fauxklore (fauxklore) wrote,

Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?

I went to see Josh Kornbluth's new show, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? at Theater J on Thursday night. This started out as a commission from the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, to accompany their showing of Warhol's Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century. Warhol's project was controversial when it was first exhibited in 1980 and the museum essentially asked Josh for a piece about his reaction to the pieces. I gathered that the original piece was expanded significantly for the current production.

Theater J is in the D.C. Jewish Community Center and the gallery downstairs at the JCC has the Warhol portraits on exhibit, so I had a chance to view them before the show. Warhol is an artist I'm not crazy about, though I don't actively dislike his work. I didn't find this series of portraits particularly satisfying. That's largely because the portraits are really just "warholized" versions of photographs and there isn't anything stylistic that has anything much to do with the individuals they're pictures of. That is, I like portraiture to reflect the subject more than the artist and these works fail that criterion for me.

The choice of subjects is a more interesting question (and one that the theatrical piece does mention). It came down to a decision to limit choices to 20th century Jews who were no longer alive (at the time of the show), at which point Warhol chose people whose faces he liked. That makes for an interesting mix - Sarah Bernardt (who I have to admit to not having known was Jewish), Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka and Gertrude Stein. Josh discusses some of these more than others because the show is (like all of his monologues) really mostly about his relationship with his father.

That makes it surprising that Freud gets just a nodding mention. Josh focuses mostly on the subjects who lead him to stories about his father - and that means that Martin Buber gets more air time than anyone else. I found his explanation of Buber's "I-thou" to be quite lucid. Unfortunately, he refers in one of his stories to having a closer relationship with a family friend, which he then calls an "I-you" relationship. The problem is that "thou" is actually the familiar form of the 2nd person pronoun in English. So, technically, an "I-you" relationship would be more formal and less close than an "I-thou" one. I admit this is trivia that nobody other than language geeks and Quakers would know. It was grating to this language geek who has a few Friends among her friends. Which is a pity because the story he was telling is an otherwise powerful one.

Another powerful story is that of Warhol's own life, from childhood sickliness to artistic success. I found myself thinking about whether the arrangement of the portraits, projected in two rows on a screen during the performance, could be though of as comparable to the iconostasis in an Orthodox church. (Warhol's family were Byzantine Catholics, which I believe is somewhat in between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism. The iconostasis or screen of icons which hides the altar is pretty much the key architectural feature of Orthodox church interiors. But I digress.)

The most powerful story has to do with his grandparents and his father's estrangement from them. That certainly wasn't what one was expecting to hear about, given the show's premise. But it worked very well.

In some ways, i suspect I am making the show sound very serious, but it does have several very funny moments. The humor is decidedly the self-deprecating New York Jewish style. That worked well for me, of course. I know these characters, many of whom exist in my own family. It's also a relief to know I'm not the only person whose immediate mental association with "Rhapsody in Blue" is with United Airlines.

I'm also shortchanging one of the major aspects of the show, which has to do with Josh exploring his own Jewishness, which culminates in his going to a synagogue service for the first time in his life. That story made an effective lead in to a very satisfying ending to the piece.

All in all, this was an interesting, provocative, and entertaining show. It will be interesting to see where he takes it in the long run.
Tags: theatre

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