Monologist Josh Kornbluth describes himself as an artist who caters to a niche within a niche, meaning a sub-niche. And there’s some truth to that bit of self-deprecating humor. Kornbluth’s new solo piece, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? is universally engaging, but nonetheless targeted to a very specific audience. The whole thesis is that Warhol, a resolute Catholic, seems like an improbable person to decide which ten Jewish people deserve canonization. Kornbluth spends a full ninety minutes processing the complex knot of feelings he had upon first seeing Andy Warhol’s 1980 work, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century. Set up as a compendium of paintings and screenprints, the piece does exactly what its title implies. It’s a unique, squirm-inducing hagiography, whose ten Jewish saints are immortalized either for their historical contributions, or their striking physiognomies.
When Ten Portraits came to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, guest curator Richard Meyer decided to open a whole Pandora’s box of hard feelings and political questions by calling the exhibit Warhol’s Jews. Rather than elide the issue of exploitation, the museum flaunted it. That possessive apostrophe seemed like a provocation.
No surprise, then, that Kornbluth felt a little uncomfortable when his colleague Dan Schifrin asked him to lecture on the portraits. He looked at the exhibit title, and at the ten faces, and couldn’t help but feel vaguely objectified. He wasn’t the only one. In a 2008 review of the opening, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker had his own reservations. “The exhibition title ‘Warhol’s Jews’ grates on my ears by its proprietary ring,” Baker wrote. He continued: “Warhol (1928-1987) was a Catholic, but has anyone proposed ‘Warhol’s Catholics’ as an exhibition theme?”
In his current one-man show, directed by David Dower, Kornbluth makes the case for Warhol. He argues in a very roundabout way, first by presenting the problem — that Andy Warhol’s ten portraits have become a major point of contention — and then by complicating it with a second problem: He, Josh Kornbluth, has been consigned to defend these ten portraits. And finally, there’s a third problem: Kornbluth has no business speaking for the Jewish people, since he isn’t one of them. Raised as a staunch Marxist atheist, he was never Bar Mitzvahed and didn’t attend his first synagogue service until well into adulthood. He is — to borrow an old Jonathan Miller joke — “not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.”
At first blush — a phrase that Kornbluth uses several times in the show — it’s a rather odd premise for a monologue. At the very beginning, we’re shown a projected image of the ten portraits, set in a grid and saturated in primary colors, just as Warhol designed them. It looks like the perfect setup for an art history lecture. Kornbluth emerges in his big round glasses, extends his arms evocatively, and warns the audience that, no, the representation behind him isn’t a real Warhol. And even in redux form, it still cost the Shotgun Players‘ theater company more than the show is probably worth.
Such humbly self-effacing humor is Kornbluth’s stock-in-trade. He’s good at it. He’s also good at being a Woody Allen, adopting all the rambling speech patterns, the neuroses, the diminutive facial expressions, the big vocabulary words, the off-the-cuff remarks and quizzical looks. He peppers his monologue with Yiddish terms (“mensch” for nice guy, etc.), most of them familiar to non-Yiddish speakers. He speaks with enough fancy transition words to indicate that the lecture (and it did, indeed, begin as a “lecture demonstration-thingie,” delivered at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in 2009), was written and memorized ahead of time. Yet it’s conveyed with looseness and ease, which could only come from a seasoned stage performer.
Kornbluth does indeed show a certain empathy for Warhol, even if the two of them seem vastly different. The monologist grew up on 162nd Street in New York, with a Marxist father who ran away from home as a teenager. The artist grew up in a tiny Slovakian district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had a debilitating condition called chorea, which caused erratic movement and skin blotchiness, and led to his becoming somewhat of a social pariah. In examining Warhol’s life, Kornbluth was able to connect the dots in a way that helped illuminate Ten Portraits. He concludes that they aren’t merely a form of exploitation, but rather an homage of sorts. And they aren’t that disconnected from the Byzantine saints that Warhol gazed at from the hard pews of his childhood Catholic church.
Using a series of framing devices, Kornbluth lovingly dissects the portraits and explains their artistic merit. He shows, ultimately, that Warhol’s relationship to his subjects could best be described in the language of philosopher Martin Buber, one of the ten “Jewish geniuses” in Warhol’s pantheon. It’s a relationship of “I” and “thou,” which is the purest, most egalitarian kind that exists in nature. Whether it’s good for Jews remains a point of contention.