In Conversation : ‘Andy Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses’

December 10, 2014

The launch of Andy Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses has been accompanied by an exciting array of events for the Jewish Museum, including the Warhol-centric conversation held at the National Gallery of Victoria. Guests of In Conversation: Andy Warhol’s Jewish Geniuses enjoyed a most pleasant and enlightening afternoon at the NGV, in the esteemed company of NGV Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Max Delaney – who chaired the event, along with Jewish Museum Vienna Director, Danielle Spera and Jewish Museum of Australia Director, Rebecca Forgasz.

The conversation began with a discussion of how the original exhibition, titled Famous Jews of the Twentieth Century was received by art critics of the time. Rebecca Forgasz cited senior art critic Hilton Kramer’s notorious critique that “The show is vulgar, it reeks of commercialism and its contribution to art is nil.”

As well as a similar description of the project, where it was described as “calculated to appeal to a specific market,” one that she described as the ‘synagogue circuit’ “who would buy anything that signified Jewishness, even in the most superficial way.”

Rebecca wondered how these criticisms affected Danielle’s pursuit of the ‘Jewish Geniuses’ series for the Jewish Museum Vienna. ‘Fortunately,’ explained Danielle Spera, Kramer’s “really very nasty, nasty review” was first issued in The New York Times during the weekend of Rosh Hashanah, when most Jews were out of town. According to Warhol’s agent Ron Feldman, with whom Danielle worked closely with whilst curating the Jewish Geniuses exhibition, apart from Kramer’s review, the others were resoundingly positive. The Jewish Museum of Miami, where the collection was first displayed, along with Jewish communities throughout the United States were quite flattered by the series, and the fact that a foremost artist like Warhol had chosen to depict a series of portraits of members of their ilk. Barbara Gilman, who was an art dealer in Miami when the exhibition came to town, recalled “We took it as a meaningful thing for Jews, that an artist of Warhol’s stature would celebrate our history. Not only that we take pride in these great Jews, but the fact that another great artist cared to portray the Jewish people.

Jewish Museum of Australia director Rebecca suggested the sense of community and ethnic pride that the Jewish Geniuses evoked amongst the Jewish community was emblematic of Warhol’s own fascination with fame. Rebecca exclaimed “after all, how many communities possess a love of celebrity when it comes to people of their own ethnic background!”

Danielle emphasized how the ten ‘Geniuses’ who comprise the series represent figures that have made substantial contributions to their respective fields within the lexicon of the Twentieth Century. The influence of Martin Buber for example, remains relevant today through his pioneering idea of interfaith dialogue. By representing these ‘Geniuses’ through his art, Warhol has ensured that their legacies are preserved, and not forgotten.

Rebecca and Danielle agreed the fact that an artist of Warhol’s stature had created these portraits lent an additional layer of appeal, and meaning to the series. By portraying the works at a Jewish Museum like the Jewish Museum of Australia or Vienna, the series is given a particular context, one that differs from what it might suggest if it had been displayed in an art gallery, for example.

Aside from all being Jewish, there is no single thing that unifies these ten portraits, and this conveys a quintessential element of Jewish identity – that there is no singular Jewish identity. If you ask one hundred Jews, you will receive at least 120 answers. Amazingly, a cosmos is created between figures as diverse as Sarah Bernhardt and Albert Einstein.

The conversation segued into a discussion about the experience of Jewish Migration that is a common theme amongst these ten personalities. From Warhol himself, whose family had recently immigrated from Slovakia to the United States, to Ron Feldman and the ‘Genius’ subjects, each had a history of migration, whether because they had been forced to leave, or whether they had left voluntarily, with this experience having varying impacts on their development of ‘genius’ and contribution to twentieth century culture. Danielle pointed out how this notion of migration, and of movement remains a current, and relevant theme in contemporary culture, and one that continues to resonate today.

We thank the National Gallery of Victoria and Senior NGV Curator of Contemporary Art for hosting and chairing this most illuminating and compelling conversation. And a special thanks to the Jewish Museum of Australia director Rebecca Forgasz and Jewish Museum Vienna director Danielle Spera, for providing such invaluable insight into Warhol’s Ten Jewish Geniuses, it has certainly enhanced our understanding and appreciation of this wonderful series.