Jewish Icons

Andy Warhol and Israeli Artists

Opening: September 20, 2010

Exhibition Curator: Geula Goldberg | Irena Gordon

Andy Warhol and Israeli Artists Present: Jewish Icons

(exhibition closed 26 November, 2010)


Ten portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, the 1980 screenprint series by the legendary American pop artist Andy Warhol, was recently donated to Beit Hatfutsot from the estate of Allan S. Bird, USA. The portraits in the series include philosopher and educator Martin Buber; physicist and father of the theory of relativity Albert Einstein; father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud; composer George Gershwin; stage actress Sarah Bernhardt; the Marx Brothers – Chico, Groucho, and Harpo – in a joint portrait; writer Franz Kafka; writer Gertrude Stein; Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir; and Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish US Supreme Court justice.



From the 1960’s onward, Andy Warhol (1928–1987) – painter, filmmaker and celebrity – created a series of portraits of cultural mostly American, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor. The artistic process on this series, which he called “Jewish Geniuses,” was similar to that of many of the other portraits. He took famous photographs of the figures, cropped them roughly, and then printed them in black and white on paper or on canvas. After that he produced a screenprint, with the outlines in a free, sketched style and the collage-like geometric surfaces in acrylic paints. The screenprint portraits do not focus on deciphering the character, but on investigating its essence and status as a popular media icon. The prints also provide a basis for an interaction between painting, photography, and print. The series is another expression of Warhol’s efforts to blur the boundaries between high art and popular art and to create a subversive discussion about cultural heroes as objects of consumption and celebrity. The series inspired controversy and criticism when it was first exhibited in 1980, at the Lowe Art Museum in Miami and then at the Jewish Museum in New York. Since then it has toured the US and the world.

The present exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot gives us an opportunity to examine the series with the perspective of time and place. It also invites us to look at the works of Israeli artists who deal with twentieth-century cultural icons, both Israeli and Jewish. The works, by Eliahou Eric Bokobza, David Tartakover, Shy Abady, Hanoch Piven, Hadas Reshef, Ido Shemi, and Igael Tumarkin, are in a variety of different media, including painting, photography, sketch, collage, graphic design and digital media. Many of the works engage in a direct or indirect dialogue with pop art and with Warhol’s portraiture genre. All of the works examine the conceptual and visual significance of the notion of a “cultural hero,” whether Jewish or Israeli. The problematic nature in the very choice and representation of a Jewish cultural icon, as it emerges from Warhol’s “Jewish personalities” series, accompanies the works of the contemporary Israeli artists, and expands into the question of the difference between the Jewish cultural icon and the Israeli one and its place in all of our daily lives.

Geula Goldberg and Irena Gordon, curators The Lady Sarah Cohen Exhibition Hall.

On display until November 26, 2010.

Admission: 15 NIS

October 28 – Festive Exhibition Opening

About the artists:

Much of Igael Tumarkin’s (b. 1933) extensive corpus is a powerful and painful engagement with the figure of the “cultural icon” and with that of the artist as one duty-bound to undertake an ongoing aesthetic and political dialogue with the great personalities of human history. Tumarkin combines pop and post-Dada’s language of photography, collage, and text with an expressionistic use of drawing and color, in order to pose an antithesis to mass culture and to examine the way in which meaning is cast in the image – and not, as in pop art, to prove that the image is emptied of meaning. Tumarkin insists that art emerges from a cultural continuum, and his stance is at once cosmopolitan and local. Torn between his Jewish and his German roots, he investigates the constant tension, as well as the dialogue, between Judaism and Christianity. His works deal with cultural icons – Jewish and non-Jewish, European and Israeli. The present exhibition features works from the 1980s and 90s dealing with writers Yosef Haim Brenner and Franz Kafka, philosopher Walter Benjamin, and playwright Hanoch Levin.

Tumarkin’s oeuvre often reflects upon the place of the artist himself as a cultural hero and meditates upon issues having to do with the nature and destiny of the cultural hero – and in the works before us, of the Jewish cultural hero – a question that arises indirectly from Warhol’s Jewish personalities series as well. Both Kafka and Benjamin worked from within German culture as well as Judaism. In the works before us, Tumarkin discusses their tragic fate, the violence that characterized their era and which became a subject of their own inquiries (see Walter Benjamin’s work on the poet Gertrud Kolmar, a relative of his who was murdered in Auschwitz), and the correspondences between them and other cultural heroes of their time (an example being that between Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht). The violent death of Yosef Haim Brenner in the prime of his life dictates his portrait, his expression reminding us of the crucified Jesus. The portrait of Hanoch Levin is densely packed with bold, carnivalesque colors that resonate with the reversal of high and low, poetic and vulgar, that exists in Levin’s work, part of his criticism on the human condition.

