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Warhol’s art has more than ‘15 minutes of fame’

By Molly Dubin

January 1st, 2014

    Andy Warhol is often credited with erasing the division between fine and commercial art.

This cover of a biography of Andy Warhol by Edward Willett (2010, Enslow Publishers) shows some of the “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” in the background.

This cover of a biography of Andy Warhol by Edward Willett (2010, Enslow Publishers) shows some of the “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” in the background.

   He was a fundamental figure of the Pop Art movement, a genre first appearing in the United States in the late 1950s that challenged the previously accepted notion of what defined aesthetic art by using images found in popular culture and advertising.

   He is also recognized as having said in 1968, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” — the idea that every individual, no matter who they are or what they do, will get a turn in the spotlight, even if it’s for the most fleeting time.

   Warhol’s well-documented obsession with fame and celebrity often went hand-in-hand with the subjects of his pieces, most notably in his portraits.

   Working from photographs, he used silk screening and print techniques and bright layers of color to give the faces of iconic stars such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe his own distinct, if commercially rooted look.

   He approached the depiction of people the same way he did objects, like soup cans or coke bottles, placing them on equal footing for American consumerist consumption.

   This philosophy is part of the controversy which has surrounded the series of “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” since it was created in 1980 and first shown at the Jewish Center of Washington in Bethesda, Md.

   “Andy Warhol: Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” is on display at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee through March 30. The exhibit is on loan from the Spertus Institute of Chicago.

   The idea for the series came from a New York art dealer who had been approached by a collector interested in works portraying Golda Meir. At a time when Warhol was experiencing a lull in sales, creating portraits of famous Jewish individuals seemed a promising and profitable endeavor.

   He had little to no input on the ultimate selection winnowed from a list of well over 100 names. Many art critics and connoisseurs of the time took offense at how Warhol appeared to have no comprehension of the collective cultural, scientific and historical contributions of the 10 Jewish luminaries, or “geniuses” as Warhol liked to call them.

   Hilton Kramer of The New York Times wrote, “The way it [the suite] exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive — or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner.”

   Three decades after the series made its debut, popular culture and the notion of celebrity have changed to a vast degree. In a world where reality shows cast with everyday Joes rule the television waves and people are “famous for being famous,” the revisiting of these portraits is timely.

   Warhol’s iconic images of great Jewish thinkers, politicians, performers and writers attest to the lasting achievements and prominence of these singular figures.

   However, whether the manner in which they are perceived by contemporary generations and standards has, or should be altered, remains to be seen.

   Molly Dubin is curator of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.