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Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

Tom Wesselmann's Hope, Dashed

Tom Wesselmann's Still Life No. 24 (1962)

In his 1984 interview with the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, artist Tom Wesselmann recalled how excited he was when a collector in the Midwest bought his 1962 Pop painting, Still Life No. 24. 


"The Buchwalters (sic) from Kansas City were very important because they were the first ones outside New York City, and it made us realize maybe there's a market beyond this thing right here."


But who was the collector Susan Buckwalter?


According to her friend, Constance Glenn, she was not the harbinger of Middle America's hunger for Pop art Wesselmann imagined.


"She was the most vital, most wonderful, one of the most special people I ever knew," Glenn told the Smithsonian interviewer. "She brought a kind of New York knowledge of current art to Kansas City and she brought an absolutely indomitable enthusiasm that was either the envy or the terror of a lot of people in Kansas City depending on their attitude toward the arts.


"I remember when she wanted the Nelson Gallery to buy a [Mark] Rothko through their Friends of Art purchase plan. She knew that at that time Rothko would be so controversial in Kansas City that if they were given any other choice they wouldn't buy one, so she brought out only three Rothkos to choose from. And the Nelson Gallery bought a Rothko."


In addition, "Sue suggested that she had friends involved in contemporary art that we might want to meet and learn from," Glenn said. Buckwalter was surely referring to Princeton art historian Willaim Seitz, a relative. (Her father and his mother were part of the same Chapin family from Buffalo.)


By 1962, when Buckwalter purchased the Wesselmann, Seitz was an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1965, he was appointed director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Seitz's position at the historically Jewish university's museum may have been made possible by his marriage to a Jewish woman, Irma Siegelman.


So Susan Buckwalter, who was armed with a "kind of New York knowledge of current art," and was a relative of William Seitz, who through marriage and professional choices aligned himself with the Jewish American community, was not a typical Midwesterner.


Sorry, Tom.


The truth was, American collectors of Pop art were predominantly Jews, as Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler in 1970 told a Smithsonian interviewer. 


"Most of the great collectors of contemporary art are Jewish," Geldzahler said.


And he explained his own position as curator as an outgrowth of that fact.


"It's natural to have a Jew as curator of contemporary art because he has to deal with the collectors." The interviewer asked, "Why would that be such an advantage in dealing with collectors?" Geldzahler replied, "Because if you're young enough you're like their nephew or something. Like the Robert Sculls – I'm like one of their children. We just get along fantastically well. And Joe Hirschhorn and I get along very well. We can make little jokes; there are certain assumptions of humour (sic) and of background and so on that you take for granted."

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The Bitches of the Postwar Art World

New York art critic Emily Genauer

At a certain point in my research for a biography of Pop art collectors Robert and Ethel Scull, I had read enough to become intrigued by who was considered an art world bitch. 


In his 1970 oral history with the Smithsonian, former Metropolitan Museum art curator Henry Geldzahler called art critic Emily Genauer "the most destructive vituperative bitch in journalistic history." According to Geldzahler, he had good reason to think so. "She actually wished me dead in the New York Post last year when I did the Olitski Sculpture show she hated it so much."


Other women were called bitches despite their considerable virtues. Painter Al Held said dealer Martha Jackson "was a first-class bitch on wheels but she went out and she hustled, she wanted to sell paintings, she sold paintings and in turn freed the artists she dealt with by selling their paintings and they had freedom because of that even though it was a by-product of her drive." Wolf Kahn said the great collector and dealer Peggy Guggenheim was "always a bit of a bitch. But, um, underneath, you have a sort of a feeling she's a heimish Jewish lady, you know, who—who, uh, uh, has her feet on the ground."


Others used the insult more ambitiously, to describe a whole class of people.


Art journalist Jay Jacobs was fond of the term. In a 1966 Art in America article about why dealer Sam Kootz was closing up shop, Jacobs fumed at how in the "striving, bitchy little world of the galleries--a world presided over by Rumour, 'painted full of tongues,'--careers can be shot down in full flight by nothing more tangible than a well-timed innuendo." Jacobs refuted all the juicy gossip as to the real reason Kootz was retiring. The dealer was simply bored.


Jacobs attacked the art world again in a 1969 profile of mega-wealthy art collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn. "Myth would have it that Hirshhorn acquires art as omnivorously and indiscriminately as a whale ingests nourishment . . . that he manifestly lacks polish and that that is ample evidence of a correlative lack of appreciation of, or affection for, either the art he buys or the artists who produce it. Myths of this sort are cherished in the art world, a community where the operative art is as often the art of the bitchy putdown as it is the art of painting or of sculpture."


In Making the Mummies Dance, Thomas Hoving's memoir of his time in charge of the Metropolitan Museum, Hoving defends the Sculls against those that attacked them. "Bob and Ethel were the ultimate 1960s New York nouveau-riche, social-climbing art couple. Or so the trendy, bitchy press claimed. They also happened to be vibrant, funny, raw, and invigorating—a welcome antidote to many of the stuffy types I had to pursue."


The men--nearly all Jewish--who deployed the insult were attacking women, Jewish and non-Jewish, and, it is clear, homosexuals, the two groups traditionally most at home in the art world. As Jewish art dealer Andre Emmerich told an interviewer, until the late 1950s Americans were suspicious of art. "Art was for women and fairies, bluntly . . . Anglo-Saxon males didn't fuss with art."


