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When is Jewish Art Avant-Garde?

Thursday, December 14, 2017 | Permalink

Ben Schachter is the author of Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art, published in November by Penn State University Press. Earlier this week, he shared his five favorite Jewish artworks. He has been blogging here as part of JBC's Visiting Scribe series.

About twenty years ago the Jewish Museum in New York proposed the following thought experiment: Can Jewish art be too Jewish for the Jewish Museum? Well, that depends on who you ask. And it was the Jewish Museum that was asking in 1996. The idea for the show arose when then head curator Norman Kleeblatt visited artist Archie Rand’s studio. Rand had been working on a series of paintings that he hoped would be embarrassingly Jewish. Each one illuminated a portion from the Torah. According to accounts in the exhibition catalog for the show, “Too Jewish?” Rand succeeded. Without stating it directly, yes, there is art that is too Jewish. But when I saw the show, I saw nothing of the sort. I saw something entirely different.

In 1996 I was a freshly minted Wesleyan University alumnus. I had grown up as an active and engaged reform Jew. I sang in the choir with my father and brother and went to high holiday services. It was important to me to be with family during those celebrations. I never even considered religious ambiguity (and really I still don’t).

Yet, walking into the Jewish Museum was like walking into a temple that I had never visited. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what was expected of me. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t think of art as a religious experience, and I certainly knew how to carry myself in a museum. But for some reason, the Jewish Museum was different. I felt out of place. Was the Jewish Museum “too Jewish” for me?

That feeling quickly dissipated when I entered “Too Jewish?” I saw artworks tackling Jewish ideas and traditions with non-traditional materials and avant-garde techniques. At every turn, I was surprised: by casts of noses, erased text, monotonous counting of grains of rice. It felt more like a downtown gallery than the Jewish Museum. I wasn’t surprised to see Jews asking questions of their religion; what was surprising was how they formed the question—through contemporary art.

Much has changed in twenty years. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in California has expanded and the Jewish Museum programming has grown. The Yeshiva University Museum mounts important exhibitions on the eruv, books, and now has a show featuring a full-scale recreation of the relief from the Arch of Titus depicting the menorah being paraded by Roman legions. The relief in the exhibition was created using the latest cutting edge technology. And the most recent expression of contemporary Jewish art is shown every two years at the Jerusalem Biennale. I was fortunate enough to be part of the most recent exhibition. And even more, I’m glad to count myself as part of a growing and dynamic quest to discover what Jewish art will look like tomorrow.

Can Jewish art be too Jewish for a Jewish Museum? If so, then whatever that art might be isn’t really too Jewish at all; its avant-garde.

Ben Schachter is Professor of Fine Arts at Saint Vincent College. In the past, he received the Hadassah Brandeis research award. His artwork has been exhibited at Yale University, YU Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, the Mattress Factory, and other venues. His writing on art and criticism has appeared in various art journals and books, including Drawing in the 21st Century, edited by Elizabeth Pergam and It's A Thin Line, edited by Rabbi Adam Mintz. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and four children.

Five Contemporary Jewish Artworks You Should Know

Tuesday, December 12, 2017 | Permalink

Ben Schachter is the author of Image, Action, and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art, published in November by Penn State University Press. He is blogging here all week as part of JBC's Visiting Scribe series.

I am a Jewish artist who makes Jewish art. Sounds redundant, no? It isn’t. Many artists are Jewish, but many fewer make art with Jewish subject matter. That is why I enjoy looking at artworks with Jewish ideas. Here is a list of my top five Jewish artworks. But they are just a start. There is a lot of terrific, engaging, perplexing and surprising Jewish art out there.

1. Helene Aylon’s The Liberation of G-d 1990-1996

Aylon read through the Bible and highlighted every gendered reference to God. Her work has garnered her attention of feminist artists. Instead of defacing the text, Aylon laid transparent parchment over the text and highlighted words through it. Why do I like this work so much? Because it balances contemporary art’s use of monotonous activities with sensitivity to tradition. Aylon does not destroy, she illuminates.

2. Archie Rand, The 613 2001-2006


Archie Rand’s monumental painting, The 613, just finished a run at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in Los Angeles. The painting is made up of over six hundred panels. Each panel is numbered, in Hebrew, with a colorful image inspired by film noir and pulp fiction illustrations. The number on each panel corresponds to each one of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments outlined by Moses Maimonides, the medieval philosopher and doctor. Rand’s images do not directly illustrate commandments, but at times the connection is clear as we see an astronaut floating in space as the numeral reminds us of the first commandment, “I am god.” I imagine the astronaut having a spiritual experience of the divine at that moment. Rand’s massive painting is great because it is unabashedly about Jewish law. There is no embarrassment over the old question, “Is this too Jewish?”

3. Andi Arnovitz, Coat of the Agunot 2010



Images courtesy of Andi Arnovitz

Andi Arnovitz emigrated to Israel and like Aylon, examines ideas important to women. One such issue is the plight of the agunah, a woman who wishes to divorce her husband but can not because he will not grant permission. Traditional Jewish law requires that the husband offer his wife a get, a legal document agreeing to divorce. No one enters a marriage with hopes of a divorce, a potentially baleful situation, but when there is cause and the woman cannot be freed from the marriage contact, she is thought of as a “chained woman.” When a divorce is finalized it is customary to cut up the marriage contract. Arnovitz’s work, Coat of the Agunot, is a patchwork quilt of facsimiles of historical ketubot (Jewish marriage certificates). The new garment is beautiful and also bittersweet. Arnovitz’s work is very touching.

4. Allan Wexler, Spice Box for the Havdalah Service 2005

Allan Wexler, Spice Box for the Havdalah Service, 2005
Image courtesy of Allan Wexler

Allan Wexler is an architect by training but his designs are rarely 100% practical. He designs rooms that are so small that furniture must be tucked away into small cabinets, doors are swung open and become walls, and windows pull out of their openings and become chairs. Spice Box for Havadalah is a similarly odd contraption. During the havdalah service, a brief ritual held at the end of the Sabbath, participants pay attention to the physical world around them. They do this in a few ways. First, they look at the light of a candle and second, they smell incense. Typically incense is kept in a small house-shaped container. Wexler’s spice box is nothing like that. His has a face mask, plastic hoses and store-bought spice bottles. The aroma travels from the bottles, through the hoses, and directly to the person wearing the mask. I find this work very funny.

5. Ken Goldman, With Without 2011


Image courtesy of Ken Goldman

Ken Goldman describes his work as performance art. With Without is a passive performance whereby he shaved his head except for a circular patch at the top. A casual observer might think he was wearing a kippah. And that is exactly his point. With Without is a photograph of the artist taken from just over his left shoulder. The photograph shows the “hair-kippah.”

Ben Schachter is Professor of Fine Arts at Saint Vincent College. In the past, he received the Hadassah Brandeis research award. His artwork has been exhibited at Yale University, YU Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, the Mattress Factory, and other venues. His writing on art and criticism has appeared in various art journals and books, including Drawing in the 21st Century, edited by Elizabeth Pergam and It's A Thin Line, edited by Rabbi Adam Mintz. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and four children.