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Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

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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