Jewish Art in America: An Introduction

By Matthew Baigell

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006




         Was Rembrandt a Jewish artist because he painted the Jewish wedding? Can Chagall’s paintings based on icons of other faiths be considered Jewish art? Should Max Jacob’s work be considered Jewish, in light of his conversion to Catholicism?


         These are all tough questions, without easy answers. As I write this wearing the hat of an art critic, I am tempted to set out a foundation for a Jewish art that sidesteps the questions of the artist’s faith and the content of the paintings. At least in theory, Rembrandt the non-Jew should have been able to mix a Jewish color if he went about it correctly. Even if Max Jacob did convert out of Judaism (and that is a big if), there ought to be enough vestigial elements of his Judaism left in him with which he could impart aesthetic form. But defining what those colors and forms might look like and what their nature is – aside from the “you will know it when you see it” argument – remains problematic.


         Matthew Baigell, who refers to himself as a historian of Jewish art who does not shy away from difficult questions, tackles these sorts of problematic definitions in his new book, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction.


         Although in the preface to the book Baigell calls the project a survey of Jewish art in America, he explains in his introduction that he finds nothing particularly Jewish about Jewish art, and recognizes no such thing as the “Jewish experience.”


“After,” by Richard McBee. Oil on canvas, 2002.


         “People cling to the notion that there is something Jewish about Jewish art, perhaps because they either consciously or unconsciously want to think that there is something special about being Jewish,” Baigell told The Jewish Press. “Even if they are not observant, they want to associate with a ‘special’ or ‘chosen’ group. It allows them a certain elevated identity. There is Jewish subject matter, but not Jewish art.”


         Baigell’s rejection of the term “Jewish” art in an introduction to a book on Jewish art might strike some readers as bizarre and sloppy. But even if he does reject the notion of Jewish art, Baigell’s book is full of Jewish Americans who make art. He cites several artists, critics and historians who do espouse such a view, like artists Peter Krasnow, who said, “Jewish art is a Jewish subject, by a Jewish artist, acquired by a Jewish collector,” and R. B. Kitaj, who insisted, “I believe my art is Jewish if I say it is.”


         Krasnow and Kitaj’s attempts to define Jewish art are not historical determinations, so much as personal efforts at identification. Baigell sees these identifications as possible, particularly in America, where Jewish painters confronted a situation where their choices “were entirely personal. All Jews could become, in effect, Jews by choice.” Within this context, Baigell swaps the vague question of what is Jewish about Jewish art, with a more specific one: “Why do many artists want to identify as Jewish and why do they choose to express Jewish experiences in their work?”


Book Cover, “Jewish Art in America.



         I will not even try to recap the many artists that Baigell addresses in his book. All readers of this column are clearly interested in Jewish art, and Baigell’s book is a must-read. His tale begins in the 17th century and carries straight through to contemporary art, including many artists whose work Richard McBee and I have covered in these pages. In fact, Baigell devotes a good amount of time to McBee’s art, which seems particularly relevant to this column.


         In the chapter, “The 1970s and After, Representative Figures,” Baigell refers to McBee, whom he calls “as sophisticated as [David] Newman in the history of recent art.” In a discussion of McBee’s “After” (pictured), Baigell observes, “McBee not only questions explicitly how Abraham in biblical clothes can reach out to Isaac dressed in modern slacks, but also he implicitly addresses the issues Isaac might have with the Jewish G-d as a G-d of terror and unknowability, with his (and our) relationship to G-d which might or might not be a happy one, and beyond that with the notion of where was G-d during the Holocaust.”


         Baigell further suggests viewing McBee’s painting as an exploration of an episode, which is “both an ancient and modern theme worth continued exploration for its complexities, its disjunctions, and its varying points of view, an appropriate postmodern subject, and, more importantly, a way to construct his own personal and religious identity.”


         To me, “After” does not only show the lack of communication between Abraham and Isaac and the after-the-storm view of the Akeidah – the text offers no hints of what conversation could have transpired between father and son after the near sacrifice – but it also shows a choreographed scene, set design and all, of how the tale might have transpired. In McBee’s view, Isaac has turned his back on Abraham (is he too furious to look his father in the eye? Too scared? Too confused?), and he looks back over his shoulder at Abraham’s beckoning hand. Isaac’s pants look baggy (almost “gangster” like, to use contemporary pop culture jargon) and rebellious, as Abraham is dressed in more classy, if not princely, attire. McBee has even charged the space separating the two characters with a flurry of ochre, white and black brushstrokes. If father and son are to reconcile their differences, they must fight their way through those chaotic and hazardous brushstrokes.



Matthew Baigell


         McBee’s examination of biblical texts through a contemporary lens typifies the post-1970’s period in Baigell’s book. I asked him by e-mail what he saw on the horizon for Jewish artists, who might soon exchange their brushes for mouse pads.


         “I do not know how Jewish artists will respond to digital art,” Baigell admitted. “However, I think there might be a divide between those Jewish artists who find inspiration in the religion, in things intrinsic to Judaism, and those who maintain a secular attitude, those who find a sense of social justice in their Jewish heritage as if no other religion also has a sense of social justice, and create works extrinsic to Judaism. The latter artists pass on attitudes that can be found among people with good social values whatever their background. Jews have no exclusive claim to good social values.”


         But however much the latter group makes interesting work “concerned with issues of, say, assimilation and social justice” and “generational issues, important as these might be,” Baigell added, “I think the future of Jewish American art lies with those committed to creating works intrinsic to Judaism.”


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit opening March 25.

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Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at