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Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

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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