Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
New York City, 212 423 3200
March 16 to August 03, 2008
Dan Flavin: The 1964 Green Gallery Exhibition
Zwirner & Wirth
32 East 69th Street
New York City, 212 517 8677
March 6 to May 3, 2008
By KAREN BOOKATZ
Andy Warhol "Sarah Bernhardt" from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century 1980, screenprint, 40 x 32 inches, © 1987 - 2008 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and right, Dan Flavin a primary picture 1964, red, yellow, and blue fluorescent light, 24 x 48 inches, edition of 3, Collection of Hermes Trust (Courtesy Francesco Pellizzi), image Courtesy Zwirner and Wirth
There is a new genre of art exhibition, I've noticed recently. And while the genre is novel, the actual exhibitions I’m referring to are not. The crux of this new genre – which has found a cozy place in contemporary art history – is, basically, to re-stage a previous exhibition (though not necessarily at the original venue) several years, even decades later, and see how its effect has evolved over time.
Two examples of “recycled exhibitions,” one at a museum and one at a gallery, are up in New York right now: Andy Warhol’s controversial show from 1980, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, has been recast in 2008 as Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered, currently on view at The Jewish Museum, the last stop of a three-city tour; and dan flavin: fluorescent light, which exhibited at the now defunct Green Gallery in the fall of 1964, has been resurrected today as Dan Flavin: the 1964 Green Gallery Exhibition, presently at the Zwirner and Wirth Gallery.
Back in 1980, Andy Warhol, in collaboration with New York gallerist, Ronald Feldman, chose ten prominent Jewish figures – including writers, actors, composers, philosophers and political figures – as the subjects for his controversial show. Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Sarah Bernhardt, Golda Meir and Gertrude Stein are among those who made the cut. In an effort to retain the spirit of the original exhibition design, Warhol’s Jews is located today in a small room in the museum, which grants it both a casual and intimate feel. The works are set against a series of panels painted brown so that the architectural elements would recede into the background, bringing the vibrant and characteristically Warholian silk-screens, replete with overlays of drawing and blocks of color, into relief.
Unlike the subjects of his many of his famous portraits from the 1960’s and 1970’s, Warhol had never met a single one of his Jewish “sitters.” All the images were taken from random sources ranging from passport photos to film stills, which are on display next to the portraits. The portraits are also accompanied by preparatory drawings and preparatory collages. The source photographs and drawings have not been previously exhibited alongside the portraits until now, which is one of the major differences between the previous exhibition and the “recycled exhibition.”
dan flavin: fluorescent light marked a critical period in that artist’s career. Flavin's ideas and experiments with hand-made lighting elements culminated in 1964 in the usage of commercially-available fluorescent lighting. The original show was meticulously curated by the artist himself and included seven works in total. The new show, equally well-curated with all seven works in a historically accurate recreation (in a space that bears a striking likeness to the original Green Gallery space), also offers diagrams – not previously exhibited – drawn up by Flavin of the original installation. These diagrams – much like Warhol’s source photographs that reveal a physical and emotional distance from his subjects – are where the deferred learning comes into play.
The study of art history aside, the idea that art cannot exist (or invoke meaning) outside of the context in which it was created is not always the case. Regarding the Warhol show – which was conceived by a Catholic artist who had never before appeared sympathetic to Jews or the Jewish cause – many perceived it as anti-Semitic. The colorful and kitschy silk-screens of (some of them) serious intellectual and political figures came across back then as overtly tongue-and-cheek—especially when thought of in the context of the artist’s iconic Marlyns and Jackie Os.
It was important, therefore, to see how religious and political indignation has changed or, in this case, subsided almost thirty years later. To highlight Jewish controversy now seems more like a badge of honor and a learning tool (for those studying the history of anti-Semitism and/or Holocaust studies) than a modern-day promotion of anti-Jewish sentiment. And furthermore, when taking into account the controversy surrounding The Brooklyn Museum’s 1999’s Sensation exhibition and Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary,” which bore the brunt of Mayor Giulinai’s indefatigable crusade, Warhol’s Jews looks as harmless as a Renoir exhibition.
In contrast to Warhol’s Jews, the re-examination of Flavin’s show has less to do with religion and politics and more to do with the progression of art in the latter part of the twentieth century. dan flavin: fluorescent light was the first exhibition comprised solely of fluorescent lighting and was integral in the development of the artist’s minimalist rhetoric. Further, the newly-exhibited diagrams help the viewer better understand the artist’s ideas and intentions regarding the exhibition.
These shows are just two of many examples of this new genre, which is being practiced by curators and gallerists, who see the progression of history as a yet another tool for teaching. To revisit older exhibitions and try and gage their aftershocks years later is a worthy exercise, speaking to social/political change as well as the progression of artistic styles. If “recycled exhibitions” can teach us anything, it’s that there’s always more to learn.
Karen Bookatz is a freelance writer for various print and online publications, among them The New York Sun and style.com. She received a B.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.A. in Art History from Columbia University