Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?

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Editorial Review

One-man Warhol show too much about the performer

By Peter Marks
Saturday, March 13, 2010

The title of Josh Kornbluth's new one-man show -- "Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?" -- puts you in mind of a topic for a lively guest lecturer. And that's essentially what Kornbluth offers in this amiable if scattershot discourse that places art history and personal history into the genial writer-performer's trademark socio-political blender.

The world-premiere production at Theater J, efficiently directed by David Dower, is Kornbluth's attempt to deconstruct a 1980 Warhol silk-screen installation, "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century." Standing on a stage before a panel of projections of the Warhol prints, Kornbluth serves up interesting tidbits about the artist's life and how he chose the photographs he would rework to create his gallery, from Golda Meir to the Marx Brothers.

We also learn, though, that Kornbluth's son wants a puppy, and that the performer's father stopped speaking to his parents at a tender age. He launches into quite lengthy stories about these humdrum autobiographical details, and therein lies the problem: You wait in vain for these digressive anecdotes to rewardingly illuminate the evening's purported thrust. It never completely happens, and so the balance of the monologue feels shaky. Too much Kornbluth. Not enough Warhol and the sources of his inspiration.

The performer has been down a similar road before, in pieces such as "Red Diaper Baby," which explored in more depth his fairly exotic childhood as the son of members of the American Communist Party. The idea in this outing is an examination of a parallel in the vantage points of Warhol, a gentile, and Kornbluth, a nonobservant Jew. To varying degrees each approaches Jewish identity from an outsider's perspective.

Somehow, an exhibition of the Warhol portraits at a Jewish museum near Kornbluth's California home provokes a deeper reflection of both the writer's own Jewishness and Warhol's motives in distilling Jewish achievement down to a pop-cultural conceit. "I get that it's commerce, but I don't get that it's art," he says at the outset of the 75-minute piece, gazing upon portraits of George Gershwin and Gertrude Stein, Martin Buber and Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka.

As a theatrical backdrop, the collection conveys a deeply moving sense of gravity. The breadth of accomplishment that the serene-looking faces represent seems a silent testament not only to a people's intellectual scope, but also its skills at reinvention. Kornbluth touches ever so briefly on what the subjects' achievements have counted for, though mostly he talks about what they have or haven't meant to him. What he has to say can be enlightening, particularly when he manages to boil down the ideas of a complex thinker such as the philosopher Buber. In other cases, though, his insights seem cursory and the portraits mere excuses for stories about his own life.

One of the better sequences is the product of old-fashioned research: Onto the wall Kornbluth projects the original handwritten list of names Warhol gathered for potential inclusion in the set of 10. That artifact inadvertently uncovers something illusory about modern identity, for as Kornbluth points out, non-Jews were included on the preliminary list -- people such as George M. Cohan and John Steinbeck -- because their names sounded Jewish.

Kornbluth explains during the course of the show that he has come to see himself as a Jew in more than name only. And perhaps diehard fans will be contented with this navel-gazing. With the assortment of great figures peering out enigmatically from those Warhol prints, however, you're left with the nagging feeling that there are more compelling mysteries to be unraveled.

Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? by Josh Kornbluth. Directed by David Dower. Set and lighting, Alexander V. Nichols; composer, Marco d'Ambrosio. About 75 minutes.