Shy Abady

The fact that Hannah Arendt was not among Andy Warhol’s ten “Jewish personalities” is probably no accident – so writes Erik Riedel, the curator of the Jewish museum in Frankfurt, in the introduction to Shy Abady’s (b. 1965) “Hannah Arendt Project”, which was exhibited there. And indeed, Abady’s choice of the German-Jewish political theorist as a subject for a series of works places the choice of the Jewish-Israeli cultural hero firmly within a time- and place-specific ideological discourse. Arendt is one of the most significant and controversial figures in twentieth-century philosophical and political thought. Despite her advocacy on behalf of the Jews of Europe during and following the Holocaust, and although her Jewish identity held a central place in her worldview, Arendt was shunned by the Israeli establishment and public and by large circles in the Jewish world. This was the result of her criticism of Israel’s behavior in the Eichmann trial and of the questions Arendt raised regarding Eichmann himself, which she articulated in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. And yet, in recent years Arendt’s thought has enjoyed renewed discussion and a degree of revival in Israel.

In the “Hannah Arendt Project”, Abady presents her portrait from different times of her life, from youth to old age. The portraits are accompanied by symbolic motifs exploring various aspects of her biography and her writing. Among these we can find the winged helmet of the French cigarette company “Gauloise” (a reference both to European history and to the fact that Arendt was a heavy smoker); or the figures of mother and daughter, whose blackened faces in the work “Muttersprache” (Mother Tongue) represent an attempt to efface identity alongside a testimony to Arendt’s deep connection to German culture.

Abady’s works are based on photographs of Arendt, although, in contrast to Warhol, who achieves a flattening effect, turning his heroes into pop icons, Abady uses the photographs and the symbols of the commercial products (Gauloise, Meissner-Porzellan) in order to create a deeper understanding of the character and her story.

The illustrator and caricaturist Hanoch Piven (b. 1963) creates portraits of Israeli personalities and celebrities as well as twentieth-century Jewish figures, such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Barbra Streisand. Piven developed a unique language of assemblages and collages from readymade materials – daily objects disconnected from their original surroundings – that connect directly or indirectly to the personality and his or her claim to fame. Piven’s works are imaginative, humoristic, and critical; he creates precise, witty portraits that illuminate not only the nature of each personality, but the way in which they are perceived by the public in Israel and the world.

Piven’s most famous illustrations were made as part of his work for the Haaretz weekend supplement beginning in 1995, where he published monthly portraits of various prominent personalities, including politicians, military leaders, singers, actors, and other well-known figures in the media at that time. The caricaturistic portraits were a fertile platform for political-social satire. Alongside this, the transformation of his subjects’ faces into visual icons helped penetrate them even more deeply into the public consciousness. Piven’s visual language, his perception of the cultural heroes of Israeli society, and the use he makes of consumer items as artistic images, stem from his dialogue with pop art and its roots in the world of comics, caricature and illustration, and moreover with the work of Warhol himself, which revived the portraiture genre in contemporary art.

Throughout the years of his artistic oeuvre, graphic designer and artist David Tartakover (b. 1944), has examined the role of graphic design and the limits of its influence. One of the focal points of his interest is the poster: Tartakover investigates the way in which this medium molds public consciousness in Israel and the world and how it serves as a central tool for freedom of speech and for the expression of personal, activist, and critical stances. At the same time he asks to examine the Israeli heritage, its history and memory, through the study, preservation, and revival of its index of images.

In the current exhibition we present “Cultural Heroes of Tel Aviv”, which is part of his “Made in Israel” series, shown for the first time in 1985 at the Israel Museum. The series tells the story of the city of Tel Aviv in its first decades, through images of the city’s founders and leaders, as well as the poets, writers, singers, and actors who left their mark on it. The series presents the local cultural heroes and their social and intellectual milieu, alongside a bevy of graphic, commercial, and ideological images that evoke not only local history, but also the spirit of the era and the nostalgia for it: actress Hanna Rovina and in the background the Habima Theater and the image of Konstantin Stanislavski, the founder of the eponymous acting method in which she specialized; a portrait of poet Uri Zvi Greenberg inspired by the painting by Reuven Rubin, with the title of his poem cycle “A Great Fear and the Moon” appearing in an expressionistic style reflective of the spirit of the poetry itself; Jaffa oranges; the prickly pear; and more.

