A riff inspired by Warhol 

Unlike many art lovers, Josh Kornbluth was never an Andy Warhol fan. So how did he come to write his latest solo show, “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?”

The answer, like all of his acclaimed theater works, blends humor, history and personal revelation in a shaggy dog story made for the stage.

Over the past 20 years, Kornbluth has written and performed monologues on a variety of topics, from “Red Diaper Baby,” about his Communist childhood, to “Ben Franklin Unplugged,” about his fascination with — and eerie resemblance to — the Founding Father.

“Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” promises an evening of classic Kornbluth. The show, an extended riff on the 20th century artist, makes its West Coast premiere this week at the Jewish Theatre San Francisco, opening with previews beginning today.

The show had its genesis in 2009, when Kornbluth saw Warhol’s “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” at The City’s own Contemporary Jewish Museum. Over lunch last week in Berkeley, where he lives with his wife and son, Kornbluth said he knew little about Warhol at the time.

“I knew the soup cans, the 15 minutes of fame,” he says. “I knew he’d been shot.”

The “Ten Portraits,” which depict prominent Jews including Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein and Franz Kafka, sparked controversy on its first showing in Maryland in 1980.

Kornbluth also had a strong reaction. “I found them flat, decorative, even off-putting,” he says. “I was sympathetic to the people who, in 1980, accused Warhol of ‘Jew-ploitation.’”

Commissioned by the Jewish Museum, he wrote a short monologue on the portraits. As he began researching Warhol’s life, his hourlong talk expanded into a wide-ranging meditation on art and religion — one that led him to question his own beliefs about the purpose of art, even his own Jewishness.

He was surprised to learn that Warhol, a devout Catholic, had studied Byzantine iconography.

“I began to see how clearly iconic his paintings are,” he says. “When I started thinking of him as a spiritual artist, I saw that what I considered a liability — the flatness of the portraits — could have its own kind of power.”

Like all of Kornbluth’s works, there’s a humorous vein running through the show. To memorize the portraits, he named them in groups of two: “I call Sarah Bernhardt and Sigmund Freud ‘Acting Out,’” he says, “Louis Brandeis and George Gershwin are ‘Rhapsody in Lou.’”

Characters in the show include a rabbi, a museum guard and Kornbluth’s paternal grandparents.

“Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” premiered last month in Washington, D.C. By the time it opened, Kornbluth says he’d changed his mind about Warhol. “It ended up being a very profound journey,” he says.

“I feel there are certain kinds of art that perhaps call upon me to evolve, to let go of my own closely held identity. To put it another way, I shouldn’t always expect the art to do the work.”

 

IF YOU GO
Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?

Presented by the Jewish Theatre
San Francisco


Where: 470 Florida St., San Francisco  
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 16
Tickets: $20 to $45
Contact: (415) 292-1233, www.tjt-sf.org

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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