Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?
Written and performed by Josh Kornbluth
Directed by David Dower
The Contemporary Jewish Museum
January 11-January 22, 2009
Josh Kornbluth is a funny fellow. Most of the time. The popular Bay Area monologist and PBS television personality has done wonderful work mining the everyday events of his own life in shows like “Red Diaper Baby,” “Haiku Tunnel,” “Love and Taxes” and “Citizen Josh.” It is little wonder that The Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco commissioned him to open its new performance series.
Taking off from the museum’s current exhibition, Andy Warhol’s ten portraits of prominent 20th Century Jews, Kornbluth has constructed a performance piece (with wonderful projection assistance from the intrepid Alexander V. Nichols) in which he riffs on Warhol, art and Jewishness. Only trouble is, as he specifies from the outset, he doesn’t know a whole lot about any of the above. So the piece becomes a journey through the confusion in Kornbluth’s head – not very funny and not terribly interesting.
He gets off a few good one-liners at the beginning. The title “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” recalls a past, post-Holocaust generation that (understandably) regarded anything that happened in the whole world as being either good or bad for the Jews. Having heard the portraits referred to as “Warhol’s Jews,” Kornbluth remarks: “Gee, I didn’t know Andy Warhol kept Jews.” The fact that there are ten pictures in all reminds him of the Jewish concept of the minyan, the ten men required for certain prayer rituals. Except here there are 12 as all three Marx Brothers appear on one canvas. (Actually, had Kornbluth – who is Jewish but was raised in a secular household – known more about his religion he could have run with the fact that, traditionally, ten men are required for a minyan and that three of the portraits: Sarah Bernhardt, Gertrude Stein and Golda Meir, are female so there’s no minyan there at all. But who am I to write his material for him?)
All this is mildly amusing, plus a few eating jokes, but, as Gertrude Stein famously said (and I paraphrase) there’s not a lot of there there. Actually, the most interesting part of the hour-long monologue arising from Kornbluth’s research (and the fact that he did a lot of research is painfully obvious throughout the show) is his biography of the artist, who began life as a sickly, painfully-shy child of Czech immigrants and rose through the ranks of the advertising industry to become one of the most famous people of the mid-20th Century. “He made icons,” Kornbluth says reverentially. Come on Josh, he was an icon!
The actual portraits are arresting, no matter what Kornbluth thinks of them. The Contemporary Jewish Museum itself, a miracle of recycled architecture by the famed Daniel Liebeskind, is stunning. Both are ample reason to visit the place. But you might want to skip the show.