Jewish men in the arts were unusual for being heterosexual, and they knew it. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, their culture did not denigrate art as a field unfit for straight men. Ben Heller, one of the greatest collectors of the postwar era, credited Fieldston, the high school of the Jewish-founded Ethical Culture School, for nuturing his interest in art. "In a school like Fieldston, it was legitimate for a male to be interested in the arts." Other Fieldston alums included artists Paul Brach and Cleve Gray, born Ginsberg. 


Women and gay men were clearly seen as obstacles to and foes of Jewish art-world manhood. Both were viewed as unfriendly to coarse Jewish male behavior and manners, which they viewed as proof of Jewish philistinism and boorishness. This is what Jacobs is getting at when he complains of those that equated Hirshhorn's lack of polish with his supposed inability to appreciate art. Hoving made the same point regarding the Sculls. It was the bitchy press and the bitchy putdown--terms widely understood as code for gay men--that sought to exclude the rough new Jews of the art world. Sam Green, a friend of the non-Jewish Pop art collector Emily Tremaine, might have been one of the people Jacobs and Hoving had in mind. He felt the Sculls were "really scummy lower Manhattan Jewish hustlers."


The Jews were intent on making sure they were viewed that way. One example of this combative Jewish approach, which sought inclusion without assimilation, is offered by historian Oscar Handlin, who in 1940 joined the faculty at Harvard. Handlin "made no effort to disguise his brilliance, lower-class origins or religious background . . . he seized every opportunity to differ."


Postwar art Jews adopted the same strategy. For example, they loved to curse. Obscene language signaled their rough manliness, as against an arty refinement that overlapped with stereotypical female or gay behavior. In 1961, Milton Resnick screamed at the artist Club, "What is this stuff, involvement? I never saw it! I don't know what the fuck it looks like. I'm sick of it! I'm not involved! I'm not committed! I shit on those fucking lousy stupid words!" Al Held didn't "care whether Pollock fucked that day when he painted Number One or didn't fuck that day, or if he was drunk the night before or wasn't drunk the night before." Walter Gutman, art collector and finance whiz famous for his eccentric investing newsletter, felt Jewish art dealers were clever and non-Jewish, not. Ivan Karp had a "good 'Yiddish kopf'" and Sidney Janis was "always an extraordinary businessman." Charles Egan and Richard Bellamy, on the other hand, were "Fuck-ups." When minimalist artist, Carl Andre, told Artforum editor Philip Leider not to move his magazine to New York because the city would corrupt him, Leider replied, "Who in the fuck do you think you are, I'm as much of  a New Yorker as you are! More so, in fact, I was born and raised there; you come from Quincy, Massachussetts." In 1961, David Solinger engineered the Jewish take-over of the board at the Whitney Museum. When an interviewer asked him, how do you define artistic quality, Solinger replied, "It's like, uh, how do you define fucking?"


This was all part of the well-known ordeal of civility spelled out in John Murray Cuddihy's Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle With Modernity. In the Jewish art world, that title could be rewritten as Ordeal of Civility: Scull, Hirschhorn, Solinger, and the Jewish Struggle Against the Bitchy.


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A Useful Anniversary to Think About the Jewish Museum

Poster for 1963 Rauschenberg show at Jewish Museum

Having missed the 60th anniversary of the Jewish Museum's 1963 Robert Rauschenberg exhibit, and being too impatient to wait for the upcoming 60th anniversary of the same museum's 1964 Jasper Johns show, I'm taking advantage of an obscure 60th anniversary to talk now about the Jewish Museum and its experiment displaying the art of the 1950s and Sixties.


Sixty years ago on November 7, 1963, Donald M. Wilson of the United States Information Agency wrote a letter to Alan Solomon, director of New York's Jewish Museum.  


"During the past year the excellent exhibitions of contemporary art presented by the Jewish Museum have attracted our particular interest and persuaded us that your Museum could produce an exhibition of the type and calibre desired for the Venice Biennial (sic)."


This was the starting gun of the historic display of new American art at the prestigious Venice international art show that resulted in Rauschenberg becoming the first American to win the Biennale's first prize in painting. Thanks to Solomon, who directed the American delegation at Venice, American artists scored an international triumph there and toppled the old order of European dominance. Solomon later reflected that, just as the 1913 Armory show had awakened America to Europe's art innovations, "I do not feel that it would be immodest to assert that we have done for Europe [at the Biennale] what the Armory Show did for us."


Love at first sight


Wilson's letter also was confirmation that the Jewish Museum's new agenda had won national recognition and admiration. 


The Jewish Museum's path from a not-very-popular ethnic museum, where even its own advisory committee admitted that the display of traditional Judaica was not very compelling, to avant garde venue began on the Museum's 10th anniversary. With the encouragment of Columbia University art historian Meyer Schapiro, the Museum organized its historic 1957 exhibit, "The New York School: Second Generation," which included work by 23 artists, including Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, George Segal, and Joan Mitchell. It was at this show that Castelli fell hard for the Johns painting, "Target in Green." "I was thunderstruck. It was like the sensation you feel when you see a very beautiful girl for the first time, and after five minutes you want to ask her to marry you." 


The Jewish Museum show also showed off the Jewish community's artistic muscles. Schapiro, the chief proponent of the show, and who delivered a lecture on opening night, awed his students at Columbia. Art collector Virginia Wright experienced his lectures as transformative. It "was like the conversion of St. Paul," she said. "And it was just oh, night and day. I mean from being not interested [in art], I could hardly see anything else after his lectures." Artist Ad Reinhardt also found Schapiro's classes "so stimulating . . . such a terrific eye-opener for everybody." According to Willem de Kooning, "He knows everything. If after an atomic war there'll be just Meyer Scharipo left in a cave, all will be saved."


