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My America – The Long Road

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The Jewish Museum has a story to tell in “My America: Art From The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955.” The difficult journey of immigrant Jews through the crowded Lower East Side, working, playing and defining their role in America, comes alive in over seventy paintings, sculptures and photographs. Years later, basking in the glow their own success, they entered the mainstream of the American cultural establishment as the creators and leaders
of the Abstract Expressionist movement. In the mid-1950′s, this exhibition’s story ends, as many American Jewish artists had abandoned most of their heritage and were frequently loath to being identified as Jewish.

But the story was not over, not by a long shot. In spite of predictions that American Jews would assimilate themselves out of existence, Jewish artists continued to salvage bits and pieces of their Jewish heritage in the years that High Modernism crumbled and evaporated in the chaos that followed. The landmark ”Too Jewish” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1996 explored issues of identity so dear to postmodern thought. Since then, contemporary Jewish art has slowly grown stronger. In this exhibition, the Jewish Museum documents the difficult and painful first part of the story, a narrative of the road out of tradition to an illusory promised land.

Max Weber (1881-1961), the brilliant American cubist who consistently affirmed his Jewish roots in his paintings, attests to the general tenor of those times with his 1919 painting, Sabbath, showing two Chassidim and their wives whiling away a Shabbos afternoon. Morris Shulman’s Tomkins Square Park (1936) is claustrophobically crowded, teeming with mothers,
children, youths and old men engaged in endless arguments. Jewish identity here, as in many other works shown nearby, blends seamlessly into the overall immigrant experience.

Most Jews were not able to seamlessly integrate into mainstream America as Peter Blume’s 1927 Pig’s Feet and Vinegar shockingly attests. Blume (1906-1992) was born in Russia, came to America as a child and developed into a popular surrealist painter in the 1930′s. As an artist he had moved out of the city to paint the ”real America.” There he found not bucolic peace and harmony, but a world that would wrench him further from his Jewish roots, full of dislocation and estrangement. His later surreal and magic realist paintings reflected the exploitation of America invaded by the machine age. This early painting depicts the invasion of nonJewish America into his home. A hyper-realistic rendition of a pair of pig’s feet is seen on his kitchen table that is set before a window that looks out on rural America. The struggle of assimilation was in fact a war against the Jews.

This war was fought on many fronts, especially in our homes and living rooms. Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), one of the most beloved of the Jewish realists, depicted the domestic battlefield in his own home. Dance Lesson (1926) depicts his twin brother Moses dancing with his sister Rebecca as his other brother Israel plays the harmonica. His mother interrupts reading her
Yiddish paper to watch them along with her husband sitting on the couch. Ironically, his grandparents peer down helplessly from the portrait on the wall. In spite of the implicit criticism, we know the dancers will fully embrace modernity at the expense of their traditions. Close to 30 years later, Raphael Soyer painted Seated Couple (1954) that evokes the very modern Jewish couple. He is intense and simmering with modern angst. She is confident and
supportive. Their Jewishness is totally hidden.

Deciding what to give up was only one aspect of Jewish assimilation. One had to replace the old world values with new world agendas, and social justice was always high on the list. Jews became active in left wing politics and John Reed Clubs were filled with Jewish artists. Philip Evergood’s The Hundredth Psalm (1938-39) depicts the horror of southern lynchings in the 1930′s. His depiction of hooded Klansmen lynching a Black man as they played violins, mocks the verse, ”call out to the Lord, everyone on earth. Serve the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyous song.” Evergood accuses racist Christians of murdering Blacks in perverted religious zeal and, by the invocation of a Jewish text, implores traditional Jews to protest social injustice.

Protest and alarm dominate as ”Reacting to Tragedy?” charts the American Jewish artist’s early confrontation with the Holocaust. Jacques Lipshitz’s disturbing sculpture The Sacrifice (1949-57) sends a deeply mixed message in its presentation of a figure stabbing a chicken. Neither a ritual sacrifice nor slaughter for food, it is a senseless killing. Continuing the theme of
victim-hood, Saul Baizerman’s Crucifixion (1947-50) utilizes an appropriation of Christian imagery to express Jewish suffering. His eight foot high hammered copper relief sculpture suggests an armless man seen from the back. The sheet-like nature of the cooper connotes an absence behind the hammered surface, evoking the loss of millions of Jews behind a single image.

The most disturbing image of the exhibition is Hyman Bloom’s Female Corpse (1945). The artist was at the time a major figure among the emerging Abstract Expressionists and was aware of the extent of the Holocaust in wartime Europe. He went to Boston and did a series of drawings and paintings in a morgue. The lurid expressionistic images he produced are morbid meditations on the mass murders. Seen from above and calmly observed, the painting attempts to mediate the horror of a single decomposing body. Death does not end with the cessation of life, rather it gradually festers and transforms the body until it has consumed every bit of flesh. The horror of Bloom’s painting presents death as a process, a continuation of hell that offers no peace.

The works in the final room poses troubling questions. It shows a handful of examples in which the artists used Jewish subjects to create abstract art. It implicitly asks what art might have been produced if Jewish artists had embraced the vast resources of Jewish thought for content and inspiration. As exciting as it is to see Ben Zion, a founding member of The Ten, an early and overwhelmingly Jewish abstract expressionist club, produce a Jacob Wrestling With The Angel in 1935, his numerous Biblical works were mostly ignored. Even the startling painting Tablets of Moses, Jacob’s Ladder, and Menorah (1951) by Robert Motherwell doesn’t rescue the distinctly minor classification these works deserve. Motherwell remains famous for Spanish Elegy, not Har Sinai. The notorious Larry Rivers, who would go on to become the “bad boy” of late modernism and pop art, is shown here in the Rejected Ark Cloth of 1954, a failed commission because of a Hebrew misspelling. But that cannot be the reason it was rejected. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish American artists at the time knew little and cared less about Jewish tradition and culture. With no inherent connection, it was surprising the few Jewish themes they did create.

”My America,” the survey of Jewish American art in the first half of the 20th century, would be ultimately a sad show were it not for the fact that 40 years later, Jewish art was seen struggling mightily in “Too Jewish?” Now, eight years after that, there is an emerging handful of Jewish artists who move well beyond the deconstruction of ethnic identity to attack, confront and
engage in serious Jewish subject matter. We would hope that the Jewish Museum’s next survey of contemporary Jewish art will be called, “Finally Jewish Enough.”

“My America: Art from the Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955,”  Jewish Museum; www.thejewishmuseum.org. 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423 3200. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., $10 adults; $7.50 students and seniors, children under 12 free;
Thursdays 5 to 8 p.m., pay-what-you-wish. Until July 25, 2004

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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