Tzelem: Likeness and Presence in Jewish Art
April 26 – May 17, 2009
Stanton Street Synagogue
180 Stanton Street, New York
It was a little surreal sitting in the sanctuary of the Stanton Street Synagogue at the opening of the Jewish Art Salon exhibit. It was hard not to notice the sharp contrast between the synagogue’s tragically decaying collection of Zodiac signs painted on its walls and its dusty interior – some parts of which might still bear original grime dating back to 1913 when the synagogue was built – and the vibrant new art created by the 29 artists affiliated with the salon (including both the authors of this column). And then it turned out that two of the speakers, Archie Rand and Richard McBee, shared a common Jewish art experience: each told the assembled crowd of nearly 75 that he had received a ruling directly from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (1895 – 1986) encouraging him to paint without fear of violating the Second Commandment.
I did not speak up, but my father received smicha, rabbinic ordination, from Rav Moshe, and when I read one of the great rabbi’s decisions prohibiting elementary school instructors from teaching their students to draw lest they learn to illustrate the celestial bodies and come to violate the Second Commandment, I asked my father how he could have allowed me to draw. On a trip to New York, he approached Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rav Moshe’s son, at his Lower East Side yeshiva, Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, and was told that it was permissible for me to draw. Even representational art was allowed, as my father presented Rav Dovid with one of my pen-and-ink drawings of Rav Moshe, which and as far as my father knows, Rav Dovid has kept.
It takes a group of people obsessed with Jewish art congregating in an illuminated synagogue to tease out these sorts of connections. But what, if anything, can the Jewish Art Salon reveal about emerging trends in Jewish art?
Identifying trends in exhibits is a difficult endeavor. Reporters often tout movements of more painting or more sculpture at Whitney Biennials, but in my experience, the shows tend to be similarly organized as parking lots of works that are disjointed rather than unified. Trends have a way of popping up just about anywhere when one insists on looking for them. Yet, it seems significant to me that not only were a majority of the artists exhibiting in the salon women, but many of the works in the show could be said to have feminist content or themes.
Archie Rand. “Ruth (For Kitaj).” Acrylic on fabric. 2002
Archie Rand’s Ruth, (For Kitaj) references the late Jewish painter R. B. Kitaj (1932 – 2007). Rand represents Ruth the Moabitess as a red-headed woman wearing an ochre blazer and purple pants, and carrying a purple backpack (presumably for gathering Boaz’s grain). The blond-haired Boaz, clad in blue jeans and a lime-green blazer, and bearing an orange backpack (he is also harvesting his grain), approaches from behind, and speaks (via cartoon bubble) in Hebrew from Ruth 2: 8, “Have you heard, my daughter? Do not go to gather (grain) in any other field.” Never mind that Rand situates the scene in a field that seems better equipped as the set design of a horror film than for growing grain. Despite modernizing the costumes and the architecture of the houses in the background, Rand has remained true to the encounter between the two characters. A literal reading of the text of the Book of Ruth may leave readers with a picture of an older man protecting and ultimately marrying a much younger widow. However, Rand has empowered Ruth by representing Boaz as a younger man who stands off to the side, while Ruth occupies a prominent position in the middle of the canvas, and wears an expression on her face that surely conveys a mixture of pain and alienation on the one hand (she lost a husband and a people), and anticipation on the other (of her newfound faith and people, and husband-to-be).
Deborah Rosenthal. “Either/Or: Autumn Adam and Eve.” Oil on linen. 41″x31″. 1997-9
Deborah Rosenthal’s Adam and Eve employs a different sort of strategy. Where Rand makes Ruth prominent by placing her in a central position – after all she is the heroine of her own story, evidenced by the book bearing her name – Rosenthal’s painting blurs the boundary of where Adam ends and Eve begins, and vice versa. Somewhere in the composition the Tree of Knowledge also stands, and it may have sprouted wings worthy of a demon, or perhaps Satan disguised as a serpent. Rosenthal’s colors and forms are so visually seductive that it is easy to fall in love with the painting’s movement and to temporarily lose sight of the literal content of the work. Stanley Fish argued in his book Surprised by Sin that readers of John Milton’s Paradise Lost underwent a parallel journey to Adam’s. Just as Adam was tempted, sinned, and then sought forgiveness, readers are lured to Satan’s charismatic character; they then realize their “sin” and seek clemency. The same process might be said of Rosenthal’s Adam and Eve. Just as Adam and Eve confused the proper boundaries in the Garden of Eden, surely with a little help from their serpentine friend, viewers experience a bit of the taste of the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
John Bradford. “Judah and Tamar.” Oil on canvas. 24″x36″. 2008
If Rosenthal can be said to blur the boundaries between figures, John Bradford’s Judah and Tamar turns the figures into geometric boundaries. This painting, which looks like a Piet Mondrian grid with an orange, green, and blue palette, abstracts the figures of Jacob’s fourth son and his daughter-in-law to the point that though visible, they blend into the grid. Though Tamar dresses in red (perhaps because she is impersonating a prostitute) and seems to summon Judah, the characters seem frozen in space, as immobile and monumental as the colored rectangles that surround them.
Ita Aber. “Evolution 1.” Paint, appliqu?, quilt, and embroidery, 22″x24″. 2009
Ita Aber’s Evolution 1 at first looks like a series of circumscribed hearts – the sorts to grace notes passed between grade school girls in class, or pasted in instant messenger chat windows. Yet the work represents not a rosy, melodramatic worldview, but the horns (karnayim, the same word that gets mistranslated elsewhere leading to Moses being depicted with horns) that were attached to the corners of the altar in the Tabernacle. Aber’s red then is not a stand in for love, but the blood of the sacrifices. “The use of red refers to the sacrificial blood that was daily splashed on these horns, thereby effecting the atonement for sin,” according to the exhibit catalog by Richard McBee and Joel Silverstein. “Her work stands in dramatic tension with the Christian and popular image of a valentine.”
It may be a misuse of mathematic induction to argue for an emerging feminist trend in Jewish art at large, just due to representations of Ruth, Eve, and Tamar, and media generally identified with traditional women crafts being used to show the altar’s horns. On the other hand, though, as I have often pointed out to peers in my master’s courses in art history, despite the fact that many people point to religious communities as the epitome of conservatism and repression of progressive movements like feminism, it seems like religious artists and exhibits can usually be counted upon to be even more diverse and progressive than even the most activist secular galleries and museums.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.