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Seeing Double

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.

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Camille Pissarro, Haystacks, Morning, Eragny, 1899; Claude Monet, Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890-91. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago)
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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.”

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Perhaps the appropriate media for art as an expression of Jewish consciousenss is only coming into being in the 21st century.
20th century art broke down the Hellenistic definition of art revived in the Renaissance. Tablet should review my new book “The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness” (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2011). It proposes that the emerging 21st century definition is a Jewish one. My book begins where the book “Jewish Art” leaves off.

JCarpenter says:

Perhaps study of art for the artist’s sake is best; as illustrated by the haystacks comparison (my kids always refered to Monet’s haystacks at Chicago’s Art Institute as “muffins”), how does the work itself earn or display a cultural or religious affinity, unless deliberate in theme, as in much of Chagall’s work? You mention Rothko: I just attended the play “Red” at the Goodman Theater (highly recommended). Rothko’s character emotes and philosphizes and lays bare his soul; is he profoundly Jewish? is it expressed on his canvas? A matter of interpretation in both senses, but determined without a back-story? Muffins.

I don’t understand why, with modern technology, an essay like this does not include a hyperlink to each picture being discussed.

Great art searches for universals through the particular lens of the artist. Perhaps the best illustration of this is Fiddler on the Roof. But how to define that particularistic lens?… Was Edgar Allen Poe an American writer? His stories are rooted, not in American soil or in Poe’s American experience; they seem to emerge from the psyche unadorned by any culture. Are Beethoven’s symphonies Germanic? Situating great art in the culture that produced it has only limited value. Great art transcends particularism.

Samuel Cooper says:

Art in any shape or form is a very personal experience both for the artist and the individual experiencing that art. I think that the critics go too far with all of the cerebral exercises and analysis. Often it seems that they are trying to justify their own careers and value. Do we really need them to tell us what is and what is not and what we need to know to make our own evaluations of art?

Jacob.Arnon says:

Religious art is religious even if there are not images.

Most of us know what Muslim art is. The same for Jewish art. The problem is that Jews haven’t yet had the centuries necessary to develop a Jewish type of art like that of the Muslims tapestries in the Alhambra.

Of course Christian art is self evident if its iconic, but even Matisse composed some Christian images that were abstract.

There are some terrific Israeli canvases that depict Jewish images in an abstract way.

As a long time professional fine artist, and Jewish…naturally I was interested in seeing what Adam Kirsch had to say. I myself have struggled to find Jewish subject matter to paint, but other than painting rabbis, I didn’t, I couldn’t find something that is…visually obvious about our tribe, something that I’d find good, or worthwhile to paint. Understand, I was a figurative painted, could paint what I wanted to, but what to paint..? Understand, I wanted to paint something “significant”, something that’s meaningful and worthy of being said. I couldn’t find anything to paint. Finally, in desperation, I painted some simple, redujuctionist kind of landscapes with Hebrew texts (from siddurs and the Hagaddah) written into the sky (like posters, with messages, in words, and I counted on the caligraphy to make the painting worthwhile). Frankly, I liked what I did, and perhaps I should have continued doing them, but I did not; I moved on to other things (not Jewish necessarily, just human). I would love to paint Jewish paintings, but I cannot find something to paint that seems to me worth painting.
I note that Kirsch says at the end of his essay that basically, let’s be honest: when we write about Jewish art, we are writing about concepts; we use words, and delight in them, but as for painting that is really Jewish…except for Chagall, and a number of relatively unknown Jewish painters in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries…I don’t think that there is a Jewish painting (there is Jewish silversmithing of ceremonial objects, that sort of thing, of course).But to say that Barnet Newman or even Mark Rothko represent a Jewish kind of painting is not, in my opinion, to be taken seriously. It’s just writers doing what they like to do. But frankly, Newman, and Rothko are painters doing what they like to do, painting what they chose to paint, never mind the Jewishisness. (I’ll add so that it is mentioned…Jack Levine and Moses Soyer did try to express their5 Jewishness).

Earl Ganz says:

Imagine if you will a Jewish painter way out west, Montana say, and he is getting an MFA in painting from an art school and he
finds a painting by another student who isn’t Jewish that’s been thrown away. So he takes it home and paints over it or rather punches it up for it seems to him a pretty good painting to start with, southwestern, the grand canyon, yet abstract as only the SW can be. And he gives it to his writing professor. He is trying to get an MFA in writing too because he’s out there and the writing professor is a Jew who will be kind to him. But he isn’t kind and won’t accept his novel as is. So he puts a curse on the professor whose wife divorces him and takes the kids and the painting and lives happily ever after in Anchorage, Alaska, the South West painting warming her living room.

I think the circumstances of a painting’s
creation has everything to do with whether it’s Jewish or not.

Matthew Baigell says:

Your reviewer should read my comments in my “Jewish Art in America: An Introduction,” (Rowman and Littlefield)and the listed appropriate bibliographical references on Greenberg-Rosenberg and what is Jewish about Jewish art.

Christopher Orev says:

Kirsh writes:
“Perhaps, then, we would better off talking not about Jewish art, but about a Jewish way of seeing and talking and writing about art—one that situates paintings in a universe of Jewish discourse about the power and danger of the image. This concept restores primacy, in what feels like an authentically Jewish way, to the word and the interpreter, rather than leaving it with the image. Indeed, one major concern of such a Jewish way of seeing would be the connection between the image, which the Torah mistrusts so deeply, and the word, which has always been the source of value and law for Judaism. ”

Perhaps, indeed! Beautifully composed and exactly correct. Thank you for this thoughtful essay.

JCarpenter says:

Amen,Christopher Orev!

Harvey Gordon says:

Kirsch’s piece came to my attention six months after it was published,

What interests me more than the perspectives offered above is the highly expressive representational work of Soutine in France and then David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and, to a lesser extent, Lucien Freud in England. There seems to be a stylistic Jewishness present in this art, irrespective of subject matter, that is deeper than mere representations or illustrations of obviously Jewish content.

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Seeing Double

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.