Another powerhouse art historian, Leo Steinberg, wrote the introduction to the exhibit's catalogue. Art critic Robert Pincus-Witten regarded Steinberg as "a kind of Vilna Gaon" of art history, and in its obituary of Steinberg, the New York Times called him "one of the most brilliant, influential and controversial art historians of the last half of the 20th century." The influential critic Clement Greenberg, who helped organize the exihibit, was an art authority one made pilgrimages to meet, as composer Morton Feldman once did. The married painters, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, escorted Feldman out of the Cedar Bar artist hangout to make sure Feldman met the great critic.


And when in early 1962 the Jewish Museum decided to devote its new building, still under construction, to contemporary art exhibitions, there were several excellent Jewish candidates for the position of director. Harvard's Dr Kuhn recommended Henry Geldzahler, then at the Metropolitan, and Alan Solomon. The Museum also approached Sam Hunter at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum. Though the recruitment letters to all three described the position as "a rare opportunity for the development of a dynamic program," Hunter seems to have misunderstood the nature of the job and turned it down because he knew nothing about Judaica. Geldzahler did not want to leave the Met.


Solomon was available.


What is a Jew?


The years of the Jewish Museum's expansion into contemporary art, without regard to that art's connection to Jewish themes or concerns, opened it to the central dilemma of modern Jewish life. 


"You cannot avoid asking at this point, what is a Jew? Not theologically, but culturally and socially," Solomon wrote in his unpublished 1964 article, "Again: Is There a Jewish Art?" The question was unanswerable because Jewish identity had become so elusive. "And now, it seems to me, you come dead center on the real problem, on the real dilemma. What you are really confronting is the search of the modern American Jew for identity, in a cultural and particularly a visual environment which increasingly breaks down his distinction from other Americans, at the same time that he may wish to retain some ties with his traditions."


There were no easy answers, even among Jewish art experts, as the Museum learned in 1964 when, after Solomon resigned as director, it asked Geldzahler for advice on how and whether to continue exhibiting difficult new art. 


Geldzahler told the Museum that remaining "open-minded and forward looking in a rapidly changing and evolving society" was a way of being true to "the Jewish tradition of liberal and critical examination of the way things are." The museum should present a full range of visual arts. "It is not necessary to isolate these values as specifically or typically Jewish; all share a culture, the definition of which constantly eludes us."


Geldzahler's universe of cloudy facts and ideas gave room for nearly everything until the Jewish Museum's 1966 "Primary Structures" show. A symposium on the show, which introduced "object art," later identified as Minimalism, showed there were boundaries. Art pieces created by techniques of industrial fabrication were not art, said sculptor Mark di Suvero. He "hates [Donald] Judd because he doesn't do the work . . . he's not an artist. Artistic making is necessary." Di Suvero, whose father was a Jewish refugee from Europe, rejected art without humanity. "It's true that what I do really like in a piece of sculpture is to feel from it that sense in which it is not an object, in which it possesses that thing which is not visible to our eyes, which you may call mystical or spiritual." Object art, by contrast, "disavows all of the joy and the tragedy and accepts regimentation."


Critic Sidney Tillim saw the Primary Structures show with Artforum editor Phil Leider. Tillim pointed out that Leider "came from the same type of Orthodox background, if not more so, that I came from." This Jewish heritage was important because the Primary show was an attack on moral values Jews hold dear. Tillim told Leider, "'This [object art] is a reaction to the Partisan Review, Commentary, Encounter axis.' Those were the three journals that were identified in my mind with alienation, Jewishness and liberalism."


Tillim felt that Jewish open-mindedness permitted ideas antagonistic to Jewish life to incubate and mature in Jewish spaces. "It's a perfect and compelling irony that [Primary Structures] was held in the Jewish Museum . . . All our chickens always come home to roost."


Today's glorification of Hamas and the demonization of Israel are the grandchildren of those same chickens.




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Artforum Letter Provokes Jewish Art World

Art world Jews have for so long been so quiet about their identies as Jews that Artforum and the art world seem shocked to find them, and to find them upset. 


What made them upset is the now famous open letter, published on Artforum's website and other venues, addressing the war between Israel and Gaza. The October 19 letter made no mention of Hamas's brutal October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,400, or the taking of more than 200 Israeli hostages. But it generously allowed people representing a broad spectrum of feelings toward the Jewish state to interpret a key phrase as they liked.


The letter's second paragraph begins with the announcement, "We support Palestinian liberation." That is perhaps vague enough to mollify Artforum readers who want to see a two-state solution, but it also makes room for those who want to see Israel destroyed and its Jews murdered. (This is known as the big tent strategy.)


The original letter also charged Israel with genocide. Twice. This made art world Jews unhappy.


Curator and collector Michael Phillips Moskowitz told the New York Times the open letter "was characterized by hubris with no understanding of what led to this moment." The art dealers and business partners Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, Amalia Dayan wrote a letter to Artforum that called the Hamas attack "the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust." Jeremy Hodkin took the same approach. The founder of The Canvas, an art newsletter, posted that the Artforum letter "veers dangerously close to anti-Semitism."


As a result of the controversy, Artforum fired its editor. 


