Warhol reconsidered: Josh Kornbluths new show riffs on Jewish museum exhibit

He doesn’t have a thing for Campbell’s soup and he never set foot inside Studio 54. Yet Josh Kornbluth can relate to Andy Warhol.

Moreover, the popular Bay Area humorist-monologist found much to like in “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered,” on display through Feb. 3 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit features portraits of 10 famous Jews — including Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, George Gershwin and Louis Brandeis — painted by the equally famous artist, as well as Warhol’s preliminary sketches, diary entries and source photographs.

The museum commissioned Kornbluth to create a new one-man theater piece about the exhibition. “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” makes its world premiere Jan. 10 at the CJM in San Francisco. There will be six performances over two weekends.

As with previous Kornbluth monologues “Citizen Josh” and “Love and Taxes,” the new piece features Kornbluth waxing rhapsodic — or dyspeptic, depending on the subject. In this case, he weaves various threads, from Warhol’s singular role in pop culture, to perennial Jewish otherness, to Kornbluth’s personal sense of being an outsider.

It was only a few months ago, on his first visit to the new CJM, that Kornbluth ran into Dan Schifrin, the museum’s director of public programs. Looking ahead to the Warhol exhibit, Schifrin pitched the idea of Kornbluth developing some sort of companion piece.

How that concept would take shape was left entirely up to Kornbluth. “There was no specific mandate,” he says. “I am responding to the show. I’m like a typical museumgoer: I’m Jewish. I’m contemporary.”

But he wasn’t a Warhol fan. “I knew nothing about Andy Warhol,” Kornbluth recalls, “except what everyone knows: Velvet Underground and 15 minutes of fame.”

There was something else he knew little about: Judaism and Jewish history. Raised by secular leftists in New York, Kornbluth was steeped in socialism with a Yiddish accent. But Jewish religious and cultural traditions were foreign to him.

As he gathered material on Warhol, he simultaneously began learning about his own Jewish heritage. In addition to reading Warhol biographies and watching Warhol documentaries, Kornbluth researched the paintings’ subjects and met with rabbis. And along the way, he found links between Warhol and the Jews.

“What does Andy Warhol do?” Kornbluth asks. “He seems like an adaptation of someone who was powerless, and uses the source of it to become powerful. He was hated, like the Jews, and was shot.”

Shy, gay and afflicted as a child by a disease that affected his nervous system, Warhol possessed enormous artistic talent, leaving behind his “gentile shtetl” (as Kornbluth calls Warhol’s provincial Catholic upbringing near Pittsburgh) for New York. He would go on to become a 20th century icon, at the center of Manhattan’s demimonde.

Kornbluth similarly points to the Jews’ history of being “strangers in the midst of others, with their strange ways, inevitably attracted to assimilation, yet wanting to retain the strangeness, the tradition, the roots.”

So what about the paintings of Warhol’s Jews? Kornbluth says it was not exactly love at first sight.

“When I saw the paintings at first, they didn’t move me,” he notes. But “the more I looked into him, the more I felt there was a great amount of depth in his body of work. There was a great connection between Warhol and the Jews.”

Kornbluth will perform the show in the CJM’s auditorium, not in the gallery. Like most of his pieces, this one features music and effects, though he’s still huddling with his team of theater mavens in designing the details.

There are currently no plans for Kornbluth to take this monologue on the road, though he won’t rule it out. It might fit in with the game plan Quixotic Projects, his new company, which features all things Josh: Web site, blog, broadcasts, DVDs of past performances.

When he’s not building up his catalogue of intellectual property, Kornbluth lives in Berkeley with his wife and 11-year-old son. He also plays oboe and sits on Berkeley’s Energy Commission, trying to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

But the 10 canvases that make up Warhol’s Jews are taking up most of his creative energy right now.

Well, 10 canvases, 12 Jews (the three Marx Brothers fill one), or as Kornbluth calls it: “A baker’s minyan.”

“Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” plays 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays from Jan. 10-18 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $20-$25. Information: (415) 655-7881 or www.thecjm.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.