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How a single painting in the New York Jewish Museum’s collection helps define Jewish art

Maya Balakirsky Katz
December 03, 2020
Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d.
William Anastasi, ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvas, 132 1/8 × 132 1/2 inchesJewish Museum, New York, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d.
Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d.
William Anastasi, ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvas, 132 1/8 × 132 1/2 inchesJewish Museum, New York, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d.

A few years ago, in mid-2018, the Jewish Museum revamped its long-standing permanent exhibition Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey and mounted a new permanent exhibition, Scenes from the Collection. A series of articles in Mosaic magazine took the museum to task for its privileging of avant-garde art over Judaism as expressed in religion, culture, and collective memory. In his article “The Wreck of the Jewish Museum,” journalist Menachem Wecker accused the museum of squandering its role to preserve and perpetuate religious Jewish culture: “Entirely missing from the Jewish Museum’s new permanent exhibition is any recognition of the fundamental Jewish distinction between the sacred (kodesh) and the secular or prosaic (ḥol). And that is only one reason why, incredible as it may sound, Jews or others who hope to witness Jewish history, culture, and practice being treated thoughtfully and respectfully would likely benefit more from visiting the Christian-sponsored and much-maligned Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. than from traipsing through the Jewish-sponsored Jewish Museum in New York.” Art historian Tom L. Freudenheim followed suit with an article titled “The Jewish Museum’s Discomfort with Religion.” Edward Rothstein’s “The Dismantling of Jewish Identity” expanded further by explaining the “scandal of the Jewish Museum” as one “caused by immense curatorial ignorance, both cultural and religious, combined with the arrogant belief that such ignorance doesn’t really matter.”

But there is a different story to tell here in which the new permanent exhibition is not an unprecedented break with its own policies but a culmination of a process that has been in the making for decades. In this story, both the Judaica interned in the glass vitrines and the contemporary art hanging on the walls plays a supporting role to the museum’s primary focus on new visual models for the Jewish experience. This tale begins in 1987, with the acquisition and consequent exhibition history of William Anastasi’s painting Untitled (jew) (pictured above).

Anastasi, a non-Jewish artist who has engaged with the word “jew” for nearly two decades since the 1980s, constructed Untitled (jew) from four equal-size canvases that leave a thin black cruciform across the composition that seems to ask if the word “jew” is something one is, something one does, or something that is done to someone else.

While these questions are fascinating to contemplate in terms of Anastasi and his self-referential body of “jew” work, it is the place that Untitled (jew) has found in the New York Jewish Museum that ultimately sheds light on the role of contemporary art in Jewish museums. Anastasi deconstructs conventional meanings of “jew,” but it is the New York Jewish Museum that constructs Anastasi’s Untitled (jew) as a work that belongs to the world of Jewish art.

The stars seemed to align for the entry of Anastasi’s “jew” painting into the Jewish Museum for both the museum and the artist in 1987. The 1980s had been good for conceptual artists and, like other museums, the Jewish museum benefited from that upturn, increasing its admissions haul over 200% in the span of the decade. Despite this upward trajectory, the popularity of conceptual art led to skyrocketing prices, so that art acquisitions became prohibitively expensive by the end of the 1980s. Works that could be purchased for several thousand dollars in the 1970s were now 10 times that price. As such, museums bolstered their collections with temporary loans and art donations. In step with these trends, the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection took a backseat to its temporary exhibitions and the museum leveraged the success of these exhibitions by pressing gallery owners, artists, and collectors in the contemporary art world to consider the Jewish Museum a viable site for art donation.

For Anastasi, the Jewish Museum was a compelling home for his art. By the late 1980s, his career was on the wane as contemporary artists moved away from phenomenological concerns toward more narrative and expressionist terrain, but the museum’s new focus on the engaged artist reinvigorated the social worth of conceptual artists who had made their name in the 1970s. Anastasi donated Untitled (jew) the same year that he made it in 1987, perhaps making it specifically for that destination. Anastasi’s work soon saw something of a comeback as gallery owner Sandra Gering, a cultural icon in her own right, promoted Anastasi’s “jew” works within the New York Jewish art world.

