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January 20, 2017 / 22 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Modern Art’

Frydlender’s Constructions

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Barry Frydlender: Place and Time

Until September 3, 2007

Museum of Modern Art

11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019;

www.moma.org, 212 708 9400

Target Free Friday nights, 4-8 p.m.



         What is Frydlender up to? Barry Frydlender, the prominent Israeli photographer, is currently privileged with simultaneous exhibitions at the Tel Aviv Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His New York exhibition consists of a mere 10 works that examine various aspects of Israeli life today. We learn that each large-scale image is actually a laborious and seamless composite of hundreds of digital images taken minutes, hours or even days apart. Why go through the enormous subsequent effort of months of computer manipulation, piecing together countless images, to create large-scale artificial constructions that paradoxically also look like ordinary photographs of “real life?”


         It seems that Frydlender’s work is questioning the very notion that photographs can actually capture some kind of visual reality. His work is a postmodern subversion of our idea of perceived reality. Human perception is far more complex than we might think. I would argue that the core of our daily experience is neither adequately captured by still photographs, those terribly fragile slices of the visual world, or by the moving image that almost always is lost in the rush of movement. But Frydlender attempts to solve this problem by combining the still image with an aspect of the moving image.


         By combining “slices” that capture one singular reality with others taken at other moments in time he expands his composite image through time, allowing his static constructions to exist in multiple time fragments. His otherwise cumbersome method allows him the freedom to create a very personal view of a photographic illusion, even as he plays with the elusive notion of a photographic reality. His very methods destroy the notion that his images capture something real since they are totally his concoction. Or perhaps he is telling us that the only reality we can see in his works is to patiently seek out the artist’s particular vision. And of course, the irony is that they nonetheless look “real.”


         With such a fascinating concept we should expect his images to challenge our otherwise pedestrian notion of perception and Israeli life in particular. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.


         Blessing. 2005, approximately five by 14 feet, is immediately impressive for its scale and subject of close to 80 Hasidim congregated in a park on Lag B’Omer. They stand in seemingly arbitrary groups, some around tables laden with pastry and drinks. A large sign provides the after-bracha for cake while the T’zvi Bakery boxes advertise they are open 24 hours. Moving across the image one is drawn into the emotions of individual small clusters, some cheerful, some serious and some simply engaged in conversation. Everything is in stop-motion, frozen in an unreal slice of time that, we know now, was many different slices of time. Whatever meaning this gathering may portend must be buried in the myriad details, and yet it remains elusive. Without a trace of narrative, this massive and complex image remains but a picturesque scene, a tourist image of religious men.



Blessing. 2005; installation view

The Museum of Modern Art,

Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder



         The motif of scenes of commonplace Israeli life is similarly followed in Friday. 2002. Here Erev Shabbos fast approaches, ignored by secular Israelis deeply involved in boy/girl watching. A persuasive aimlessness of an urban hangout negates the slightest whisper of narrative or real visual interest. Neither the youth or the city architecture or the visual patterns have enough compelling detail to sustain our interest in this image.


         Frydlender’s approach picks up some passion once his view turns political. In Shirat Hayam. 2005 (6′ X 11′) he etches a bold arc of Israeli soldiers and police across the horizontal image of the beach dotted with six trailer homes and some 40-odd residents of Shirat Hayam who resisted being evicted from their homes in Gaza. His image is laced with many textual messages that reflect the settler’s point of view. An improvised banner asks, “Lamah, Why?” while another implores, “Don’t be a partner” and yet a third asks, “Who has the strength to fight with the King?”



Shirat Hayam (End of Occupation Series # 2) 2005

Courtesy of the artist and Andrea Meislin Gallery, NY.



         Alas, the tragedy of the event is undercut by Frydlender’s emphasis on the media-event nature of the confrontation. English labels appear on the backs of Israeli soldiers and police, photographers abound and the sunny day combines with a casual attitude of almost all participants implying that nothing of great import is happening. Still, Frydlender’s constructed image manages, through its bold composition, to convey drama and force.


