So they put Josh Kornbluth in a museum ...
On the way to his performance at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco, it was good to think of Josh among the Modiglianis and Barnett Newmans, the Chagalls and Mark Rothkos, as well as all that folk art—a live, interactive exhibit, bouncing off those elegant walls. Yet no one has ever placed Josh aesthetically: Is he a modernist, abstract impressionist, color field, or just plain folksy?
But that is not what is hanging at the Contemporary Jewish, anyway. Josh’s new work-in-progress monologue (more, at this point, like a museum lecture—demo—or more like stand-up) is complementary (the spelling is important!) to the CJM’s exhibit, “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered” (Josh relates his first reaction: So Warhol collected Jews?)
He goes on to tell us about discovering the Museum (“I live in the moment; I’m a Contemporary Jew—so I went in!”), about slurping soup in the cafe (Josh tells the old story about The Little Boy Who Was Afraid of Kreplach) and being reminded of his grandparents, of how they’d always ask of everything, “But is it good for the Jews?” Which gives him his title and his m.o.—Andy Warhol: Good For the Jews?
Josh finds he can’t come to grips with the images, that Warhol’s technique of adding to, almost mutating, the original photographic portraits blocks his emotional response—a common enough complaint about modern (and post-modern) art. But taking the ten 20th-century celebrities (Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Bros., Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein) as his minyan, the 10-member prayer group (“and the tenth is the most important!”), Josh asks for help—at one point, after requesting analytic depth, when Warhol’s portrait of Freud flashes behind him, saying, “Not you, Sigmund! I can’t afford you!”
He finds his help in Martin Buber, and his I/Thou credo. Sharing with Warhol a lack of knowledge about Buber (a note from Warhol’s journal queries “Who IS Martin Buber?”), Josh realizes I/Thou was something he learned from a Presbyterian minister friend of his father—and the thread through the labrynth of Warhol’s method (and whether he’s good, “for one Jew,” at least) is latched onto.
As usual, Josh’s monologue is a meandering thing, riddled with digressions (he “works over” Warhol and his portrait subjects, besides his father and minister friend—and whoever else is at hand), which is all part of the fun, getting through the maze—and the fascination—with him.
But in this setting, a kind of rough draft of his usual finished pieces, Josh’s address to the audience is a little more direct; there’s more flexibility, more spontaneity and freshness, if not as much shape or depth, to the journey and to the finished product.
(He’s a little bit everybody’s nephew or kid brother: that part of Josh’s persona comes out even more under these circumstances.)
The production design by Alexander V. Nichols—projections on screens and the wall—added immeasurably. Marco Ambrosio composed the music and David Dower directed. And producer Dan Schifrin of the CJM was credited by Josh for coming up with the title (which he modestly said he couldn’t remember doing).
Josh’s shows, like his TV interview show, often involve a conversation after the monologue (another I/Thou situation). At the CJM shows, a different specialist on one of the Warhol portrait subjects is featured each show—Tirzah True Latimer of the California College of the Arts talked with Josh about Gertrude Stein and Saul Perlmutter, UC Berkeley physics professor, about Einstein.
Upcoming specialists include Michael Strunsky, Ira Gershwin’s nephew and executor of the Gershwin Estate, and Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom to discuss Martin Buber, as well as David Biale of UC Davis (formerly of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union) on Freud.
GOOD FOR THE JEWS?
$20 members, $25 general (includes museum admission).
8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17; 3, 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18; 8 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22. Shows have been selling out and the run may be extended. Advance tickets recommended. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. (415) 655-7881. www.thecjm.org.