icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

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.


Be the first to comment