The donation of a late example of work by a somewhat passé artist was hardly a pièce de résistance. However, the museum has used Untitled (jew) to explain itself to the public for over three decades, including in the inaugural iteration of its new permanent exhibition Scenes from the Collection. The use and reuse of this art work is therefore a fascinating clue as to how the museum has fashioned its own story over the decades and how the Jewish Museum has grappled internally with its institutional mission.

Installation view of ‘The Jewish Museum Collects: A Five Year Review,’ 1988, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvas
Installation view of ‘The Jewish Museum Collects: A Five Year Review,’ 1988, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvasThe Jewish Museum, NY, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d Photo: John Parnell

Soon after Untitled (jew) was added to the Jewish Museum’s collection, the museum mounted a self-reflexive exhibition of 135 works from the Jewish Museum’s acquisitions over the previous five years. The exhibition checklist was so eclectic that it could not be contained in a single narrative line: An exhibition of one’s own institutional growth does not really lend itself to making sense of the relationship between the works themselves. But if a single theme could be gleaned from the exhibition it was, according to its press release, to document a “marked growth in the areas of contemporary art thematically connected to Jewish identity and thought, and a new emphasis on works of 20th century ceremonial art.”

Anastasi’s Untitled appeared next to works by other conceptual artists that justified the museum’s collection of contemporary artists by showcasing how they kept the Jewish Museum relevant. Nancy Graves’ screen-print “5745 (1984),” for example, drew figural elements from the Jewish Museum’s holdings of early Byzantine mosaic tiles, burial plaques, Greek coins, and an 1874 omer calendar. A recently established curatorial department at the museum, the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting, contributed video clips that featured television’s representation of Jewish ritual. A simultaneous exhibition featured a sukkah commissioned by the Jewish Museum from architect Allan Wexler, which put on display the role of contemporary ritual art in the performance of Jewish traditions.

Moreover, the museum’s metapoint in exhibiting its recent acquisitions was the enactment of Jewish cultural agency through the acquisition, donation, commissioning, and exhibition of art. In 1989, the museum furthered this last goal by acquiring historical landmark status for the Warburg Mansion, which made the Warburg’s chateau in the French Gothic style worth visiting as a landmark Jewish building within New York’s cultural scene. By 1990, the Jewish Museum was hosting its groundbreaking ceremony for an expansion that would double its physical space.

Installation view of ‘Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,’ 2003, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvas
Installation view of ‘Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,’ 2003, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvasThe Jewish Museum, NY, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d Photo: John Parnell

When it reopened three years (and $36 million) later, the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection was reorganized, under the direction of its director Joan Rosenbaum, into an ambitious two-floor Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, a tour through nearly 800 works across four centuries organized chronologically.

If recent criticism of the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition sets up Culture and Continuity as offering a clear historical narrative, we can see the museum struggling to maintain questions about itself and its role in its exhibition of Anastasi’s work within that narrative. “Untitled (jew)” appeared next to Tobi Kahn’s “Giro III” (1985), a pairing that does not seek to find aesthetic relationships so much as to broaden the potential for the scope of what lies in the purview of a Jewish Museum. The wall mounts include portrait-photographs of the artists themselves, thereby juxtaposing Tobi Kahn, an Orthodox Jewish artist whose work does not rely on Jewish signifiers, beside William Anastasi, an artist from a Roman Catholic family with ancestral roots in Sicily whose work identifies itself with the word “jew.”

Culture and Continuity used Anastasi to ask questions about Jewish collecting practices and to communicate those questions as a core tenet of its exhibition practices. The museum also used “Untitled (jew)” as a centerpiece of its promotional material for its new permanent exhibition in 1993, hosting panels, gallery talks, ABC’s one-hour Rosh Hashanah special, and commissioning Andrea Simon’s feature spin-off called A Jew Is Not One Thing. Anastasi’s “Untitled (jew)” served as the visual and conceptual linchpin to define the museum as a broadly conceived Jewish institution that promotes questions more than offering answers. When the museum organized a traveling exhibition to showcase Contemporary Art from the Collection of the Jewish Museum in 1999-2000, it included Anastasi’s “Untitled (jew).”