         Jaber Coffee Shop. 2003 shifts the focus to Palestinian society depicting 14 Arab men around three crowded tables silently playing cards in a coffee shop. There is nothing unusual in what they are doing, but their concentration and self-absorption slowly rivets the viewer in front of the almost life-size image. Subtly, the nine foot image presents a critique of Arab passivity, putting the entire image on edge with a tightly cropped profile of one man on the extreme left who stares across the many card players to another figure on the extreme right leaving the café. With enough patient examination of Frydlender’s images, meanings emerge.


         One of the grimmest constructions, Raid. 2003 depicts a massive raid in a building on a grungy Israeli street. Some 35 security personnel, several in uniform, some in street clothes, all armed, are milling around or entering the target. We have no idea who or what they are after. Other security forces have stopped two motorbikes while some just observe the unfolding event. We see the scene from what might be a second floor window and upon close inspection notice that while everything looks photographically sharp, every face is just slightly blurred, every license plate obscured, anything that would identify the individuals is effaced. There are guns everywhere, tension fills the air and no one feels secure in what must be a daily occurrence in some parts of Israel.



Raid. 2003

Collection of Miriam and David Landau, NY



         Estates. 2005, almost four by eight feet, is easily the most impressive work in this exhibition. Seen from high above, the composition is majestically rooted in the cool blue, rectangular swimming pool of a hotel or luxury complex. Two lone swimmers enjoy the clear water while numerous empty lounge chairs await other guests seeking rest and relaxation. Meanwhile, the entire upper left of the image depicts another kind of rest, the eternal kind. An adjacent local cemetery dotted with palm trees and the large flat grave coverings typical of Israel, stretches into the adjoining city that borders on the ocean. The horizon stretches and curves just as our understanding of the juxtaposition Frydlender has presented crystallizes before us.



Estates. 2005

Collection of Gale and Steven Spira, NY



         The more we examine the scene, the more it reverberates with portentous meanings. The play back and forth between the living (scarce as they are) and the plentiful dead, seems to center on the pool water’s transparency and the floating ethereal nature of the two swimmers, one of whom just touches the edge, about to return to the floating world. The world of the luxury pool (a kind of Gan Eden with potted plants and brilliant red foliage) is effectively walled off from the grim reality awaiting all who draw breath. Frydlender’s image continues to fascinate, even as we struggle to remember that this terribly real image is all constructed and we can’t help but ask, “but which parts are real?”


         Suddenly we realize that the question is absurd, and the reality we see here is simply the photographer’s artificial construction. And that might just be what Frydlender is up to.


         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

Richard McBee

Eight Jewish Dada Artists

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006


Through September 11, 2006

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

11 West 53 St., (5th and 6th Ave.), New York

(212) 708-9400




         George Grosz’s 1944 painting, “Cain, or Hitler in Hell” shows the Nazi leader with his iconic moustache and uniform sitting sadly, mopping his brow. Surrounding Hitler, Grosz captures his interpretation of eternal punishment, with fiery reds, whites, and yellows, dark blacks, and piles of skeletons. By casting Hitler as the Biblical Cain, Grosz draws attention to the question G-d asks of Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Grosz hints at the question that plagues Hitler as he mops his brow: Where are the six million Jews you should have treated as brothers?


         Although only a select, astute few could anticipate the horrors that the Nazis would be capable of in World War II, the post-World War I psychological and sociological landscape was a devastated one, disillusioned about the human potential for peace and brotherhood. This sentiment was acutely felt within the artistic community, which responded with two movements: Dada (of which Grosz was a member) and Surrealism. Dada was supposedly named randomly, when two poets stuck a knife in a dictionary, and the knife pointed to Dada, French for “hobbyhorse.” Dada arose in “revolt against a world that was capable of unspeakable horrors.” Surrealism, meanwhile, drew its inspiration more from Freud and his conception of the “unconscious” mind, and it attended to dreams and illusion.



Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), American, 1890-1976. “The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows,” 1916, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



         In particular, Dadaism – which is the subject of a major exhibit at the MoMA, after occupying the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC – was a response to war. One artist declared that the movement’s aim was “to remind the world that there are independent men, beyond war and nationalism, who live for other ideals.” According to the authors of the new edition of Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition (Pearson Education, 2006), “The Dadaists aimed to wipe the philosophical slate clean, leading the way to a new world order With the rise to power of Hitler and his National Socialist Party, many avant-garde artists turned their attention to making anti-fascist imagery and exposing the insane thinking and sadistic brutality of the new German government.”


         The Dadaist, then, revolted against logic and reason, which “had led only to war. For them the nonsensical and the absurd became tools to jolt their audience out of their bourgeois complacence and conventional thinking.”


         Eight Jewish artists figure into the MoMA Dada show. Marcel Janco, born Iancu (1895-1984), was a Jewish-Romanian artist who escaped Nazi anti-Semitism in 1941 by moving to Tel Aviv, where he eventually died. Janco – who would later found the Israeli artist colony in Ein Hod – sculpted a mask of his fellow Jewish Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, which appears in the MoMA show. The paper, board, burlap, ink and gouache mask shows Tzara in ochre and purple, with a twisted, distorted face that appears terribly pained.


        Describing one of Janco’s masks, German poet and author of the “Dada Manifesto” (1916), Hugo Ball, described it in a diary as “not only did the mask immediately call for a costume, it also demanded a quite definite, passionate gesture, bordering on madness What fascinates us all about the masks is that they represent not human characters and passions, but characters and passions that are larger than life. The horror of our time, the paralyzing background of events, is made visible.” Thus, in Ball’s view, Janco’s masks recall both a famous “Twilight Zone” episode and Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, where a portrait lays bare the moral depravity of the subject.



Man Ray.  “Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed),” 1964 (replica of 1923 original),

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



         Tzara (1896-1963), who appears in Janco’s mask, was a pseudonym of the Jewish-Romanian writer, Sami Rosenstock. Tzara helped found Dada through his writings, most notably “The First Heavenly Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine” (1916) and the “Sept Manifestes Dada” (Seven Dada Manifestos) in 1924. The MoMA show includes an illustration by French artist Francis Picabia entitled, “Alarm Clock I (Réveil matin I)” (1919), which was the title page of the journal Dada (number 4-5), which Tzara edited. Picabia’s illustration shows a disassembled alarm clock, with chaotic gears and wires laid bare. Many Dada pieces address machinery and industrialization, suggesting that much of what previously was humanity has become robotic and cold.


         Also in the MoMA show are Jewish artists Hans Richter, Morton Livingston Schamberg and Arthur Segal. Richter (1888-1976) was born into a rich Jewish Berlin family. His father forced him into architecture, though he wanted to paint. Despite suffering partial paralysis from army service in Lithuania, he painted again and produced a new phenomenon, abstract films.


         Segal (1875-1944) was born into a Romanian Jewish middle-class family. His father, who ran a banking business, also discouraged him from painting, but Segal prevailed. After fleeing army service to Zurich, Segal developed the aesthetic idea of “equivalence,” by which he split his canvases up into equal geometric shapes and sought to devote equal attention to all parts of the paintings.



Marcel Janco, Israeli, born Romania. 1895-1984.  “Untitled (Mask, Portrait of Tzara), 1919,

Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne-Centre de création industrielle, Paris.



          Schamberg (1881-1918) was born in Philadelphia to a middle-class German Jewish family and became a supporter of Picabia’s blend of “machine paintings.” One reviewer described his work as a “wedding of an architect’s plans, machinist’s drawings and a strange sort of Egyptian relief.”


         Walter Serner (1889-1942) was also a Jewish Dadaist, but he converted to Catholicism. Jewish artist El Lissitzky, born Lasar (Eliezer) Markovich Lissitzky, famously illustrated the “Chad Gadya” and many Yiddish children’s books. Lissitzky was denied entrance to the St. Petersburg Academy because of his religion, but he studied with the same teacher as Marc Chagall. Lissitzky’s 1924 gelatin print of German collage artist Kurt Schwitters is exhibited in the Dada show. The portrait shows Schwitters wearing a tie that looks like a gas mask.