All this hubbub is not the way things used to be. Artforum's two founders, Philip Leider and John Coplans, were Jewish, as were most of its contributing critics, including Max Kozloff, Barbara Rose, Sidney Tillim, Michael Fried, William Rubin, and more. Leider even ended up moving to Israel. This situation rarely if ever made its way into the magazine, but it was recognized internally. Amy Newman's history of the magazine, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, reports that editor Leider and critic Tillim's "bond had a great deal to do with a common self-awareness of their Jewishness." The magazine's very tone of voice was influenced by "the idiom of Jewish intellectual life," with Coplans joking, "anyone who's had a Jewish mother knows what criticism is." That tone was key, and Artforum's first issue praises Sidney Geist's "On Criticism" article for its "frank and unpretentious critical style." Kozloff told Newman, "American art criticism, with few exceptions, had been a small-time Jewish sect." 


But this was only admitted to Newman in the 1990s. During the 1960s, things were different. Collector Ben Heller knew that modern art Jews did not "want to be too Jewish in their identification." This was a problem that dogged the Jewish Museum's 1962 turn to contemporary art. Ivan Karp told Emile de Antonio that Leo Castelli "completely hid" his Jewishness. In March 1964, John Coplans's article about artist Wallace Berman included a photograph of a Berman work that bore Hebrew lettering. Coplans did not address this. In 1968, Barbara Rose asked Karp what gave rise to New York's art leadership, and Karp evasively answered that it was "the tumult in Europe at a certain time" that brought "creative people" to the city. That was all these two Jews permitted themselves to say to each other about the Holocaust and the flight of Jewish refugee scholars. Harold Rosenberg's 1966 article on Jewish artists appeared in Commentary, not an arts publication. 


Times have changed. Jews are speaking out as Jews. And they see an unfriendly attitude toward Jews at work in the art world. Sidney Tillim had an early premonition of the art world's current hostility toward Jews. In 1977, he told Arts magazine, "a lot of postmodernism . . . has its roots in a kind of reaction--this is very difficult to say. Postmodernism is very reactionary in all its implications. Not that it is explicitly anti-Semitic," but it does seek to deny recognition of Jews as an ethnic group that is part of a pluralistic society. "Postmodernism is essentially illiberal."


Was he right?




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Is Jackson Pollock's 1943 "Mural" the Holocaust's "Guernica?"

The great and legendary American abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock, created his largest painting, the approximately 8-foot by 20-foot "Mural," 80 years ago in the fall of 1943.


"Mural" signaled the start of Pollock's greatest period of work, the years of the large "drip" paintings that made him famous, and it was almost certainly influenced by the then ongoing Nazi murder of European Jewry.


This is an interpretation that has never been offered, but some critics have edged close to it, so close it seems only an aversion to such a view kept them from getting there. The evidence is circumstantial, but strong.


In July 1943, art collector Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to paint something, anything, for her East 61 Street Manhattan townhouse. That something was "Mural."


Guggenheim had been collecting art since the Twenties, when she left her native New York for France and became part of the Paris art scene. She continued collecting art and sponsoring artists in 1941, when she arrived back in New York from Nazi-occupied Paris. In 1942, she opened Art of This Century, a New York gallery devoted to the boldest new art. Her art training was minimal, but her instincts were sound. The art critic Clement Greenberg, who had the authority of a Lawgiver--one art dealer remembered artists "really discussing every damn [Greenberg] article that came out"--said she "had a flair for life, a sort of smell for life that made her recognize vitality and conviction in a picture." 


Pollock came to Guggenheim's attention through a New York art network that was almost entirely Jewish.


According to art dealer Sidney Janis, né Janowitz, he met Pollock in 1941 through the painter's Jewish girlfriend and future wife, the artist Lee Krasner. Janis was impressed with Pollock and contacted one of Guggenheim's advisors, Howard Putzel, a gallery owner and early Pollock enthusiast. (In this chronology, Janis knew of the artist even before Pollock-champion Clement Greenberg.)


Pollock would not have found this Jewish circle foreign. Though born in 1912 in Wyoming, he spent his high school years in Los Angeles where he befriended several art-minded Jews. Philip Goldstein, who later found fame as the artist Philip Guston, took Pollock to left-wing political meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center. Other Jewish friends included future artists Reuben Kadish and Harold Lehman and future art critic, Jules Langsner, whose father ran the Paradise Health Resort, where Jewish bohemians sunbathed in the nude. There was also an early Jewish girlfriend, a Sephardic, named Berthe Pacifico.


By the time Pollock signed his 1943 art commission contract with Guggenheim, America was at war with Nazi Germany and Jewish identity was a matter of life and death. In November 1942, the U.S. State Department confirmed the Nazi murder of 2 million Jews. In March 1943, 40,000 New Yorkers attended We Will Never Die, a theatrical held at Madison Square Garden to raise awareness and demand action to stop the killing.


Artists and art dealers were swept up in the war effort and crimes against the Jews were not ignored. In January 1943, the Jewish-owned Seligmann Gallieries exhibited Arthur Szyk's anti-Nazi art, Seymour Lipton's "Let My People Go" appeared at Galerie St. Etienne, founded by Jewish refugee Otto Kallir, and the Wildenstein Gallery hosted the This Is Our War exhibition. In March, Art Digest put Peter Blume's anti-fascist "Eternal City" on its cover. The next month, the cover of Art News featured a cartoon of a deranged Hitler destroying Europe.





Not surprisingly, the bloody historical moment deeply affected the Jewish artists Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb. In a letter to the Times, which appeared on June 13, 1943, the artists wrote, "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is crucial which is tragic and timeless."


