Andy Warhol may be one of the great immortals of modern art, but not because of his penetrating insight into the depths of the human soul. You can tell that by looking at his portraits. They are not his best work.
Nevertheless, Warhol is so astonishingly famous that any mention of his name arouses curiosity. So the Jewish Community Center's current "Andy Warhol: Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century" may be packing 'em in. And it has some virtues.
In the 1980s, Warhol and New York art dealer Ronald Feldman hatched the idea for a series of silkscreen portraits of Jewish leaders of various professions. There must have been many candidates for these 10 positions, and whoever picked them did a good job. From the arts we have Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, George Gershwin, Sarah Bernhardt (one mistake: she lived until 1923 but is really a 19th-century figure) and the Marx Brothers (who count as one). From the law, Louis Brandeis; from philosophy, Martin Buber; from science and related fields, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; from politics and statesmanship, Golda Meir.
A brief, succinct biography accompanies each of these colorful silkscreen portraits, which are spaced well around the walls of the gallery. So, this group of portraits has been presented well.
It's when we get to the portraits themselves, as representations of their subjects, that we have to question Warhol as a portraitist. The object of the portrait is to present a physical likeness of the subject, and beyond that to tell us something about the character, the personality, the humanity that comes through the face.
Warhol began with photographs of his subjects, to which he added lines drawn in color and flat areas of color. In the portrait of Gershwin, for instance, roughly the upper right quarter is overlaid with tan, the lower right with green, the lower left with red and the upper left with pink, and Warhol added scribbled lines over the area of the brain, as if to indicate mental activity.
The Warhol contributions to these works, although colorful and pleasant to look at, usually tell us little or nothing about their subjects, and at times tend to obscure what we would have been able to see if he'd left the photographs alone. That's particularly true in the case of Gertrude Stein, whose powerful face all but disappears under Warhol's pastellish colors and unilluminating drawing. The best face here is that of Franz Kafka, but that's mainly because Warhol's layerings don't obscure the author's piercing eyes.
Here and there one can see attempts at appropriate effects, such as showing the Marx Brothers in negative as well as positive images (for film, get it?) and Einstein all in tones of gray (gray matter, get it?). But these are as obvious as they sound.
If Warhol was a great artist, it's because he was good at capturing a commercial product such as a Campbell's soup can, a slickly produced icon of popular culture such as the Hollywood image of Marilyn, or a societal symbol such as money or electric chairs, and then re-presenting them as comments on the nature of art and civilization.
Symbols were his metier. People weren't.
What: "Ten Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century"
Where: The Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, 3 to 5 p.m. and 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 3 to 5 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 2:30 p.m. Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through May 14
Call: (410) 542-4900