The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (The CJM) presents the exhibition Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait dedicated to the late British singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (1983–2011). Organized by the Jewish Museum London, in close collaboration with the Winehouse family who gave the Museum unprecedented access to Winehouse’s belongings, the exhibition is an intimate portrait of the singer at different stages of her life, from her childhood and theater school years to the early steps of her career and her rise to stardom. The CJM is the first US institution to be showing the exhibition.
Additionally, an exhibition of contemporary art organized by The CJM—titled You Know I’m No Good after a track on Winehouse’s album Back to Black (2006) — created in response to the Amy Winehouse phenomenon will be on view in an adjoining gallery. The exhibition includes work by Rachel Harrison, and new commissions by Jennie Ottinger, and Jason Jägel.
“Bringing Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait to The CJM for its US debut allows Bay Area audiences to see an exhibition they otherwise would not,” says Executive Director Lori Starr. “And it continues The Museum’s exploration of Jewish journeys through the musical community and music industry with shows such as Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman and Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations and continuing with Bill Graham in 2016. This particular exhibition is truly a love letter to Winehouse from her family, and its intimacy makes you feel as if you have been invited into her home. It is a moving experience for everyone, fan or not.”
Amy Winehouse was an international phenomenon, with multiple hit singles such as Rehab (2006) and You Know I’m No Good (2006), her Grammy Award-winning album Back to Black (2006), and critical acclaim for her live performances. Behind her celebrity status and troubled life portrayed in the tabloids, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait is an occasion to discover the singer’s Jewish roots, London life, and passion for music through a display of her belongings and stories shared by her older brother, Alex Winehouse. Four years after her tragic death, the exhibition is an affectionate portrait and heartfelt homage to her life. “This is a snapshot of a girl who was to her deepest core simply a little Jewish kid from north London with a big talent,” says her brother.
Winehouse’s paternal family—originally spelled Wienhause—immigrated to England from Belarus in the late nineteenth century, and settled in London’s East End. Both her mother’s and father’s side were Jewish, and though they were not particularly religious, they shared a strong Jewish cultural identity and adhered to a number of traditions, such as celebrating Passover and gathering for Shabbat dinners. Many of Winehouse’s family members were involved with music and had an influence on her own artistic development. She especially considered her paternal grandmother Cynthia Winehouse (née Gordon) a great inspiration for her distinctive sense of fashion and her passion for jazz and big band music. Previously unseen vintage photographs and family belongings on display in A Family Portrait give a glimpse of the Winehouse family history. Winehouse’s own battered suitcase crammed with photographs of friends and family will also be on display. It is this suitcase that she insisted her father come to look through with her a couple of days before her death in 2011, at the age of twenty-seven.
Winehouse grew up in Southgate, a neighborhood in north London, with her mother Janis, father Mitch, and older brother Alex. Both her father and brother introduced her to music and contributed to developing her musical skills by singing duets at home. She and her brother shared a Regal guitar, also on display in the exhibition. Her taste in jazz, swing, and soul music developed early on, and she had an ever-growing collection of LP records by musicians such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan, many of which are included in the exhibition. At the age of thirteen, she auditioned for the performing arts school Sylvia Young Theatre School in London; the exhibition features her audition essay, which contains many gems revealing Winehouse’s personality, as well as one of her live school performances.
In 2006, Winehouse’s second album, Back to Black, changed her life and career, and propelled her to international stardom in just a few months. She then toured the world, gave concerts, and received awards for her songwriting and performances. The exhibition features many mementos from her successful career such as flyers, festival badges, concert photographs, magazine covers, and one of her Grammy Awards.
Winehouse’s distinctive style, with her iconic beehive hairdo and tattoos (including one of her grandmother Cynthia), made her a favorite with press photographers. A selection of Winehouse’s clothing, both designer and high street, will be on display including the Luella Bartley dress she wore for her 2008 Glastonbury performance, an Arrogant Cat dress worn in the Tears Dry On Their Own video, and more.
The exhibition also focuses on Winehouse’s life through the streets of London, exploring her connections with her hometown through photographs of her in Southgate and in Camden Town, the area she moved to as her career took off and with which she is strongly associated. Possessions from her Camden home include a vintage bar. In addition, A Family Portrait honors Winehouse’s legacy, notably through the Amy Winehouse Foundation that her family created soon after her death.
You Know I’m No Good
In response to the intimate look at Winehouse allowed in A Family Portrait, The CJM invited three contemporary artists to display work about the public figure of the singer. Bay Area artists Jason Jägel and Jennie Ottinger create new works for You Know I’m No Good and a selection of drawings by New York artist Rachel Harrison will also be on view.
Jägel is known for his paintings that combine text and cartoon-like figures to create dreamlike narratives that pull the viewer across the image and back again. He has also created album art for many rap and R&B musicians. For You Know I’m No Good, he is creating a mural-sized painting for the gallery wall visible from Yerba Buena Lane inspired by Winehouse and her music.
Ottinger’s paintings blur the line between childhood memory and fantasy, power and vulnerability, attraction and repulsion. Throughout her practice, she challenges the constructed rules of everyday social constructions—tennis, cheerleading, football, and most recently, the circus. For this exhibition, Ottinger is creating a stop-motion animation that pictures Winehouse among such iconic singers as Nina Simone and The Ronettes, addressing the idea of legacy for female artists specifically.
A selection of Harrison’s well-regarded drawings of Winehouse will be on view for the first time in Northern California. Harrison, who is best known for her sculptural works, presents Winehouse alongside important creative figures such as Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Gertrude Stein, and Martin Kippenberger.
Together, these three artists pay homage to Winehouse while simultaneously calling into question our society’s fanatic attraction to both genius and tragedy.