Frida Kahlo, Eva Hesse, and the parlor game of defining Jewish art
A hilarious sketch on Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central show imagines a racial draft of sports and entertainment figures. The blacks draft Tiger Woods. The Jews pick Lenny Kravitz. The Asians adopt the Wu-Tang Clan.
I was reminded of this when I read about a new biography published in Germany of Frida Kahlo’s father, Guillermo, that refutes the commonly held notion that he was Jewish-Hungarian, instead identifying him as German Lutheran. The artist herself encouraged people in the misapprehension, Meir Ronnen speculates in The Jerusalem Post, because she feared her friends and lovers, many of whom were Communists and anti-Nazis, would look askance at her German heritage.
The revelation, if true, throws an awkward shadow on the multiplicity of efforts to tease out the Jewish identity of the multiply hyphenated artist, who famously got a kick out of asking Henry Ford if he was Jewish. In the case of a show at New York’s Jewish Museum a few years ago, this included exhibiting her 1936 painting “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree),” along with a book from her library on the torture of Mexican Jews during the Inquisition that she may have drawn on for imagery of her own suffering. Latins, lesbians, and now Lutherans can still claim Frida as one of their own. Is it over for us?
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In my world the process of defining Jewish art, or what is Jewish in art, is both parlor game and intellectual exercise. Either way, clearly it reveals as much about who is doing the assessing as it does about the figures we are claiming for our team. One might imagine that Marc Chagall, of all people, had already been taken care of in this department, but in Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World, Yale professor Benjamin Harshav parses a mind-boggling array of Hebrew, Yiddish, and religious references, inferences, allusions, and illusions in the master’s work and life. He suggests, for example, that critics too easily accepted the version of the threadbare childhood Chagall put forth in the autobiography he published in the Soviet Union, describing his father’s hard work lifting heavy herring barrels. Harshav contends the father supervised a wholesale herring cellar, a misunderstanding made possible by the word meshores, which means servant in Hebrew but store manager in Yiddish. Harshav’s argument linking the multiplicity of linguistic roots in Yiddish to Chagall’s supposed postmodernism didn’t convince me, but the range of information and illustrations in his beautifully produced book succeeds in presenting Chagall as a more complex and edgy artist than many people might think.
Wallace Berman, Untitled (A7-Mushroom, D4-Cross), 1966.
Still Chagall will never satisfy that craving for cool Jews, whether Lenny Kravitz or gangsters. But Wallace Berman, an artist of the Beat generation, is the subject of a traveling retrospective that is now in Wichita and arrives at the Grey Art Gallery in New York this fall. A child of Russian Jewish émigrés, Berman hung with Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, and Dean Stockwell (all artists in those days), and had a bit part in Easy Rider. He was on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. He was so cool, the catalogue notes, he was one of the first men of his generation to wear long hair—and he wore an earring back in early 1970s.
The Jewish element in Berman’s art is quite obvious. The catalogue teems with Hebrew letters—in Semina, the avant-garde journal he produced, as well as in collages, drawings, prints, in his “free-flow bardic utterance,” and painted on rocks, which he left to erode in a gesture that might be described as Andy Goldsworthy meets Lawrence Weiner. The aleph was his personal signet—in a famous 1964 photo of Berman by Hopper, you can see the giant letter on his motorcycle helmet. In his catalogue essay “Surrealism Meets Kabbalah,” Stephen Fredman traces this iconography to the influence of poet Robert Duncan, who learned about Kabbalah in his parents’ Theosophy meetings, and Gershom Scholem, required reading in Berman’s Beat circle. Also, Fredman notes, Berman grew up seeing Yiddish letters in the newspapers and shop windows of the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. To “invoke that world after the Holocaust,” writes Fredman, “is to draw attention to the death of the Hebrew letter, not only because the Yiddish speakers of Los Angeles were dying out but also because the extermination of Jewish culture in Europe had incinerated the letters, both written and spoken, and rendered them ghostly….the letters draw attention to suffering and disappearance, while at the same time invoking a promise of redemption.”