Installation view of ‘Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,’ 2003, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvas
Installation view of ‘Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,’ 2003, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvasThe Jewish Museum, NY, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d

In 2003, the Museum again mounted “Untitled (jew)” in its permanent exhibition Culture and Continuity, but for the first time—and as it turns out only time—in a narrative model that offered something of an institutionally-sanctioned interpretation of the work. Museum visitors experienced “Untitled (jew)” at the conclusion of their tour through four centuries of Jewish culture. “Untitled (jew)” framed the passage to George Segal’s sculptural study for “Holocaust” (1982) on the right across from a photograph of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projection of a shepherd’s hand holding a staff and an immigrant’s hand holding his luggage on the façade of the Bank Leumi building in Jerusalem. When Krzysztof made these projections in September of 1990, the work seemed to be making a triumphal analogy between the floodgates of Soviet emigration to the exodus from Egypt. By concluding with this trifecta of associations—Jew-labeling, Holocaust, and the Soviet Jewry movement—Culture and Continuity ostensibly demonstrated the role that contemporary art plays in maintaining vigilance over nonliberal models of representation such as bigotry and anti-Semitism.

This curatorial strategy encouraged associations between Anastasi’s uneven typewritten font and the history of nations keeping careful records of their Jewish citizens. From this perspective, the placement of “jew” on the upper-left-hand quadrant is suggestive of official anti-Semitism, such as the “quarter rule” of Nazi definitions of racial purity or the spatial “quarters” (ghettos) Jews have often been forced to occupy. The “w,” whose little serif pushes out of its quadrant, may represent those who managed to “pass” into the mainstream majority and avoid the violence of the “jew” label.

Installation view of ‘Word Symbol Space,’ part of ‘Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,’ 2012, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvas
Installation view of ‘Word Symbol Space,’ part of ‘Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,’ 2012, featuring William Anastasi (American, b. 1933), ‘Untitled (jew),’ 1987, oil on canvasThe Jewish Museum, NY, Gift of the artist, 1987-115a-d Photo: Richard Goodbody, Inc

With this concluding gallery, the exhibition justified the entire existence of the Jewish Museum by leaving visitors in an ambiguous position in which a unique Jewish culture committed to universal liberal values was perpetually at risk and urgently in need of preservation. On a meta-level, this curatorial exercise demonstrated that the museum, rather than the art in its collection, could define the “Jewish” part of its mission through its own institutional, representational, and discursive practices.

We see this museological assertiveness play out after 2008 when the museum, in response to the economic downturn, reinvigorated works that had grown stale in their circulation through the permanent exhibition. The inward focus produced shows such as Theaters of Memory: Art and Holocaust (2008) that highlighted connective tissue between the theatrical aspects of George Segal’s sculptural installation to one of the museum’s last acquisitions before 2008: Tadeusz Kantor’s “The Desk” (1976).

Opening night in the new permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum
Opening night in the new permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum

Likewise, when the museum returned to Anastasi’s “Untitled” it was also on purely aesthetic grounds. In the 2012 show WORD SYMBOL SPACE, Anastasi’s “Untitled” appeared alongside the works of five other conceptual artists, such as Ross Bleckner’s “Gay Flag” (1993), Alain Kirili’s “Commandment II” (1980), and Brigitte NaHoN’s “TIME ZERO” (2006). In grouping Anastasi with other conceptual artists, “Untitled (jew)” stepped into a more formal context than it had previously enjoyed at the museum so that the word “jew” on the surface of the four textural white canvases becomes more visible as an artistic convention. If in its last exhibition of Anastasi, the Jewish Museum framed “Untitled (jew)” as commentary on the violence of language and a warning that language can herald real violence, in 2012 the viewer was caught between reading the word that is staring her in the face and contemplating its symbolic value in the world of art.

In the summer of 2018, after a two-year overhaul, the self-reflexively titled Scenes from the Collection opened to the public. Again, Anastasi’s “Untitled (jew)” made the cut. Indeed, opening ceremonies took place squarely in front of Anastasi’s work, and the Jewish Museum’s promotional video stages interviews explaining its new exhibition in gallery space where jew is visible.