         Johannes Baargeld was the pseudonym of Alfred Emanuel Ferdinand Gruenwald (1892-1927), born to Romanian Jewish insurance director Heinrich Leopold Gruenwald. Baargeld grew up in Cologne and framed much of the Dada developments in Cologne until his untimely death at age 34. He was presumed to have frozen to death when lost in the fog while mountain climbing.


         But perhaps the most intriguing Jewish Dada artist is Man Ray (1890-1976). Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants. When the family members moved to Williamsburg when Ray was seven years old, they changed their last name to Ray, attempting to escape anti-Semitism. Man Ray adopted the name Manny or Man for similar reasons. Ray’s father worked in a garment factory and ran a tailoring business, and his mother was a seamstress. According to one online encyclopedia, Ray tried to disassociate himself from his family background, but he continued to use props with familiar significance: tailor’s dummies, flat irons, sewing machines, needles, pins, threads and swatches of fabric.“Cadeau” (Gift), which appears in the Dada show, is an iron with tacks attached to it. Instead of ironing clothing, Cadeau promises to rip the clothing to shreds.


         Ray was the first Dadaist to use photography. Photography is generally an orderly medium, but Ray invented the “photogram” which ruptured that order. In the photogram, Ray placed the objects he was “photographing” directly onto photo paper. When Ray exposed the paper to light, light exposed the empty parts of the paper, while the objects blocked the light. Thus, the finished photograph showed white where the objects had been, while the other areas became black.


         “Object to be Destroyed” is a ticking metronome that Ray conceived of in terms of “destructible” and “indestructible.” Ray placed a photograph of a woman’s eye on the metronome, and he would later rename the piece “lost object,” as Leach Dickerman and Matthew Witkovsky explain in one of the show catalogs, “The Dada Seminars” (National Gallery of Art, 2005).


         Ray’s objects to be destroyed and “Obstruction” (63 wooden coat hangers arranged as a mural), “Theatre of the Soul” (later titled “suicide”,which looks like a balance with teeth), and “Compass” (which shows a magnet attached to a pistol) represent not only the aesthetic responses of individuals opposed to the absurdity of war and fascism. Ray, with the other seven Jewish artists in Dada, bring a particularly Jewish perspective to the insistence on justice and what is now called tikkun olam. And it hardly seems a coincidence that so many of the Dada artists were Jewish.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Menachem Wecker

A Jewish Art Primer (Part III) – Jewish Painting: The Past and Future Collide

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

As the Enlightenment marched across Europe in the form of the Napoleonic conquests, the effects on Jewish Art were unmistakable. Ghetto walls were breached and torn down, exposing the Jewish population and its artists to myriad Christian and secular influences. While traditional Judaica continued to be fashioned by artisans, synagogues ornamented and books and Haggadahs illustrated, many Jewish artists now became aware of another kind of artistic expression – the art object itself. Painting became a legitimate mode of Jewish cultural expression. In this outburst of artistic freedom, Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) is the undisputed father of Jewish painting in the 19th century.

Oppenheim was born in the ghetto in Hanau, Germany. Educated in cheder and Talmud Torah, he nonetheless made a quick transition to secular studies and art school upon the emancipation of the Jews in 1806. After studying in Frankfurt, Munich, Paris and Rome he returned to Frankfurt to pursue a successful career, painting society portraits (especially the Rothschilds) and academic visions of Biblical scenes. In 1865 he launched upon a series depicting scenes of 18th century Jewish life, much like the world of his childhood. This series, Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life, would become his most lasting contribution to Jewish Art. These images of Shabbos, Yom Tov, weddings and many other Jewish communal and family scenes were quickly reproduced in bound albums and were soon found in almost every German Jewish home. They were the encapsulation of the world that once was and was now slowly disappearing.

