information in the portraits, stating that he used the same technique he always does, “silk-screening a photograph over previously applied colors and tracing crayonlike lines over the photograph’s contours”, according to Ken Johnson from The New York Times. For a painting that was meant to honor and capture the accomplishments of these Jewish icons, I felt his conventional techniques weren’t sufficient.

A New York Times article called Funny, You Don't Look Like a Subject for Warhol, suggested that Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century was actually a reflection of our modern-day tendency to know of many famous people without knowing anything about them. Ken Johnson, the article’s author, said he bet Warhol had never read a book of Gertrude Stein’s or knew about Martin Buber’s “I-It” vs “I-Thou” philosophy.

Perhaps Warhol’s subject in this piece wasn’t the particular individuals, nor even Judaism in general, but instead was the idea of fame. Perhaps this, and similar Warhol works, was an effort to symbolize the elusiveness surrounding fame and publicity, and we, the audience, just assumed differently.

In Andy Warhol: His Kafka and “Jewish Geniuses”, art historian Roberta Bernstein declared that Warhol’s talent as a portraitist was primarily for revealing “only the surface” and thus, his techniques were appropriate for portraits of glamorous celebrities and socialites. However, she questioned the appropriateness of this approach for portraying historical figures of a particular ethnicity or religion; in this case, Jews.

I thought about Bernstein’s argument. On the one hand, I agree that it was offensive of Warhol to imprudently group together a historically pivotal class of people, my people, as if they were just anyone. His alleged lack of recognition toward the unimaginable oppression that Jews have both suffered and survived seems disgraceful.

But, on the other hand, if his goal as an artist was truly to reveal only the surface, to depict public figures as so otherworldly that there’s almost no point in learning anything about them, isn’t it justifiable for him to portray Jewish figures this way too?

Even Warhol’s The Last Supper—a composition of nearly 100 abstract variations of Da Vinci’s Last Supper—includes superimpositions of advertising logos for commercial brands like Dove Soap, forming a questionable blend between the sacred world and that of modern-day commercial design and transforming “a deeply religious work into a cliché”, according to Claudia Schmuckli from the Guggenheim Museum.

If he reveals only the surface for all his subjects—whether it’s Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Marilyn Monroe, or Da Vinci’s Last Supper—wouldn’t it be more exploitative for him to not give the same artistic treatment to his Jewish subjects too?

Ultimately, Andy Warhol chose to be bold rather than informative. He prioritized first glances over deeper meanings and his objective as an artist over what others wanted him to create. He taught me that art doesn’t have to be sophisticated and convoluted; it can be lighthearted and ironic and simply for pleasing the eye. I learned about these famous Jews the way Warhol wanted me to, and while that was difficult to comprehend at first, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is, in its own way, brilliant.

Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century will be on display at Spertus Institute, along with other highlights from the Spertus collection, as a part of Who Represents Us?, an exhibition exploring representation. Check it out from October 12, 2020 through September 5, 2021 (as possible within COVID-19 safety regulations) or learn about the works online at spertus.edu/warhol.


Abigail Kubert interned in the Marketing and Communications department at Spertus Institute through the Hillels of Illinois Harriet and Maurice Lewis Family Summer Intern Program (LSIP), an eight-week paid work/study program presented under the auspices of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.


Images above from Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century. Spertus Institute Collection. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020