If Culture and Continuity organized Jewish culture into a chronological tour that began in the Mediterranean basin and ends at the contemporary moment, Scenes from the Collection organizes objects around seven different “scenes”—which is a euphemism for “exhibition concepts.” One gallery gathers together works that express both Jewish and universal issues, another that orders objects according to shared characteristics, another that builds an exhibition around a single object, others that explore mediated images of Jewishness through different mediums, and so on. This reorganization is a culmination of the Museum’s three-decade struggle to define itself not through its art but through its own ways of seeing.

Scenes from the Collection is therefore more about the museum than it is about the work on display. The vehicle for this clear shift to celebrating its own models of interpretation is the flexibility of the museum’s new design: All seven “scenes” have been designed in such a way that individual works can easily be swapped out.

Installation views of ‘Constellations’ gallery of ‘Scenes from the Collection,’ 2018
Installation views of ‘Constellations’ gallery of ‘Scenes from the Collection,’ 2018Photo: Jason Mandella

In the museum’s promotional film on the new exhibition, the museum’s director Claudia Gould explained that, “We wanted to design a system that was contemporary in form, but also spoke to the Museum’s Jewish connection. … The end result is a system that is flexible and dynamic, but has a cohesive language across all media and platforms.” In establishing this flexible model, the museum has finally severed the singular lens between works of art and their models of representation and replaced it with a focus on interpretation.

In the premier iteration of the new exhibition, Anastasi’s “Untitled (jew)” appears in the “scene” that defines itself through the prism of universal themes found in Jewish art. Rather than asking viewers to consider the representation of jew in historically bound contexts at the end of a chronological tour of Jewish culture, this “scene” raises questions about how meaning is generated in the first place and how one thing connects to another across time and space. Rather than encouraging viewers to think about inclusion in the tolerance model or how certain hate words lead to violence, this new exhibition strategy asks us to consider Anastasi’s “jew” in relationship to other works of art in the gallery. If Anastasi evokes the modernist grid, the work across the room is a triptych, created through visual association by the curators themselves, using elements of ornamentation across time and space. In the center aisle is a Torah cover that was done by non-Jewish craftsmen to beautify the most sacred textual object of Jewish life: The yellow three-dimensional OY in the center of the room can also be read as YO when visitors go around the word three-dimensionally. In the context of sculptural text, the work evokes typographical play. The lower-case “j” may be a simple “typo,” supported by the askew “w.” After all, these errors were typical of the cumbersome technology of the typewriter. Consider the medium. Think outside the box.

This relational way of looking, processing, interpreting, representing, and enacting is present in the entire design of the exhibition.

But is this a good thing? Chronology does not organize the narratives and debates in the Talmud, Gemara, and Midrash, with figures from different eras and places challenging each other for the sake of conceptual enlightenment. In applying a thematic structure—with its homing in on minute conceptual differences between systems in the process of reconciliation—to art and visual culture, the museum has materialized one of the core structures of Jewish tradition. One experiences works of art in Scenes from the Collection in stable categories that grow familiar with return visits the way one might recognize a page out of the Vilna Shas, with the placement of text demarking commentators roles, more than their content. Because the works on display can migrate from one curatorial lens to another, the exhibition makes apparent the sorts of automatic meanderings visitors might otherwise unconsciously assume and highlights associations one makes when objects are organized and categorized. As such, the “traditional” rubrics of Judaism find a home in the contemporary museum practices that act upon both the art and the visitors within it.

By presenting multiple curatorial frames for its collection of nearly 600 works, through its seven “scenes”—a numerological symbolization of the Seven Days of Creation—Scenes from the Collection takes the onus of integration between Jewishness and art away from the artists on display and places it in the domain of the museum’s own exhibition practices—the active doing, going, to-ing and fro-ing that defines the Jewish tradition.

In short, “Jewishness” in its varying forms and conceptions is more present at the Jewish Museum than it has been since the 1950s, and contemporary art is more present at the Jewish Museum than it has been since the 1960s, when art critic Harold Rosenberg famously opened his 1966 talk at the Jewish Museum with the quip, “First they build a Jewish Museum, then they ask, Is there a Jewish art? Jews!”

Maya Balakirsky Katz, associate professor of Jewish art at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of, most recently, Drawing the Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation.