A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear.
Moritz David Oppenheim (1800-1882), the German-born artist who may deserve the title of the first modern Jewish painter, had similarly patriotic goals. His scene of The Return of the Jewish Volunteer From the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance With Old Customs could not be clearer in its message. The old world of German Jewry is giving way to a more modern and assimilated generation, yet the two can still meet in a loving embrace. And the soldier-son’s service in the German army, in the war against Napoleon, shows that Jews can be super-patriotic Germans.
The Jewishness of such pictures is unproblematic because they are so easily legible—they admit of being “read” as messages and stories. In this way, they approach the condition of literature, turning images into illustrations and granting primacy to the word. Because words denote and connote, they are immediately related to the world, history, and society. But is the same thing true of a color or a line? Take, for instance, a 1955 painting by Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist master. Uriel is an enormous rectangular canvas, 8 feet by 18 feet long, divided into two zones—pale aqua on the left, rusty brown on the right. It is not only nonrepresentational, but seemingly nonreferential. Certainly it would be impossible to deduce anything about the Jewishness of its creator.
Should our understanding of the picture change, then, when we learn that Newman was an American Jew, born in 1905 on the Lower East Side? What about the fact that, as Baskind and Silver write, “Even though Jews made up only around three percent of the U.S. population at midcentury, it is remarkable how many leading Abstract Expressionists were Jewish,” including Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Newman, and more?
Finally, what about Newman’s title? Uriel is the Hebrew name of the Angel of Light, an important figure in Jewish mystical tradition; other Newman canvases bear titles like Covenant and Eve. In Jewish Art, he is represented by a 1948 canvas, Onement 1, whose title seems like a pun on the notion of atonement, and on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Onement 1 is one of Newman’s “zip” paintings, named after the thin zipper-like stripe that divides the canvas lengthwise—in this case, an orange zip dividing a brown background. Baskind and Silver quote an art historian, Thomas Hess, who interprets this canvas as “a complex symbol, in the purest sense, of Genesis itself. It is an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void.” In this way, Newman can be seen as a Kabbalistic artist, and his seemingly ultra-formalist pictures can be enlisted in a venerable Jewish intellectual tradition.
The question remains, however, whether that kind of enlistment is really more of a conscription. Certainly Harold Rosenberg thought so. In 1975, he returned to the subject of “Jews in Art” in a New Yorker review of two survey exhibitions: “Jewish Artists of the Twentieth Century” at Chicago’s Spertus Museum and “Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century” at the Jewish Museum. This essay, collected in his book Art and Other Serious Matters, lays down a strict ban on reading Jewishness into abstract works such as Newman’s. Indeed, he praises Newman’s widow for refusing to allow his work to appear in the Jewish Museum show.
“In representational art, an accord was possible between visual folk peculiarities, a collectively shared scene and appearances, and a historically dominant style in art. All that art needed to be Jewish was that the artist should turn occasionally to the ghetto or the synagogue for subject matter,” Rosenberg writes, thinking of painters like Lévy or Gottlieb. But “in the perspective of art since the Second World War, Jewish references in a painting increase the odds against its being a good painting.” This has less to do with Jewishness per se than with the high-modernist contempt for any kind of representation or narration in art: “Works … [that] represent the Jewish experience are likely to belong to a bypassed style or to be, in a significant sense, outside the art of the twentieth century.”
Indeed, the modernist and Abstract Expressionist repudiation of legible imagery, the insistence on strict form, can look like a parallel in the visual arts to the political universalism that was so dear to the same generation of Jewish artists and intellectuals. In both cases, Jewishness expresses itself by its insistence on its own absence—by the flight into the universal that has always been characteristic of modern Jewish idealism.
And might not the affinity of Jewish artists for abstraction have even deeper roots? After all, isn’t it a truism that Judaism, from the very beginning, has been hostile to representational art? It’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Many modern Jewish artists, regretting the absence of a great tradition of Jewish visual art, have blamed Judaism and its hostility to imagery, or “aniconism.”
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is a beautiful film and also a document of everything that’s rotten about the generation that came of age in the 1970s