Pollock knew Rothko and Gottlieb from the Thirties when they all worked as painters for the Works Progress Administration, the government job program that provided Americans work during the Depression. The two Jewish artists revisited the timely subject of tragedy with a WNYC radio broadcast on October 13. Jackson Pollock was still at work on "Mural," which he would not finish until early November, according to Emily S. Warner's dissertation, "Abstraction Unframed," and he surely heard the broadcast. Rothko addressed his own use of mythic images and themes by saying, "Those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art."


So the social and personal background of Pollock's "Mural" was drenched in Jewish relationships and Jewish history. Since 1930, the painter had lived in New York City, the center of Jewish life in America, and in 1943 he was in love with Krasner, a Jewish woman who had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. He was at work on a painting for Jewish collector Peggy Guggenheim and was supported by the Jewish art dealers and critics Sidney Janis, Howard Putzel, and Clement Greenberg. What's more, his teenage friendships with Guston and Kadish continued in New York. At the same time, MoMA showed the Jewish works of artists Hyman Bloom and Morrish Hirschfield. In 1942, Bloom's "Synagogue" was one of the paintings that impressed Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Hirschfield, a "primitive" painter who turned to art after a career designing women's clothing and slippers, was in 1943 given a controversial solo MoMA show that included, in addition to his startling nudes, drawings of a menorah and Torah and the curtain that covers the Torah in synagogues. Pollock likely saw the exhibit, because Clement Greenberg, his own booster, also liked Hirschfield.


And news of the mass murder of Europe's Jews was public knowledge. 


Finally, Pollock was influenced by two great muralists of war. He knew José Clemente Orozco's 1940 Dive Bomber and Tank, which Orozco painted on commission for New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Pollock also greatly admired Picasso's Guernica, the 1937 masterpiece depicting the aerial bombardment of that Spanish city during the Spanish Civil War. It also was on display at MoMA.


So what did Pollock paint?


A war painting, but one that critics have resisted connecting to the Holocaust. When reviewing the events of 1943 that might have influenced Pollock, art historian David Anfam offers only February 2, the date the Nazis surrendered at Stalingrad. That event is Anfam's stand-in for the horror and terror of WWII in his book, Jackson Pollock's Mural: Energy Made Visible. Warner grants that "Mural's" "upright figural lines" are "often read as figures," that is, people, and these human figures, swirling, caught up in storm that helplessly tosses them, was influenced by the "mood of wartime New York." 


But the mood of wartime New York, and especially the mood of art-world New York, was to a very large extent a Jewish mood.


For more than 20 years, since editor Catherine Soussloff's 1999, Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, scholars have argued for a greater recognition of Jewish aspects of art history. 


It is time to admit there is a strong case for understanding Pollock's "Mural" as a response to the Holocaust.

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50th Anniversary of the 1973 Robert Scull Auction

The 1973 auction of fifty works from the Robert Scull collection of abstract expressionist and Pop art brought outrageous prices that made it "arguably the twentieth century's most consequential sale of contemporary art," wrote art historian Judith Stein. Sotheby's Amy Cappellazzo said the auction marked "the birth of today's art market." Warhol biographer Bob Colacello noted it was the first time "the public at large, not just the dealers and collectors, attended and followed an auction of contemporary art." Yes, it was an art world bonanza, a circus and a spectacle and, most important to Jewish cultural history, a test of Jewish acceptance in the art world.  


It took place on October 18 at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York. On that night, over 1,000 art collectors, dealers, so-called Beautiful People, raggedy protesters, and members of the general public showed up eager to get their hands on or just gawk at the would-be owners of the greatest works of art produced in postwar America – paintings such as  Jasper Johns' "Target" and Willem de Kooning's "Police Gazette," valued today at $100 million and $63 million, respectively. They were drawn there by the quality of the collection and by Scull's charming mix of respectability and winking slyness.


It was certainly believable that the man loved art. He bought enough of it, and with a collection of more than one hundred works had more than met dealer Andre Emmerich's measure of a real collector: someone who buys more than can be displayed at home. "Until then, you're doing interior decorating," Emmerich said. Andy Warhol called Scull the one who "pulled off what everyone who collects dreams of—he built the best collection by recognizing quality before anybody else was on to it."


But Scull was not a highbrow connoisseur speaking in hushed tones about provenance. He was an American businessman, a Bronx taxi fleet owner who loved a bargain, a bonus, closing a sale, getting something for nothing. People knew of his antics. At the tony Hassler Hotel in Rome the manager spotted him pocketing an ashtray and assured him that if he had only asked the hotel would have gladly given him one. London art dealer James Mayor was there. Scull explained to the hotel employee, "That's not the point."


In September 1973, a month before the auction, Scull arranged for etiquette expert Gloria Vanderbilt to instruct the taxi drivers of Scull's Angels, his Bronx taxi garage, in good manners. Somehow, he had gotten one of his Checker cabs onto the floor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The stunt paid off. The Times covered it. In the photograph Scull stands next to a smiling Vanderbilt wearing a straight man's deadpan.


Electricity in the room


And 50 years ago today he was at Sotheby's, accompanied by his slim wife Ethel in a Halston gown altered to display the name of their taxi company across her chest. She started a trend. The wives of other moguls soon followed suit. Her husband's hip, mostly grey professor's beard signaled a Sixties-era disregard for convention, while his businessman's cigar fit his no-nonsense role as president of a Bronx taxi operation. The man needed to make a living. He wasn't of the gentry.


