Ani ma’amin b’emuna shelema be’viat hamashiach, V’af al pi sh’yit’mame’a im kol zeh achakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may delay, I will await him every day – 12th Principle of Faith, from Rambam’s Shloshah Asar Ikkarim
One could wonder how the Rambam would react to the Anshie Kagan sculpture, “IN CASE OF MOSHIACH BREAK GLASS,” scheduled to be auctioned December 16 at Kestenbaum & Company.
Would the author of Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim) be, himself, perplexed?
Anshie (he prefers to be known by his first name) is a young Boston-born Orthodox Jewish artist currently residing in Brooklyn who attended Lakewood Cheder, Mesivta Pe’er Hatorah and Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. He renders a unique take on a traditional principle of faith: a sculpture – a wooden box 36” x 12” x 12”, painted red, with a classic metal hammer on a chain attached and a glass front with the words: IN CASE OF MOSHIACH BREAK GLASS. Behind the glass is a
full-sized shofar, because, says Anshie, “Moshiach will use a shofar to announce his arrival.”
The piece screams for attention, much like the old-style fire alarm boxes we used to see on street corners.
It certainly got the attention of Daniel Kestenbaum, founder and president of Kestenbaum & Company, an upscale boutique auction house in Manhattan featuring fine Judaica, rare books, manuscripts, autographed letters, graphic art and ceremonial objects.
When asked what attracted him to this artist and this particular work of modern Judaica, Kestenbaum said: “Anshie Kagan – living and worshipping within the religious world – has about him a most witty and original energy. No, his artworks are definitely not going to match the dining room drapes. It’s edgy and it stops the viewer short – exactly what good art is supposed to do, and just what the thinking Jew should be doing – stopping short and reflecting about his life and his Judaism. For that reason, I support Anshie’s work and seek to gain for it a wider audience.”
Two years ago, Kestenbaum chose to feature one of Anshie’s oil paintings from his rabbi series, called “A Study in Color #770,” described on the company website as “a large scale quadruple depiction of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” an “eye-catching work … purchased for $3,000 (Lot 393).” The painting is presently on display at The Prime Grill Restaurant in Manhattan.
On his website (anshie.com), the artist describes his style as “influenced by the Pop Art movement of the 1950’s incorporating current cultural, technological and social themes. The juxtaposition of iconic ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders depicted on bright or psychedelic patterned backgrounds toys with the usual portrayal of a monotone religious culture.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Moully, a full-time artist himself and former-director of the recently shuttered Crown Heights, Brooklyn gallery, The Creative Soul, which was “dedicated to exploring and celebrating Judaism through creativity,” says that of all Anshie’s work, “his rabbi portrait series is my favorite.” At a 2012 Creative Soul gallery pop art show (“Black and White in Color”), Anshie’s Lubavitcher Rebbe screen print was displayed, along with two others: “Reb Moshe Feinstein on his writings” (R’ Moshe’s face outlined in black on top of a collage of his Hebrew printed writings) and “Maimonides on his writing” (a traditional image of the Rambam, outlined in black on top of his printed writings).
“Anshie,” says Moully, “is willing to push the envelope by taking an age-old concept and making it contemporary. This is not the elevator music of art.” Echoing Kestenbaum, Moully says, “He wants you to like it or hate it, but mainly to react to it.”
The trendy Pardes Restaurant in Brooklyn has displayed several of Anshie’s rabbi paintings: Reb Moshe and Rambam, as well as the Satmar and Bostoner Rebbes. The latter, of Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, was signed by the current Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Naftali Horowitz, who complimented Anshie on the portrayal: “It’s nice!”
The artist’s wry sense of humor comes through loud and clear in other works:
“iPray” – a spoof on the iPad, iPod, iPhone technology showing the silhouette of a man davening, wrapped in tefillin; “Dr. Seuss’ Shul” – mimicking the cartoon style of a popular children’s book; a child’s “Easy Bake” oven, captioned “My First Challah Maker”; bright white letters on a black background – “I Speak Fluent Yeshivish”; and “Brooklyn Street Sign” with arrows pointing in six different directions, noting number of miles to popular Jewish destinations – Lakewood, Chicago, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Jerusalem, and Poland.
Commenting on these examples of Anshie’s versatile style, veteran Jewish newspaper editor and HarperCollins author Esther Gordon says, “There is, thank goodness, a lighthearted, positive feeling about being Jewish expressed in his work. How refreshing!”
“You could say his stuff is poking fun at Judaism and Jewish culture, while also portraying them affectionately,” says a Jewish/Israeli student at Hebrew University in Tel Aviv. “Maybe part of his goal is to portray Jewish culture in a more refreshing way, spice/shmaltz it up to show how dynamic it really is.”
But Daniel Kestenbaum, whose expertise and experience in Hebraica and Judaica is world-renowned, put it best when speaking about the future of modern “Jewish” art:
“A conscientiously religious Jewish lifestyle might be timeless, but we kid ourselves if we don’t realize that our sensibilities are affected by the contemporary environment of the society we live in. There is so little interest in contemporary Jewish art, as frankly so much of what we see in today’s galleries is simply boring (stereotypical bearded rabbis and views of the Kosel) – nothing like the more dynamic aesthetics that we have become accustomed to, reflected in the streets we live in. When today’s Jewish art just continues to monotonously reflect the same old imagery – iconic yes, but endlessly repetitive – we tune out. Much contemporary Jewish art serves little more in our observant community than something to hang on the wall to match the drapes in our Shabbos dining room.”
Kestenbaum, a frum Jew himself, aims to change all of that by promoting, at his auctions, the modern style Judaic art of Anshie Kagan. Serious investors, collectors, and art aficionados might take note of this endorsement and attend the upcoming December auction.