Also influenced by pop art, Tartakover draws his inspiration from the world of advertising and media, as well as from the world of comics and animation, with a use of photographs and bold colors that is characteristic of many of the central works of pop art. In the series before us one finds reflected many contradictory artistic styles, the connection between which characterized the look of Tel Aviv in those days: the ornamental oriental style and the local Palestinian culture alongside the modernistic language of Bauhaus and the International style, the style of the Bezalel School of Art and Design, and influences of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Eliahou Eric Bokobza’s (b. 1963) portraits are fictional biographies that try to tell the stories that are little-told, if not entirely silenced: the Bezalel artists of Mizrahi origin; the Arabs of Jaffa and their encounter with the Jewish population; the immigrant who comes to Israel and feels like a tourist, a stranger, an outsider. Bokobza’s vibrant oeuvre combines graphic language, naive art, and orientalism, with boundless references to the Israeli visual lexicon: the khamsa, Herzl’s portrait, Jaffa oranges, the Tel Aviv Bauhaus house with the palm tree, Jerusalem landscapes and other holy places as they appear on tourist postcards, maps of the country, objects in the decorative Bezalel style. His works embody the ongoing and unsettled conflict between east and west, high and low, ruler and ruled, touristic kitsch and fantasy, the language of comics and the history of art.

The portraits, which make up the large part of his oeuvre, are all based on a single figure – an unchanging physiognomy that takes on and sheds different forms and roles: once an Arab girl from Jaffa, once a colonialist pointing at a map of Palestine, once the punk kid holding a bottle of Tempo (a popular sparkling drink)) next to the figure of Rabbi Kadouri – a contemporary cultural hero whose picture dominates the local landscape. To a certain extent, whether it is a single figure or a group of figures, these are all a kind of self-portrait; not only do the figures represent the artist’s stance, but their facial features remind us of his own. In his humorous triptych “Self-Portrait as Cultural Icon”, in which the same character wears the face of Ben Gurion, Albert Einstein, and Groucho Marx, with their distinctive features, Bokobza examines the visual characteristics of the Jewish cultural hero, through which he tries to understand his own identity. In the other two works – “Art for Tourists 6” and “Elegance” – the portrait of Herzl is reproduced in breathtaking color and decorativeness. Combining pop art with the tradition of the Bezalel School, the portrait’s appearance is that of a commercial artistic object, an idea turned into form.

Hadas Reshef (b. 1982) documents – in paintings, photographs, and drawings – the social milieu in which she lives and works; her heroes are her close friends, mostly artists: poets, writers, painters, and others. She also creates portraits of political and public figures alongside those of anonymous characters, in an attempt to examine the relationship between private identity and public identity in contemporary Israel. The portraits are usually based on photographs; they often employ humor and playfulness alongside vivid colors in the spirit of pop art; and they are built on the tension between attraction and revulsion and between the vulgar and the intimate. The works combine photography, sketch, painting, and digital media, while their inspiration is also taken also from the worlds of advertising, fashion, and media, as well as from the world of the Internet and from the artist’s personal experiences.

Reshef’s works for this exhibition were commissioned by Beit Hatfutsot, as a tribute to Warhol’s Ten portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century series, which was also commissioned. The works are made of layers of photographs and images downloaded from the Internet, processed into new compositions, and then digitally painted upon. Alongside the direct tribute to Warhol’s work – Freud and Groucho Marx together inside a Campbell’s Soup can – Reshef’s technique allows her to create fictional historical situations and a nostalgic look at the mythology of the Israeli past, such as, for example, David Remez and Zalman Shazar proposing marriage to Golda Meir. She also amuses herself with the characters by bringing them to the Israel of today and thereby also looking at the changes this society has gone through. We can see Hannah Senesh at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, now full of vacationers, windsurfers, and the site of the Electric Company; or Golda Meir, evoking the French military leader Jeanne d’Arc, carrying a red socialist flag on the deck of the Cruise Ship Pocahontas facing a Tel Aviv coast packed with hotels and bathers. In her works, Reshef goes in search of her cultural heroes’ world of yesterday, and through this she examines contemporary life, just like the old masters who depicted biblical stories and created a historical document of their own era.

As an autodidact who works both within the art world and outside of it, Ido Shemi (b. 1963) articulates an ongoing critical statement, the crux of which is: the state is a monster that has turned on its creator and the artist is the prophet warning at the gate. His oeuvre, which alternates between a feeling of great urgency and one of madcap humor, combines autobiographical elements with images and scenes from the media, the language of comics, the history of cinema, and the countless manifestations of pop culture in Israel. One great influence on his work is football culture, in particular of the “red” variety, i.e., fans of Hapoel Tel Aviv [“red” because of its traditional affiliation with the political left in Israel]. Using a wide variety of media, he creates art works full of fantasy and irony, among them the three-dimensional (“three-phase,” in the artist’s definition) comics installations he created for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The works in this exhibition examine the evolution of Israeli cultural heroes and of the symbols of Israeli society. In one of his works, Herzl, the great dreamer, is placed on the backdrop of a wrinkled map on which no land mass, let alone a state, can be identified. The work evokes graffiti scrawled on crumbling walls of city streets, while the figure of Herzl, the visionary of the State, transforms into a protest against the shattering of the dream. In “Who’s coming to Jamaica?” the image of Herzl leaning on the rail of a balcony according to the iconic photograph of him in Basel, Switzerland, is seen transposed into a Hapoel uniform, and, instead of European houses behind him we see the façade of a dilapidated house, while a sign that reads “who’s coming to Jamaica?” offers a nonchalant contemporary alternative to the great vision. In the hologram of the Tel Aviv coast, we can scarcely identify the iconic image of Ben Gurion standing on his head, overwhelmed as it is by the other frenetic figures on the restless beach. In “Who’s the King?”, Elvis Presley, the legendary King of Rock ‘n Roll (whose reproduced portrait is one of Warhol’s most famous), is represented wearing a shirt bearing the portrait of Zohar Argov, who is thus immortalized as a local cultural hero, as a king, as a piece of Israeli mythology still awaiting representation.