Born on the Lower East Side as Rubin Sculnik in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in the cloak and coat trade, he was more familiar to the average New Yorker than auction attendee and art collector Ben Heller, a Jewish-American gentleman who looked natural in a cardigan. Scull was unrefined, expansive, high-spirited. "Sammy's Roumanian. That was cooking. That's what he liked," sculptor William Crozier said of his friend. Accused of being a social climber, Scull cheerfully admitted that social climbing through art collecting was the most fun way to do it. In 1970 he explained to the Times why he was then selling a few of his paintings by Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. "Because they're history, darling—and I'm not involved with history." Journalist Tom Wolfe wondered if it was okay to mention in his 1966 profile of Scull for the Herald-Tribune's New York magazine that his father was an immigrant, a Jewish tailor. "What should you say? He was an Irish banker?"


But what Scull lacked in social distinction and class he made up for with hard work. "I crawl into more [artist] lofts than fire inspectors," he told Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving, who despised snobbery and loved the Sculls. "Bob and Ethel were the ultimate 1960s New York nouveau-riche, social-climbing art couple. Or so the trendy, bitchy press claimed," Hoving wrote in his memoir. "They also happened to be vibrant, funny, raw, and invigorating." Nearly every positive assessment of the Sculls came with an acknowledgment that many were against them. "He's not perhaps the finest and least vulgar man in the world," admitted Henry Geldzahler, the Met's first curator of contemporary art. "But I've learned a lot from him. He's got terrifically good taste within the artists that he likes. He always buys their best pictures." The best included Mark Rothko's "No. 16 (1960)." Geldzahler acquired it in 1970 for the Met's permanent collection.


As the auction crowd gathered, Scull was keyed up, anxious. "He was a wild man that night," remembered auctioneer John Marion. "He was feeling the pressure. It was all going to happen." New York's unruly spirit was clearly responsible for at least some of the nervous thrill. The night's atmosphere was charged and reminiscent of the spontaneous street antics that accompanied the Brooklyn bank robbery that inspired the Hollywood movie, Dog Day Afternoon. Only a little more than a year had passed since that eruption of guerilla theatre by 3,000 members of the public. It was a sign of a general unraveling that had been going on for years. As early as  1969, the threat of chaos prompted the Sculls to buy property in rural Connecticut. Escape routes had to be planned.


Street protestors from the Taxi Rank and File Coalition, a youthful, leftwing group with a Leninist attitude toward art supplied a dose of unruly threat with demonstrators that harassed the Sculls as they entered the auction house. Their fight song began, "He is a pig/Robert Scull is his name," and continued with a condemnation of counter-revolutionary art. "Their culture stinks/Their art doesn't say a thing/'Bout the way we have to live/Or the changes we will bring." The Women in the Arts Foundation was also there, upset that sculptor Lee Bontecou was the only woman represented in the sale. Scull was furious at the lack of crowd control and after skirting the angry groups with a smile that suggested sympathy with the indignant he snapped at Sotheby's staff. He had insisted on a police presence. Where were they?


Mood is crucial to a live event such as an auction, Marion said, and that night folks were "just full of pressure and full of excitement . . . electricity in the room." In fact, his attempt to control the pace of the sale could have benefitted from a chair and a whip. People applauded and cheered buyers' bids, many of which broke records. The auction was the first devoted solely to contemporary American art and its success legitimated the notion that the work of living, mid-career artists could be investments as safe, solid, and lucrative as Impressionists or Old Masters. Ben Heller paid $240,000 for Jasper Johns' "Double White Map," making it the most expensive work of 20th century art ever sold at auction. The Sculls had purchased it eight years earlier for $10,500.


Such profits rankled. As massive sums were exchanged for art Robert Rauschenberg, winner of the 1964 Venice Biennale and the first American artist to take top honors there shouted, "What does the artist earn?" The answer was nothing, which really hit home when his paintings "Thaw" and "Double Feature" sold for $85,000 and $90,000, respectively. Scull got them both for $3,200. "I've been working my ass off for you to make that profit?" Rauschenberg demanded of Scull. (The exchange became famous exactly a year after the auction when a documentary film of the sale premiered at the Whitney Museum.) The auction brought in $2.2 million, a record for contemporary art.


"It was a perfect, perfect auction," auctioneer Marion said. But disapproval came quickly and seemed to focus on the event's similarities to the Sculls themselves. The evening "possessed as much decorum as post-game activities at Shea Stadium," was the judgment of the next day's Times. The Village Voice ran the story on the front page under the headline, "Money and Art Marry." Barbara Rose also decried the sale. In New York magazine she announced that it augured the end of days. The art world collapsed at the auction. "The audience was full of hooting, giggling, gossiping fans" as money took the spotlight away from the art it carried off.


That much was true. The bohemian values that accepted and even embraced poverty had during the 1940s and 1950s allowed artists the freedom from market pressures needed to create abstract expressionism, an American invention that excited and refreshed the whole international art world. But by 1973, those days had passed. Pop art announced, at the very least, a lively engagement with everyday American culture, where money rules. The Sculls became the fall guys for this art historical development. Barbara Rose saw them as the brutal dockworkers that dumped the old virtues into boats and then sank the precious cargo into the realm of endless night. The couple embodied everything "lowbrow, déclassé, grasping, and publicity-seeking," wrote Rose. "They made a thing out of being vulgar, loud, and overdressed."


