Miriam Beerman’s paintings have appeared in more than 100 exhibits, including a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, a first for a woman artist. Her works permanently reside at the San Diego Museum, the Whitney and Yale University’s Sterling Art Library and have made the usual Jewish rounds – the Israel Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Skirball and the Spertus. Her works appeared in the traveling show “Women of the Book: Artists’ Books on Jewish Themes” (1997-2000). But despite her prolific representation at Jewish museums, Beerman, 84, is the first person to question those who overplay her works’ Jewish significance.
Beerman’s paintings, which center on trauma and brutality, are tough to pigeonhole. Some critics have called her an expressionist for her thick colors and bold strokes. Her monsters and demons have earned her comparisons to 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, infamous for his depictions of the Cinco de Mayo massacres and his “Black Paintings” of witches, battles and, perhaps most crudely, Saturn devouring his son. For many curators and critics, interpreting Beerman’s work as related to the Holocaust and Jewish suffering is simply too tempting.
Over the phone from Montclair, NJ, Beerman called herself a “survivor of sorts” or “survivor spiritually,” though she grew up in Rhode Island. She estimated 90 percent of her works refer to the Holocaust. But she stressed her paintings “do not illustrate any aspect of Judaism . . . I’m not a Jewish artist – I am Jewish and an artist.”
Miriam Beerman. “Imaginary Portrait of V.G. #2.” 1985. Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
Still, Donald Kuspit, an art history professor at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, argued Beerman painted Vincent van Gogh as a Jew in “Imaginary Portrait of V.G. #2” (1985). There is no reason to believe that the Dutch painter, whose father was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, was Jewish, but Kuspit wrote in the catalog “Survival: Miriam Beerman” (Queensborough Community College, 2007), “Beerman is Jewish, and the hooked nose she gives to Van Gogh is proverbially Jewish.” Kuspit further referred to the “honorary Jew, a symbol of Jewish suffering and mortification, indeed self-mortification, for Van Gogh cut off his own ear, a prelude to the suicide which was soon to follow.”
Miriam Beerman in her studio. Photo: Menachem Wecker, 2006.
In a review in The Jewish Press (“Beerman’s Plagues,” March 20, 2006), Richard McBee wrote of Beerman’s Plague paintings that “The first thing you notice . . . [is] that the plagues don’t happen to someone else, they just happen, like a permanent state of terror underlying the structure of the universe. The plague itself is dread; anguish and fear of exactly how bad the world can become. In these paintings we are faced with all of our worst nightmares.”
In the column, McBee agreed that Beerman’s van Gogh portrays “a whole people as victims,” and the “stereotypical” profile’s “big nose and thick lips, ostensibly identify him as a Jew.” McBee – who compared Beerman’s van Gogh to Shylock’s soliloquy, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” – said over e‑mail, “I think [Beerman] would agree with what I wrote, especially the quote from Shylock. She is immersed in suffering.”
Miriam Beerman. “River of Blood” – The Plague Series. 1986. Oil on Canvas. 98.25² x 63.75². Image courtesy of Queensborough Community College.
But despite McBee and Kuspit’s confidence, Beerman denied the nose’s Jewishness. So did Kathryn Martini, collections manager at the Syracuse, NY-based Everson Museum of Art, which showed Beerman’s work in “Eloquent Pain(t)” (2007). “If Kuspit sees it as a Jewish nose and sees Jewish identification, I think it’s always possible,” she said, “not something I responded to strongly, but I wouldn’t argue his take.”
Dominique Nahas was not so generous. “Kuspit is hallucinating,” said Nahas, an independent curator, professor at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and critic-in-residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He diagnosed the hallucination as “psychic projection and identification . . . attending to external power agendas” and inadvertent “weak or bad curating.”
Nahas’ own catalog “Bending the Grid: Compassionate Monsters/Wrathful Lambs” (Aljira, 2006) only referred to Beerman’s Jewish identity in three footnotes – two mentioning the Holocaust, and the third, Beerman’s appetite for “Buddhist, Judaic and Christian thought.” Nahas also cited Beerman’s reference to the Hindu god Vishnu, though Beerman said over the phone, “I don’t know at all about Vishnu.”
Miriam Beerman. “Gulag (Feeding the Muse).” 1990. Oil on Canvas. 58² x 103.5². Image courtesy of Queensborough Community College.
Even the Holocaust images, which Beerman acknowledges, are hard to pin down. McBee believes Beerman’s Holocaust references are Jewish due to their emphasis on death. But the “primarily cultural and secular” elements show the artist “willfully ignores the vast and complex narratives and intellectual material found in Torah, Talmud, commentaries, mystical literature and large portions of Jewish history and cultural production,” he said. “She also ignores almost all of the contemporary Jewish and Israeli world.”
Martini said labeling any of the paintings “Holocaust works” is “very limiting,” since the works address “myriad . . . interpretations of the human condition.”
“I haven’t ever felt that Miriam identified or found necessity in being marked a Jewish artist,” she said. “I think the fact that she is Jewish is actually not a very pertinent factor in her work. It only is curious for those who read her work as that of a Holocaust survivor.” Martini added that even Beerman’s series on the Ten Plagues could be seen as relevant to Christians and not strictly Jews.
Despite downplaying the Jewish angle in his catalog, Nahas nevertheless argued that Beerman’s Old Testament references “can be said to relate to and infer her Jewish heritage” and are “classically inclined towards exploring the depths of suffering and its contours and its meanings, which is I think paradigmatically Jewish.” He added that it is fair to assume that religious and social culture has shaped the artist, who is Jewish by birth, “to a more than obvious degree.”
Somehow, regardless of how one views Beerman’s work, it makes some sort of poetic sense that Beerman responded to questions about how to take her work by citing “artists who are more Jewish than I am.” Her example? “Richard McBee.”
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.