Andy Warhol

“Just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” This statement was made by Andy Warhol (1928–1987), one of the leading figures in pop art of the twentieth century, who began as an illustrator, graphic artist, comics artist, and designer of window displays.

As an offshoot of the Dada movement of the early twentieth century, pop art emerged in the 1950s as a response, among other things, to the consumerist and capitalist experience of modern life. The surplus of media and advertising images, industrialized production techniques, and a new, mass culture, were juxtaposed with conventional notions of “high” art. In this kind of art, the pop artists declared, the artist does not express an internal and spiritual individual experience, but reflects the external, collective state of being of the masses.

Both in his art and in his personal life, Warhol explored fame and celebrity as the essence of modern life and blurred the boundaries between the artistic and the commercial, avant-garde and kitsch, and sophisticated, unique, nuanced representation and vulgarity and bad taste. In his works, shallowness and spectacle replaced complex personal inner expression, and his attempts to imitate mechanized processes in his art were not only a statement about the role of technology in all of our lives and a consequence of this modern phenomenon, but also a means with which Warhol could convey themes of alienation and lack of privacy, and blur the lines between representation and essence. The screenprinting technique – which allows multiplication and reproduction and the simultaneous possibility of disrupting the mechanical process – is based on the separation of the image into screens and printing each color separately. The final print is produced by the accumulation of layers of color on a single surface. The technique allows a photographic transfer and quick reproduction of the image, which served Warhol as a means of eliminating the artist’s personal touch and, with the combination of photography, creating an infinite series of images that become emptied, flattened, and alienated – whether they be images of tragic accidents, disasters, or executions, or portraits of cultural icons or Campbell’s Soup cans or bottles of Coca Cola. Occasionally, Warhol inserted intentional istakes into the prints by disrupting the production process, and most were created along with assistants and other artists in his studio, which he called The Factory.

The ten screenprints on paper in the portfolio Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century are just a few of hundreds of portraits of American and other cultural heroes – primarily actors and singers, but also political leaders, intellectuals, public figures, and others – that Warhol created at the Factory. The series, like many other works of his, was commissioned – in this case, by New York gallery owner Ronald Feldman and Alexander Harari, an Israeli art collector. Aside from Golda Meir, whose portrait he had printed and painted on canvas twice before during the 1970s, none of the other figures in the series had been portrayed in Warhol’s earlier works. Moreover, even though his portraits tended to be of living people, none of the heroes of the “Jewish Personalities” series were alive at the time he made the series. When he was asked how he chose the ten finalists from a list of about a hundred provided for him by the gallery owner, Warhol answered defiantly that he liked the look of their faces. When it was first exhibited in 1980, the series was greeted enthusiastically by the American Jewish communities, but Warhol shouldered criticism from art critics for his choice of personalities based solely on their Jewishness and with seemingly little connection to his prior fields of interest. The goal of the series, claimed the critics, was purely commercial, and had no artistic justification. Nonetheless, when Warhol saw what a commercial success the series was, he made another version of it, this time as screenprints on canvas. The “Jewish Personalities” portfolio, in its different variations, has since been exhibited countless times in museums and galleries in the United States and the world, including Israel.

With the perspective of time, we can see these screenprints as a faithful representative of Warhol’s work: they are full of vitality in their combination of photography and print and in the game they play between free sketch and bold and vibrant swaths of color, which converses with the history of art in the twentieth century. Notwithstanding their being among the most prominent Jewish figures, with the greatest achievements in our era, most of the Jewish personalities chosen were not known as popular cultural heroes, and the series contributed to a certain extent to bringing them into the collective visual memory. The present exhibition of the series in Israel allows us to meditate both on the status of great personalities in general as well as on the power and role of art in bringing them into public consciousness. Furthermore, it creates a fertile ground for a discussion of the nature and status of Jewish and Israeli cultural heroes in contemporary Israeli society, and invites us to look at the dialogue other contemporary artists engage in with the great figures of the present and the past.