I’m Not There
Nathan Hilu, an 87-year-old veteran who lives on New York’s Lower East Side, makes frenzied art from his potent memories of Jewish life and loss
Nathan Hilu, an 87-year-old veteran who lives in subsidized housing adjoining the landmark Bialystoker Synagogue, may be the most significant Jewish Outsider artist you’ve never heard of. He is a denizen of New York’s Lower East Side and has vividly depicted the neighborhood’s shuls, markets, and rituals. Some of his other works, based on memories of guarding Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, are on display in the Holocaust Resource Center at Queensborough Community College. He also enjoyed brief periods of recognition following a few exhibitions from the late 1970s through the mid-’90s at the now-defunct Cordy and Dalia Tawil galleries in New York and the Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa, since renamed the Figge—where two pieces, “The Kabbalist” and “King David With a Harp,” remain in the permanent collection.
For the most part, however, Hilu has operated beneath the art-world radar, drawing at an almost frenzied pace with any available materials, usually Sharpie markers on office paper or oak tag. Yet his rough-hewn creations—embedded with text, disregarding normal rules of perspective, usually collaged, patched with clear tape, and covered on both sides—are powerful artworks that are also monuments to the Jewish experience. (Hilu doesn’t date or title his drawings, though some have assumed titles based on their subjects or accompanying text, making this body of work especially hard to catalog.)
Hilu is getting some renewed attention thanks to a show at Hebrew Union College’s museum in New York through the end of March. The exhibit offers a glimpse of Hilu’s universe, in which sacred teachings, history, memory, and fantasy intertwine. Curator Laura Kruger, who learned of Hilu through a smaller 2010 installation at the Educational Alliance, has selected 48 examples and archived more than 150 (Hilu brings in fresh shopping bags of material every week). To support Hilu, who subsists on his pension, HUC is selling the works (except for 12 on loan from Rabbi Herman Lowenhar of Congregation Derech Emunah) for prices ranging from $200 to $1,000. Without a dealer, he has mostly bartered or outright given his work away.
The survey covers all of Hilu’s major themes, which also include biblical and midrashic stories and Eastern European folklore. There are richly detailed renderings of Jacob’s granddaughter Serah playing her violin as she tells him that Joseph is still alive (referencing Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Bible) and of the “Chofitz Chaim” performing an exorcism of a dybbuk from a young girl (as told to him by the late Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Spiegel of the First Roumanian-American Congregation).
Among his more typical, quicker sketches are Jonah swallowed by the fish, somewhat whimsically kvetching “oiy veh” through a speech bubble, and God braiding Eve’s hair in preparation for her marriage to Adam. Annotated portraits of Hermann Goering and other high-level Nazis Hilu encountered at Nuremberg and depictions of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising reflect what Kruger calls the artist’s “almost biblical outrage” over the Holocaust. There is a rich sampling of scenes from a largely bygone Lower East Side, like a poultry shop with chickens lined up for the pre-Yom Kippur kapparot, and homages to historic shuls from Anshe Slonim (now the Angel Orensanz Foundation) to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.
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