Ready to draft Berman? Not so fast! Not according to Matthew Baigell, whose recently published American Artists, Jewish Images charts iconography in the work of 14 figures ranging from Max Weber to R. B. Kitaj, not counting Berman, who gets only two pages at the end of the Ben Shahn chapter. Baigell (who explains that he included Berman in response to calls for some “hipster culture” in the book) is unimpressed: “Kabbalah is nothing to play around with unless that is all one wants to do with it.” Take that, Skirball Cultural Center! Take that, Jewish Museum!
Which brings us to two current shows devoted to the brilliant and influential sculptor Eva Hesse, at the Jewish Museum and the Drawing Center. In contrast to Berman (and the other artists in Baigell’s book), Hesse did not employ identifiably Jewish iconography. She was an abstractionist. Her sculptures, at once visceral and poignant, unite Surrealism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, eroticism, and a bunch of other isms in nontraditional materials like fiberglass, latex, and rope. They pushed the boundary of what sculpture is and, as the reviews make clear, had a vast impact on what followed.
Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, Eva Hesse Tagebuch (Diary) 1, January 11, 1936.
Hesse is one of the few artists whose work has been featured at the Jewish Museum in both the 1960s, its avant-garde heyday, and in its present incarnation, which focuses more specifically on Jewish history and culture. Many people, like myself, were disappointed to have missed the groundbreaking retrospective that started at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a few years ago and never made it to the Whitney like it was supposed to. So, at the opening, we were thrilled to see Hesse’s sculptures en masse for the first time, elegantly installed in airy first-floor galleries by co-curators Elisabeth Sussman and Fred Wasserman.
Meanwhile, around the bend, crowds overran a room devoted to the incredible trove of documentary material amassed and preserved by a family that had been uprooted so many times. These include the Tagebücher, or diaries, that Wilhelm Hesse kept for Eva and her sister, Helen (who stood nearby), recording their early childhood in an observant family in Hamburg, where Eva was born in 1936. Collages of family photographs, newspaper clippings, Hebrew prayers, anti-Hitler cartoons, and other ephemera, the Tagebücher, which have never before been exhibited in public, are mesmerizing personal, social, and historical documents. They provide the exhibition with an intimate and appropriate Jewish angle—one that even the curators did not suspect when they started out, said Wasserman, whose moving catalogue essay fills in the details that the diaries neglect. The sisters left on a kindertransport to Holland in late 1938. Reunited with their parents three months later, they emigrated to London and then New York, where they grew up in the German Jewish community of Washington Heights. In 1948, their mother, a manic depressive, committed suicide.
In the gallery Wasserman pointed out some of the other items on view: an article on Hesse in Seventeen, where she had worked as an intern, and one in the Forverts inspired by that one, titled “At Three Years Old, a Refugee, at Eight, Motherless, and at Eighteen, a Painter” (and full of errors, Wasserman notes); her report that she was using the restitution money from her grandparents’ death in the camps to pursue her artistic career; and her diaries from her 1965 trip to Hamburg, where she tried to visit her childhood home and was rebuffed: “Went to see Isestrasse—cried.” Finally there are the documents of her burgeoning success, including her first big solo show, at New York’s Fischbach’s Gallery in 1968, two years before her death of a brain tumor.
How should we link Hesse’s biography to her artistic practice? Is it true, as Drawing Center’s Catherine de Zegher suggests, that the cords she brought to the stark vocabulary of Minimalism reflect on some level her experience of the loss of her mother? Given the evidence in the Jewish Museum, can we trace her collecting impulse to her German Jewish roots? Intriguing and legitimate questions.
The questions we have to ask about Kahlo are intriguing in different ways: What might have been her motives for implying that she was on our team? How complicit were we in going along with the story, and what does that say about us? If she was indeed part German, on the other hand, then it follows that soon enough someone will be showing her work at Goethe House and parsing her work for clues as to how it reflects a latent German sensibility. Frida Kahlo: Crypto-Lutheran?