Reflection in a Portrait

Show #46: Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, The Jewish Theatre San Francisco, April 16.

Josh Kornbluth in Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Photo by Stan Barouh

It almost seems a shame that Josh Kornbluth’s latest monologue is called Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? It’s a fine title for a humorous rumination on Warhol’s 1980 series of ten portraits of famous early 20th-century Jews, which may have been what the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco had in mind when it commissioned the monologue in 2008 to accompany an exhibit of the portraits titled “Warhol’s Jews.” (“Wow, I didn’t know Warhol kept Jews!” Kornbluth says.)

That would be fine, but it would also be much more trivial than what the resulting one-man show actually is. As Kornbluth struggles to connect with Warhol and his subjects, it causes him to reflect on his own Jewishness as someone who not merely has never been religious but for whom flirting with godliness would feel like a betrayal of his communist upbringing. The stories this brings up—about his father’s break with his grandparents, about his dad’s endless debates with a religious family friend when Josh was growing up, and about Josh’s own encounter with a guy about to jump off a bridge—are achingly affecting, thought-provoking, and as always very funny. His thoughts about the subjects of each of the ten portraits and Warhol himself are terrific too, but it’s what each of them brings up for him about his own life that provides the meat of the story.

This should come as no surprise. Kornbluth has always been his own best subject, whether he’s talking about his radical upbringing in Red Diaper Baby or temp work in Haiku Tunnel. “I have carved a very admittedly narrow niche,” he says in this piece: “I talk about myself.” In recent years he’s expanded that niche somewhat to talk about himself in relation to other things, whether it’s happening to look like Benjamin Franklin in Ben Franklin: Unplugged or civic involvement in local politics in Citizen Josh. Andy Warhol fits into this latter category, but the subject isn’t really Warhol or even art. It strikes at the heart of what Judaism means for someone who identifies not as Jewish so much as “Jew-ish.” With that in mind, it makes sense that this show, directed by longtime collaborator David Dower and produced in association with Jonathan Reinis, would be playing at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco (formerly A Traveling Jewish Theatre) after premiering at Theater J in Washington, DC.

The title, of course, is a joke, poking fun at the older generation’s habit of asking of everything from world events to common household items, “But is it good for the Jews?” But when Kornbluth looked at the portraits of luminaries from Franz Kafka to the Marx Brothers, he wasn’t so sure. “I don’t get it,” he says at the outset, looking at the portraits projected onto ten hanging screens behind him that constitute the whole of Alexander V. Nichols’s inventive set. Echoing a Village Voice review of the original 1980 exhibition, Kornbluth says, “I too found these portraits somewhat Jew-ploitative.”

The stuff about the museum’s Dan Schifrin convincing Kornbluth to do the piece, or rather convincing him that he’s already on board, if pretty amusing, particularly the argument that doing it just for the money would be “a great way to connect to Warhol.” But Kornbluth had a hard time connecting to Warhol’s portraits, based on photographs of George Gershwin, Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, Franz Kafka, and Sigmund Freud. A rabbi Kornbluth keeps encountering at the museum points out that the ten portraits make a minyan—traditionally the quorum of ten Jewish men necessary for a variety of religious services. When Kornbluth points out that the Marx Brothers really makes it twelve people total, the rabbi calls it “a baker’s minyan.”

Kornbluth keeps returning to the portraits, using each subject in turn as a jumping-off point: Kafka’s parable of the door in The Trial, Buber’s concept of an “I-Thou” relationship, parents wanting their children to grow up to be next Justice Brandeis, and the way the Marx Brothers loomed large in Kornbluth’s upbringing because they had come from the same block in Washington Heights as he did, albeit much earlier. His associations with each of them segue beautifully into personal reflections about his own childhood, family and associations with religion in general and Judaism in particular. He breezes through some of the portrait subjects more quickly than others, but it turns out to be a terrific rhetorical strategy and structure for the piece.

Other than Jewish, famous, 20th century and dead, the main qualification for Warhol was that they had faces that interested him. One particularly priceless bit involves looking over the projected handwritten list of people Warhol was considering when brainstorming for the series, with a couple people with vaguely Jewish-sounding names, John Steinbeck and George M. Cohan, annotated as “n.j.” (not Jewish).

The show isn’t really about Warhol, but a good appreciation of the late (and decidedly goyische) artist does emerge in the piece, from his poor, sickly and sensitive childhood to the work and craft that went into the portraits themselves, shown in layers of the original photographs, line drawings and final tinted products. As a portrait of Warhol it’s intriguing enough, but as a self-portrait of the atheist theater artist grappling with his own Jewishness through the lens of another, decidedly goyische artist, it’s fantastic.

Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? plays through June 20 at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco, 470 Florida St., San Francisco.

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