In 1980 the Jewish Museum presented an exhibition of Andy Warhol paintings titled “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century.” The international array of individuals included as subjects among the group Warhol labeled his “Jewish geniuses”—Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, and Gertrude Stein—represented various areas of the arts, education, entertainment, law, politics, philosophy, psychology, and science. At the time a number of critics faulted Warhol, some for his seemingly superficial blending of class with the crass, mixing high culture with coarse commercialism, and others for his repetition of a tactic he’d previously pursued, the silk-screen portraits of celebrities.
However, over the decades since the portfolio’s premiere, many have come to appreciate Warhol’s insight into shifting contemporary attitudes toward cultural icons and fashionable imagery, as well as his foresight in understanding changing relationships between elements of high art and popular media seen in American society when the twentieth century drew to a close. Therefore, this summer the Jewish Museum re-introduced Warhol’s portraits and invited viewers to reevaluate his work as it hosted a special exhibition, “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered,” that extended from March 18 to August 3.
Warhol’s portrait of poet Gertrude Stein might appear a surprising selection to some, and yet when regarding the two together, one is now allowed interesting discovery of some remarkable comparisons or contrasts concerning the pairing. At a first glance, one might expect mostly differences, particularly since Stein’s idiosyncratic writings seemed not to be intended for appealing to a large readership while Warhol’s art frequently seemed consciously designed for wider audiences with its apparent characteristics complementary to commercialization and a summoning of popular consumption. Most likely, these attributes were products of Warhol’s origins as a successful illustrator for commercial projects and advertisements.
Yet, the two figures have at least a few features in common. Both traced their beginnings to being born in the Pittsburgh area. Additionally, each of them displayed a well-known personality that at times rivaled the attention received by their art. Indeed, Stein and Warhol served as central figures around whom groups of writers and artists gathered—some were among the most brilliant or inventive individuals of their day, while others were merely hangers-on or sycophants who arguably possessed negligible talent.
In fact, all sorts of artists and intellectuals—painters, poets, fiction writers, and critics—journeyed regularly to Gertrude Stein’s Left Bank salon at 27, Rue de Fleurus. A number of them would achieve fame for accomplishments in their own fields that surpassed Stein’s own achievements. Some simply sought a celebrity status in certain circles of the avant-garde. Similarly, Warhol’s Manhattan studio, The Factory, served as a hub for artists, writers, and filmmakers with whom Warhol often collaborated, as well as a magnet for flatterers seeking favors and a variety of people who were merely amusing eccentrics.
In appearance, both Warhol and Stein displayed distinctive physical traits that nearly existed as trademarks of their unique personalities. Also, despite their repeated presence in social situations, neither seemed very adept at the best interpersonal skills or outwardly expressed a great deal of warmth toward others. Indeed, the pair sometimes might be defined as uncomfortable, awkward, or edgy in their interactions with others. Warhol frequently was seen as shy and timid. In a 1965 article for the New York Herald Tribune, John Ashbery described meeting Warhol in France for a Paris exhibition: “A shy, pleasant fellow with dark glasses and a mop of prematurely gray hair, Warhol seems both surprised and slightly bored by his success.” Those who knew Stein depicted her as opinionated and egotistical. In fact, although he’d once acknowledged Stein’s early influence on his writing, in A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway characterized her as occasionally condescending and ultimately not all that likeable.
Despite Gertrude Stein’s seemingly strong opinions and judgmental nature, she apparently shared with Andy Warhol an enigmatic image that frequently allowed followers to identify with qualities they thought were recognizable in these two individuals. As Stein once observed: “You see why they talk to me is that I am like them. I do not know the answer . . .. I do not even know whether there is a question let alone having answers for a question.” In the same way, Warhol usually refused any significant commentary about the aims or the effects of his artworks, even those containing the more serious subjects. As Robert Hughes once reported: “In one of his bizarre noninterviews on film, one sees an eager questioner asking Warhol about the meaning of his electric chair paintings, why he did them, and getting stonewalled every time with ‘Uh . . . I dunno.’”
As artists, Warhol and Stein produced innovative works, although the pair emphasized experimentation through a fairly basic approach to their craft and with a deceptive plainness. Stein simply declared: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Warhol portrayed a soup can as nothing more than a soup can. Consequently, especially early in their careers, critics sometimes mistook their lack of adornment for an absence of depth and concentrated on a perceived lack of sophistication when comparing them to their seemingly more adventurous contemporaries.
Both were influenced by photography. Stein’s initial publication in a periodical occurred in Camera Work, edited by Alfred Stieglitz. Warhol imitated photographic techniques in his portrait paintings, and he adventured into making movies. Moreover, Stein’s first works included many verbal “portraits,” in which she employed words the way painters—especially Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso, whom she admired and who had painted the famous portrait of Stein that held such a prominent position on her salon wall—might use brush strokes, thus allowing readers to see her perception of subjects.
In fact, Stein wrote a literary portrait of Picasso, “If I Told Him,” which begins: “If I told him would he like it. / Would he like it if I told him. Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it. / If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if / Napoleon if I told him. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.” Readers are invited to hear Gertrude Stein’s rare reading of the poem.
One certainly could contend that the influence exerted by each of these individuals on those around them and those of subsequent generations is even more significant than their own noteworthy artistic accomplishments. Surely, it would be difficult to imagine modernism during the first half of the twentieth century without the presence of Gertrude Stein. Likewise, Andy Warhol exists as an unmistakable icon of the postmodern period in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Since today (August 6) represents the birth date of Andy Warhol, born in 1928, readers may want to heed the suggestion of the Jewish Museum and take this opportunity to reconsider the artist’s work, including his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Indeed, viewers of this artwork perhaps might be reminded of the important cultural contributions provided by the two, while at the same time also obtaining a quick glimpse at a particular representative aspect of movement evident in the sweep of twentieth-century art by simply regarding Picasso’s 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein beside Warhol’s 1980 portrait of the author.