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Collective Perspectives: New Acquisitions Celebrate the Centennial serves to sharpen this definition of the Jewish Museum by focusing on three central concepts: Modern Art and the Jewish Experience; Expanding the Boundaries of Judaica; and finally, Contemporary Art and Jewish Identity. Each category reveals riches along with the illusion of cultural gold.
Perhaps nowhere is this conundrum more sharply revealed than in the section on Modern Art and the Jewish Experience. Many aspects of Modernism were dominated by Jews as they sought in the early and mid 20th century to assimilate to Western culture exactly at the moment that Western Art was transforming itself, equally throwing off tradition and seeking meaning in an increasingly fractured and unsure world. The Jewish sense of otherness and analytical skills (gleaned from centuries of the Talmudic study they were now rushing to abandon) made them uniquely suited to elaborate Modernist thought and art.
In spite of the undercurrent of Jewish ideas in Modernism, the majority of new artworks shown here are uninspiring and in their Jewish connection, tenuous at best. Man Ray’s famous Self-Portrait With Camera (1930) is more about self-absorption in technology than Jewish introspection. Both Louise Nevelson’s and Elie Nadelman’s work show full immersion in Western aesthetics without a trace of Jewish content. Admittedly, it is difficult to fully assess an artist’s work seen in isolation; nonetheless, neither the artworks nor the wall texts illuminate us as to why they are Jewishly significant. Paradoxically, the strongest artworks in the “Modern” room are the most aesthetically traditional. Isidor Kaufmann’s Head Of A Rabbi utilizes 19th century academism to boldly depict an uncertain religious decline. A Sage in his Shabbos finery evokes, through a subtle mix of intense expression crowned with a lavish streimel and ornamented tallis resting precariously on the man’s narrow shoulders, a curious weakness, even a hollowness beneath such opulent clothing. Me And My Village (c.1911) by Marc Chagall likewise undermines the certainty of tradition with his trademark folk-naivete, literally decapitating the artist night flyer, who inhabits a topsy-turvy shtetl featuring a cow/goat being milked on a rooftop by a cat/child under an ominously turbulent night sky.
The full range of Judaica is explored from a rare third century sarcophagus fragment featuring a carved menorah, to an elegant set of hand-worked silver and enamel Passover Candlesticks (c.1990) by the Israeli artist Ori Resheff. Ascending crimson enamel strips support both the candle cups and a floating silver column, evoking the mitzvah of lighting that elevates and sanctifies the holiday over the mundane.
Wit, whimsy and inventiveness predominate in this animated collection of Judaica. Andras Borocz’s Shoe Grogger (2001) makes a joyful foray into the mechanics of Purim noisemaking with an elegantly fashioned mechanical device that stomps little wooden shoes on the floor via a simple crank. To be utilized whenever Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading of the Megillah, this embodies the spirit and clamor of the holiday.
Equally inventive is Tobi Kahn’s Saphyr (Omer Counter) (2002). This totally new form of omer counter is a delightfully intriguing wall construction that has 49 shaped cavities that correspond to uniquely shaped wooden pegs that can be removed or replaced as part of the ritual of counting. The counting is combined with a tactile sensation (grasping the multiform house-shaped pegs) reflecting each inimitable day’s passing. As we move through time by manipulating objects into their proper places, the physical world becomes ordered, progressing from Passover to Shavuos.
Lyn Godly’s Hanukah Lamp (2004) is another witty installation that catches the viewer off guard. Installed in its own room, this progressive light show is so goofy that it slyly involves the viewer in the ascending joy of the Hanukah miracle. Nine light boxes mounted on a curving wall successively illuminate: first, one fake flickering candle (the shamash!); then the next light box illuminates a cheesy candle image; next, green luminescent candle holders light up and red squiggles of fiber optic cords suddenly appear. Each sequence ups the visual ante, culminating with an assemblage of brazen, Hollywood-style illuminated electric cords that form the nine branches of the virtual menorah. We have been taken through all eight nights of Hanukah in a light show progression of less than a minute. From a tiny little light to a wacky spectacular, Hanukah’s miracles, wonders, and salvations are compressed into one visual event.
What was delightful in Judaica now gets tendentiously serious in Contemporary Art and Jewish Identity. The big name artists, Frank Stella, Christian Boltanski, Alex Katz and Anselm Kiefer, all weigh in with works that seem to be forced, in their approximation of Jewish content. Boltanski’s Monument (Odessa) (1989-2003) keeps the viewer at a postmodern distance with “mysterious” tin boxes under fuzzy photographs surrounded by “memorial lights.” The notion of loss and memory is diffused and general. Similarly Anselm Kiefer’s Die Hemmelspalaste (The Heavenly Palaces) (2004) mounts alleged symbols (seven, three dimensional cages) of Merkavah Kabbalah on a sensuous paint surface that insists on a one point perspective landscape creating an unbridgeable gap between symbol and literal depiction.
Surprisingly, the photographic works in “Contemporary Art” are easily the most convincing and connected to Jewish content. Rineke Dijkstra’s double portrait of Abigael (1999?2000), taken just as this Israeli teenager was drafted and then in uniform after her basic training and service, subtly shows a loss of innocence in the transition to adulthood imposed by the Israeli Army experience.
Soldier (2000), a large chromogenic color print by Adi Nes also delves into the complexity of Army life for the Israeli youth. This image of a sleeping soldier is a reflection on the exhaustion of war, the harsh necessity of fighting, and the psychological cost of conflict. The contrast between the sleeping face and the open window with just a hint of landscape sets up a provocative interior/exterior dialogue that evokes much more than it shows.
Don’t Look Back, from White Noise (1999-2000) by Ori Gersht is perhaps one of the most powerful images in the exhibition. The two very large color prints mounted one above the other depict one broken image of a tall, snow-laden pine tree. The vertical tree trunk parallels the verticals of the barbed wire fence seen in the lower half of the bottom image. The starkness of this cold, snow-filled image, a former concentration camp, is a bleak landscape of death. The upper image, slightly out of line with the bottom, lifts up as we follow the tree trunk up into its snow-laden branches. This contrast between top and bottom shifts the meaning and focus to the supernal. G-d, who gives life, sustenance and even beauty to snow-bound trees, still rules in this land of death. The photograph is a poetic meditation on mass murder in the face of the stubborn insistence of life to continue.
The Jewish Museum’s “New Acquisitions” moves us with many artworks of refreshing and innovative perspectives on Jewish subjects and content. The museum’s pivotal role in Jewish culture is dependent on continuing to emphasize and celebrate the uniquely Jewish contribution to contemporary artwork and culture. While not always in synch with the hip art scene, this kind of work is nonetheless the lifeblood of Jewish identity and future. ◙
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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