By Rod Bastanmehr
Arts Reporter

Two rabbis walk into a museum.

But according to Erin Shriebman, a UC Santa Cruz third-year art major whose father and uncle are both Northern California rabbis, this isn’t simply the set up for an old joke. It was the real-life scene last Saturday, when the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum opened its new exhibit, “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered.”

Nearly 30 years after their creation, Andy Warhol’s famous series of paintings are on display for the first time on the West Coast. And, given the criticism the series has received since its creation, Shriebman isn’t surprised it took this long for the pieces to make their westward journey.

“[My father] remembers the outrage of the Jewish community when the series was first released,” she said. “It was the kind of reaction that came with severe misunderstanding.”

The controversy over Warhol’s portraits, originally titled “Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century,” began in 1980 when the artist decided to use a series of prominent Jewish figures, none of whom he had ever met — including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka and the Marx Brothers — as the focus of his iconic photographic series.

It was revealed that the original sources of the images that inspired Warhol’s portraits ranged from newspaper clippings and newsreels to passport pictures. This provoked outrage among the Jewish community.

“[The series] was particularly controversial, in part because of Warhol’s decision to depict great Jews … as pop icons rather than unique or complex historical figures,” said Richard Meyer, a professor of art history at the University of Southern California. “As Warhol had shown little previous interest in Jewish culture or causes — and as his work seemed to celebrate surface beauty over deep substance — various critics and commentators were particularly uncomfortable with the work.”

Shriebman takes a different view.

“As an art major, that aspect of it thrills me,” she said.

Meyer, the exhibit’s curator, said the controversy that surrounded the series was indicative of a greater issue, one that Warhol might have been trying to highlight.

“Controversial art often reveals a great deal about the wider culture in which it exists,” Meyer said. “In the case of [‘Warhol’s Jews’], the controversy reveals how highly charged and unresolved issues of Jewish identity and representation remained.”

Shriebman, who has studied Warhol’s work in relation to the public eye, agrees with Meyer, citing Andy Warhol as both artist and provocateur.

“The thing about [Warhol] is that his art thrives on reaction,” Shriebman said. “[‘Warhol’s Jews’] is proof that his art speaks about the people who react against it, perhaps more than anything else.”

“Warhol’s Jews” proves that the artist’s creations can also stand the test of time.

“The goal of this exhibit is to shed new light on this important series by examining Warhol’s artistic processes and contributions,” said Kate Patterson, manager of public relations and marketing for the museum.

The public outrage that was once directed at the series may have finally died away — perhaps, Shriebman said, because it sometimes takes an examination in hindsight to truly appreciate art.

“My father, and much of the Jewish community, [originally] saw a different intent because it was a different time,” Shriebman said. “Or maybe he just needed a daughter who’s an art major to explain it to him.”

“Warhol’s Jews” will be shown at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Jan. 25.