Unadulterated chutzpa


This coded language was not the first time the art establishment warned the Sculls against breaking the rules of behavior governing Jewish participation in the art world. The Jewish presence there was as great but not as casual as that found in New York's garment center. The first warning came in 1961, when famed art dealer Leo Castelli refused to attend Jonathan Scull's bar mitzvah. Castelli's decision was a costly one. He had been negotiating to sell Scull a Jackson Pollock, but his absence infuriated Ethel Scull and scuttled the deal. It must have been worth it, because Castelli continued his practice of keeping mum about his Jewish origins. Art dealer Ivan Karp worked for Castelli for seven years "and I didn't know he was Jewish. Somebody had to tell me. . . . He completely hid it," Karp told Emile de Antonio, director of the film Painters Painting. Ben Heller knew that many modern art Jews avoided open Jewish identification. This had been the established practice since the late 19th century, when East European Jewish immigrant Bernard Berenson refashioned himself into a perfectly refined, continental, and admired esthete and art connoisseur. This was part of art's allure for Jews. It promised what historian Todd Endelman calls "the flight from Jewishness."


But the Sculls themselves, with their three sons' bar mitzvahs and Bronx manners revealed the connection between Jews and modern art decades before contemporary historians marshaled the evidence. The Sculls' native ground was not café society but "Nescafe society," to quote playwright Noel Coward's inspired put-down, and the couple's oft-cited vulgarity drew scorn from more cultivated Jews in ways that recall the late 19th century German Jewish distaste for the Eastern European Jews then arriving in America. German Jews feared the unruly newcomers would damage their standing. The Sculls presented the same threat to more assimilated art admirers and were sometimes hated for it. Barbara Rose was so incensed by them that in her article she briefly abandons code words to attack Scull transparently as an unsavory Jewish huckster. His gift was a genius for "sheer, unadulterated chutzpa."


What made the Sculls especially frightening was that their appearance spurred and overlapped with a moment of growing recognition of the vital role played by Jewish collectors. As late as 1968, Rose could ask Jewish art dealer Ivan Karp what gave rise to New York's art leadership, and he could evasively answer that it was "the tumult in Europe at a certain time" that brought "creative people" to the city. That was all these two Jews permitted themselves to say to each other about the Holocaust and the flight of Jewish refugee scholars. By 1970, such a conversation was becoming impossible. That year Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler, himself a child refugee from Hitler's Europe, told an interviewer from the Smithsonian that most of the great collectors of contemporary art were Jewish. The interviewer was not shocked by the frank statement. In fact, he informed Geldzahler he had already heard the same thing from several museum officials. "All the people who collect very avant garde or modern art are Jewish."


Patronage of the avant garde allowed Jews to identify with the most advanced segments of society, those at odds with the mass forces of populism, nationalism, and folk traditions that were inimical to the safety and well-being of a Jewish minority. But the value of this artistic refuge was undermined where the avant garde was identified with Jews, as occurred in Germany in the 1930s. As a result, this fact remained an open secret. It was not until March 1986 that critic Robert Pincus-Witten in Arts magazine called attention to the prejudice against collectors, by which he meant Jewish collectors, though he did not dare be that explicit. He only pleaded, in more coded language, "Enough Already."


That article came too late to vindicate Robert Scull, who died in January 1986 at age 70. Resentment and condescension has in large part remained the verdict on Scull. It is a view that obscures his true significance. His rapid ascent from the Bronx to Fifth Avenue meant he never had time to be schooled in so-called good taste. He was not, as philosopher T.W. Adorno put it, "regimented by what happens to be the cultural norm." Instead, Scull entered society armed with what Adorno called the "faculty of spontaneous response." This precious quality breaks the spell of conventional opinion and allows the art prospector to discover gold by consulting his own response to the work, a response made reliable and powerful because it is "unsophisticated, involuntary, uninhibited by reflection," wrote Donald Kuspit.


Those traits allowed Scull to combine an unembarrassed Jewish identity with a keen acumen for building a great postwar art collection, and his triumph reveals that it was Jewish collectors – and art critics, historians, dealers, and curators – who guaranteed the success of America's greatest 20th century art movements.

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Why the Sculls Matter

As two exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York showcase the seven-decade career of America's greatest living artist, 91-year-old Jasper Johns, two new histories have arrived, revealing the crucial role that has been played by Jewish art collectors, "The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France"and "Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern."

The books and exhibits share little common ground, except for the patch occupied by the almost clairvoyantly successful art collector Robert Scull. In the 1950s and 1960s, Scull's unabashed Jewishness and ravenous appetite for works by Johns and other new artists made him famous, rich and despised.


With the financial help of his wife, Ethel, Scull began by collecting the abstract expressionist art associated with Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and the slashing brush strokes of Willem de Kooning. Scull tried and failed to buy a Pollock, but by 1958 the couple owned two de Koonings, and in 1959 they bought Mark Rothko's "White Center."

In the late 1950s, a cadre of young artists were headed in a new direction that would soon be called Pop. New York's Jewish Museum tapped art historians Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg and critic Clement Greenberg to display the new art at the spring 1957 show, "The New York School: Second Generation." Among the nearly two-dozen artists were Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The two became giants. New York art dealer Leo Castelli, who guarded the secret of his Jewish origins as if he were a Marrano, discovered Johns at the Jewish Museum and in 1958 gave the artist his first one-man show. The following year, Scull bought Johns' "White Numbers," joining a very select and small club of Johns' collectors that included the founder of IBM and David Rockefeller.


After the Johns purchase Scull became avid for the newest, most confounding art he could find. He swiftly followed up with Rauschenberg's "Thaw," a collage of newsprint and paint, and sculptor John Chamberlain's "Zaar," a scrap metal work so odd the Martha Jackson gallery kept it in the basement where it wouldn't scare off potential customers. But Scull had a special hunger for Johns. In early 1960, when Castelli held the artist's second one-man show, Robert bought eight pieces. (He wanted to buy everything, but Castelli told him it would be vulgar.)