Oppenheim’s work represents the seminal encounter between Jewish tradition and the challenges of the modern world. The Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life became a visual anchor for many Jews caught in the sweep of emancipation, nationalism and modernity. Providing a sense of identity, even with a sentimental vision of a vanishing Jewish world, would help to keep Jews in the fold for at least another generation.

That next generation could be characterized by Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), a singular artist from eastern Galicia (Drohobycz), who painted the masterpiece Jews Praying on the Day of Atonement in 1878, one year before he died at the age of 23. He was the child of progressive parents, studied at art schools in Lemberg and Vienna and quickly began painting subjects of Polish history, Shakespeare and the Bible, including some Christian scenes. In his brief career, he saw both his Jewish heritage and all of European civilization as his cultural birthright. While stillborn, his work seeks to thrust Jewish subjects and sensibilities into the heart of modern thought. Oppenheim looked to the past while Gottlieb yearned for the future.

Isidor Kaufmann (1853-1921) continues the movement of Jewish Art into the Modern through a wonderfully subversive methodology. Born in Arad, Hungary, Kaufmann took up painting in Vienna and was soon drawn to the mysterious world of the shtetl and Hassidic life in Galicia, Poland and Ukraine. In annual field trips, he would collect images; portraits, costumes, interiors and genre scenes that would be transformed into glistening narrative gems of Jewish life for his eager customers. These customers were assimilated, rich Viennese Jews. His best works, mainly portraits of young Hassidic men and women impeccably dressed for Yom Tov, are beautifully and simply composed paintings that reveal subtle psychological insights. A masterful sensitivity opens up the vibrant inner life of his subjects and transforms clich

és into a powerful combination of psychology and flat modern image-making. Kaufmann, always the realist bound to 19th century aesthetics, nonetheless brings Freud’s revelations to bear on a shallow modern pictorial space.

For Jews the leap into Modern Art was made in the cauldrons of revolution – Bolshevik Russia, Zionist Palestine and Paris, France. In the work of El Lissitzky (1890-1941), modernity subsumes tradition. Chad Gadya is his Jewish Art masterpiece. He grew up in Vitebsk, Russia, and after the 1917 revolution joined Chagall, teaching in the Vitebsk art school. Deeply involved in the movement to recreate Jewish culture in Russia – especially in the publication and illustration of Yiddish books – his Chad Gadya of color lithographs were published in Kiev in 1919. Soon after, El Lissitzky turned his attention to the most radical modern art movement of the time, Constructivism. Along with fellow Russian, Casimir Malevich, he created a totally abstract visual language, merging aspects of painting and architecture. The seeds of this new vision are clearly visible in Chad Gadya. Combining vivid imagery (such as the savage fury of the red cat leaping over the slain goat), a text border and bold abstract shapes, the artist breaks out of 19th century naturalism into the drama and uncertainty of a new age.

That new age is, in many ways, the world we still live in. Subsequent Jewish Art would continue to struggle between textual traditions and visual innovations we associate with Modern Art. We shall see, however, that this matrix, which seems superficially to create tension and conflict, actually is the source of much of the 20th century’s visual language.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Richard McBee

New Acquisitions At The Jewish Museum

Wednesday, December 8th, 2004

Collective Perspectives: New Acquisitions Celebrate the Centennial Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423 3200
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 11a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
$10 adults; $7.50 students, and seniors; children under 12 free; Thursdays, 5-8 p.m., pay-what-you-wish.
Until March 6, 2005



The Jewish Museum occupies a singular position in the Jewish universe, acting as a two way mirror. It allows the viewer to peer into an inner sanctum of parochial Jewish life and history, while simultaneously projecting to the outside world hip, contemporary Jewish attitudes about modern (and postmodern) culture. Classically bifurcated between shame and pride, the Museum serves the two masters of tradition and modernity, sending a cacophony of mixed signals about the place and importance of Jewish culture in the contemporary world.

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.

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/new-acquisitions-at-the-jewish-museum/2004/12/08/

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