When Andy Warhol’s “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” was originally exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1980, it was popular with the Jewish public, but generated controversy among art critics.
Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes accused Warhol of pandering to the synagogue circuit. Kramer wrote: “The show is vulgar. It reeks of commercialism, and its contribution to art is nil.” Thirty-four years later, these portraits are appearing at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, which turns out to be a remarkably fitting place for this exhibit.
The museum’s permanent exhibit describes the migration of Jews from Europe to Milwaukee ) starting in the early 1840s. One of these Jews, Goldie Mabowehz (Golda Meir), left Russia in 1906 with her mothers and sisters to join her father in Milwaukee. At age 14 she ran away to be with her sister in Denver, and then returned to Milwaukee for high school where she joined and became a leader of Milwaukee’s Labor Zionists. She moved to Palestine in 1921 before becoming prime minister of Israel in 1969.
On display are photos of Meir as a young girl in Milwaukee. In seeing these images from Meir’s life, I had an epiphany as to why Warhol decided to create this series, in light of the fact that he never created any similar series featuring subjects of a particular ethnicity (other than a series of black transvestites in “Ladies and Gentleman”): He saw himself — his own yearning to forge a new, spectacular, identity — in these Jews.
Much has been written asking why Warhol was drawn to creating this series of Jews. Warhol’s friend and art dealer Ron Feldman suggested the idea to him, but why did Warhol pursue it? And why did he choose to depict these Jews in particular?