That kind of exuberant spending established Scull as a major collector, and in the spring he and Ethel hosted a birthday party for Johns attended by artists de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Franz Kline, dealers Castelli and Sidney Janis, and Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller. In 1961, Johns gave 13-year-old Jonathan Scull a small art piece as a bar mitzvah gift.

By May 1963, when New York's Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, and Jewish museums held overlapping exhibits of Pop artists, all three museums displayed works loaned by the Sculls. Their collection explains why the museums came calling. That month, MoMA conducted an inventory of the art in the Sculls' Fifth Avenue apartment and found 47 pieces, not counting the nine works on loan. There were 11 by Johns — more than any other artist — six de Koonings, and assorted works by such artists as Claes Oldenburg, Philip Guston, George Segal and James Rosenquist. In late 1963, Andy Warhol completed "Ethel Scull 36 Times," his first commission and a groundbreaking Pop portrait.


Though the Sculls were crucially important art collectors, lenders and donors, they were also hated. The Bronx couple flouted the art world rules of refined civility that since the late 19th century many Jews had observed in order to assimilate. "The celebration and creation of art seemed to promise escape from what was commonly regarded as Jewish," notes professor Todd Endelman in his article, "Aestheticism and the flight from Jewishness." Art Jews feared the Sculls would cause their flight to be canceled.


"Oh, please. Come now," critic Barbara Rose demanded of art dealer Ivan Karp. "Can you tell me that the motivation of the Sculls is other than winning some social position?" He told her just that. Scull was a passionate collector.


The skepticism was understandable. Ethel arrived at the Horn & Hardart automat in her chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Robert spent his days in the Bronx running the Super Operating taxicab company founded by his father-in-law and grabbed lunch in a greasy spoon. "And you could tell that Scull loved it," said his secretary, Wendy Worth.

Describing how he stayed a step ahead of other collectors, Robert Scull sounded a little like a gangster played by Edward G. Robinson. "I find these artists, see," he said. "I crawl into more lofts than fire inspectors."


This unreconstructed Jewish behavior was not unusual among New York Jews who, like the Sculls, were born to Yiddish-speaking immigrants and had little higher education. Scull did not even finish high school. But there weren't many Jews like that who loaned paintings to MoMA, and detractors wondered how Scull could have known to buy the best art by the best new artists.

"People talk about how Scull has to have had great advice from this one and that one: They are always trying to get me to say that I advised Scull on his collection. It's absolutely not true," said Henry Geldzahler, who in the early 1960s became the Metropolitan Museum's first curator of modern art. "In 1960 when Scull began buying Pop art he couldn't have gotten advice from anybody because nobody else was doing it."


But no defense could help the Sculls after their 1973 art auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet.


By this time, the couple were famous, frequently photographed and written about in The New York Times, Life, Newsweek and Time. Honored at Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art, in New York they attended fashionable charity galas and were always dressed to the nines, with Ethel in the latest fashions from Chanel, Adolfo and Courreges; her husband now flaunted a gray beard that signaled a kind of professorial radicalism.


The auction attracted the general public, not just art insiders, and Sotheby's overflowed with spectators. Everyone wanted to see the "beautiful people," such as former first lady Jackie O's stunning sister, Lee Radziwill, and also witness an auction that turned out to be what art historian Judith E. Stein called, "arguably the 20th century's most consequential sale of contemporary art."

The Oct. 18 sale of 50 works was the first devoted solely to contemporary art. The total sales price of $2.2 million broke records and made the Sculls rich. Never before had new art commanded such amounts. And again as throughout Scull's collecting career, it was his Jasper Johns artworks that grabbed the spotlight. "Double White Map" sold for $240,000, making it the most expensive piece of 20th century American art ever sold at auction.


News, publicity and gossip about the auction results gave more weight to the money than the art. This sparked a cultural revolution. The polite camouflage that had long obscured the business side of art was tossed aside, and it is accepted wisdom that today's money-soaked art world was born at the Scull auction.


Barbara Rose understood the auction's significance and shuddered at the prospect of an art world dominated by money. Even worse was that the instigators were those horrible Sculls. To save the reputation of decent art Jews, the couple had to be denounced.


"The Sculls transformed their banal, nouveau riche selves into personalities by not being afraid to own up to being all that was considered lowbrow, déclassé, grasping and publicity seeking," she wrote in a scathing New York magazine article, "Profit Without Honor." If that description did not make it clear Rose was talking about a certain kind of Jew she went further. The Sculls, she continued, "made a thing out of being vulgar, loud and overdressed."


Nearly all the players in this drama are now gone, and, as the new books about Jewish art collectors show, the reluctance to discuss the prominence and importance of Jewish art collectors has abated. Scull's behavior, friends, enemies and instinct for the newest and boldest art of his day, exemplified by his passion for Johns, lies at the center of that story.

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Robert and Ethel Scull and the Jews of Postwar American Art

The most famous and successful collectors of 1960s Pop art, Robert and Ethel Scull were also the most polarizing.


They were among the first to collect Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Mark di Suvero and James Rosenquist, but their brash Bronx manners embarrassed the refined art world Jews who had quietly become the greatest force in America's art world.


The Sculls rocked the boat. Their art made them rich and they became America's first celebrity collectors. The art market was never the same.


Their story has never been told. I am writing their biography.

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