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USC Art Historian Richard Meyer Revisits Andy Warhol's Controversial Exhibition

SAN FRANCISCO.- Beginning Oct. 12, an exhibition guest curated by USC College art historian Richard Meyer revisits these works and their wildly divergent reception, from early reviews charging Warhol with "Jewploitation" to recent counterclaims that have praised the portraits as a reflection of "the vast scope of Jewish cultural, intellectual and scientific achievement."

Who would be on your list of the 10 greatest Jews of the 20th century?

Andy Warhol selected Sigmund Freud, Golda Meir and the Marx Brothers, among others, for Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, a 1980 series Warhol referred to as “Jewish Geniuses.”

Beginning Oct. 12, an exhibition guest curated by USC College art historian Richard Meyer revisits these works and their wildly divergent reception, from early reviews charging Warhol with “Jewploitation” to recent counterclaims that have praised the portraits as a reflection of “the vast scope of Jewish cultural, intellectual and scientific achievement.”

“As the Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century attest, the same pictures that provoke critical derision or dismissal in one context may engender a sense of cultural affirmation and community in another,” says Meyer, director of The Contemporary Project at USC.

At the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Jan. 25, Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered is the first time all of the portraits have been shown together in a major exhibition on the West Coast.

Actress Sarah Bernhardt, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, philosopher Martin Buber, physicist Albert Einstein, composer George Gershwin, and writers Franz Kafka and Gertrude Stein are the other luminaries portrayed in Ten Portraits.

“The series, whatever Warhol’s intentions, really asks us to reflect upon the nature of what constitutes a Jew,” Meyer said. “Warhol said he chose ( the subjects ) because he liked their faces, which is – in his characteristic fashion – both purposefully cavalier and terrifically superficial.”

Meyer noted that Bernhardt, who is portrayed in the series, was a baptized Catholic, though she experienced anti-Semitism in criticisms of her appearance and acting style. Similarly, Stein did not identify herself as Jewish and lived in France throughout the Vichy regime.

In the exhibition’s accompanying volume, Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Revisited ( Yale University Press ), Meyer examines how the critical reception of Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century was bound up with Warhol’s reputation at the time and his unabashed desire for financial success. In his essay, Meyer cites an entry from the artist’s diary that describes the “Jewish Geniuses” as a “good idea … they’re going to sell.”

Noting that Warhol would have turned 80 this year, Meyer said, “Warhol’s embrace of commercialism was something, at the time, that was very difficult for art critics, curators and some fellow artists to tolerate. Now, artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami are even more brazen than Warhol in their marketing strategies.”

Meyer continued, “Artists’ reputations, public stature and critical reception change over time, and this exhibit tries to chart one example of that change.”

Meyer has long been recognized for his scholarship on Warhol. In 2000, he was sent by the U.S. Department of State to Kazakhstan to conduct a series of lectures and seminars about Warhol and contemporary art in the United States. The visit coincided with a Warhol retrospective at the State Art Museum in Almaty, Kazakhstan – the first museum exhibition of a postwar American artist in Central Asia.

Meyer will speak at two upcoming conferences on Warhol this year: “Andy/80” from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 at Harvard University and “Andy Warhol: Outer and Inner Dichotomies” at the Wexner Center for the Arts ( Ohio State University ) Nov. 15.

Meyer is also co-organizing a “Warhol Party” at USC to coincide with the annual meeting of the College Art Association, the leading professional organization of artists and art historians in the United States, in February. The party will mark the opening of Looking Into Andy Warhol’s Photographic Practice, an exhibition at the USC Fisher Museum.

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