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How I Came to Write Jewish Artists and the Bible in 20th-Century America

Friday, August 15, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Samantha Baskind wrote about the artist Jack Levine and about some of the artists she interviewed for Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists. Her newest book, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, is now available. She has been blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

Some of the most important twentieth-century American artists also happen to be Jewish. To this point they have been celebrated for their contributions to major art movements, like Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Photorealism. As I was doing research on a number of these artists, mining their mainstream work for any Jewish content (implicit or explicit), I found that many addressed biblical themes. I made these discoveries by examining old exhibition catalogs, spotting an occasional reference in critics’ reviews of shows, a brief notation here or there in a book, or digging through an artist’s archived papers. I wondered: Why hasn't anyone explored this distinctive theme in art by Jewish Americans? Why hasn’t anyone questioned why the subject has so far been ignored? Here’s a fascinating statistic that I knew deserved further inquiry: Religious imagery by twentieth-century Jewish American artists is so pervasive that of the initial American works purchased by the Vatican in 1973 for the new Gallery of Modern Religious Art, nearly half were by Jewish artists even though at that time Jews comprised just less than three percent of America's population.

And so my research took me into museum archives, recesses of libraries leafing through dusty, decades old magazines, the homes of art collectors, and even to a few of the living artists’ homes. When sifting through old art, long since packed away – even from their teen years – the artists’ themselves discovered that biblical subjects occasionally interested them at a young age!

Some artists consistently depicted biblical subjects alongside their more common matter. Others only touched on the Bible. Sometimes the biblical reference was small and sometimes shockingly blatant, and this is in media across the board: paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and book illustrations. Here's one of the first instances I uncovered that made me think that a full-length study was in order: From 1935-40, Maurice Sterne – now a mostly forgotten artist who in his day was famous enough to command the first one-person exhibition by an American at the Museum of Modern Art (1933) – painted an immense twenty-panel mural, Man’s Struggle for Justice. Done under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the law library at the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., at times Sterne used allegory to make his points. The series comprises oil on board panels demarcating concepts of justice over the ages (e.g., Brute Force and Mercy), as well as the impact of modern life on justice (e.g., Red Tape and Scientific Evidence). Surprisingly, Sterne employed the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel for the panel Ambition, which merges the biblical past with present-day concerns. Sterne pictures the angel as seraphic, while Jacob appears mortal as do six additional muscular figures, three climbing a rock lining each side of the composition, “representing earthly ambition.” This interpretation, which I most likely would not have fleshed out on my own, was provided by the artist. Indeed, Sterne’s own interpretation appears on the back of a photograph taken soon after the panel installation, which I happened upon and luckily turned over while conducting research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

This kind of stumbling on to material marked the origins of my book, which I originally thought might comprise an article. It was only when I realized that I would have hundreds of biblical works of art to deal with, by dozens of Jewish American artists, that I knew a full-length project was in order. I also realized that I had to get to the bottom of why these biblical works have been excised from the canon.

Thus was born Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America.

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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Finding Jack Levine

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Samantha Baskind wrote about some of the artists she interviewed for Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists. In the first chapter of her newest book, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, she features the artist Jack Levine. Below, she discusses her experience interviewing Levine for the book. She will be blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

The first time I spoke with Jack Levine was on October 26, 2004. This was before the Internet made finding people easy, and so I consulted a New York City phone book at a local library in Cleveland. I compiled a list of all the J. Levine’s living in Manhattan (and there were a lot of them) and called each with the preface, rolling off my tongue quickly before I could be hung up on: “Hello, I’m looking for the artist Jack Levine.” After five wrong numbers a gruff voice answered in the affirmative: “That’s me.” I was effusive, explained my purpose (a book I was writing), and we immediately began to talk. I found Jack self-deprecating on that call, and always, and when I asked him why he replied, “It’s all right. It makes you more meaningful.”

Jack Levine, Planning Solomon's Temple, 1940.
Oil on masonite, 10 x 8 in. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

A few months after that first telephone call, I visited Jack at his Greenwich Village home. What I thought would be an hour or two stay turned into an entire day’s conversation. We sat in his living room, cluttered with volumes of art history books piled up on shelves and the floor. Art he made and that he treasured hung on the walls around me. Candid and charming, Jack shared memories and ideas about his life and art. He spoke of his childhood as the youngest of his Jewish, Lithuanian immigrant parents’ eight children. Jack told me that his parents planned to name him Jacob, after his paternal grandfather, but his Americanized older brother insisted that the newborn be given the more American sounding name: “My oldest brother confused the whole thing, because I guess he felt patriotic." Retrospectively, Levine noted: "It's ridiculous. I ought to be alright with the name Jacob."

While I certainly knew Jack was a consummate draftsman and painter, I soon learned about his vast knowledge and love of art history. We walked up steep stairs to his third-floor studio, a bright open space illuminated by skylights. Jars of colorful paint were stacked on shelves and on available counter space, paintbrushes scattered the floor and were stuffed in miscellaneous containers, and more books overflowed on shelves and tables. He was working on three canvases: a densely painted image of a lion that he had been playing with for years, a portrait of Moses holding the Tablets of the Law, and a scene populated with figures that was taking the form of one of his vintage discourses on human folly. As the sun began to set and I prepared to leave, with several audiotapes full of material and a handful of photographs of Jack, I told him how much I enjoyed our day together. To which he replied with a twinkle in his blue eyes: “You would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't ninety years old.”

Jack Levine, Moses on Sinai II, 1991.
Oil on canvas, 72 x 63 in. Private collection.

On July 24, 2010, after learning that he was quite ill, I visited Jack again to say goodbye and to pepper him with yet more questions (he died a little over three months later). He still possessed his deadpan wit; after finishing a cup of water he stood up and said, “I need to use the bathroom. I’ll stagger over there now.” Although he was weak, we walked to his favorite restaurant for lunch, an Italian place around the corner from his brownstone where Jack ate nearly everyday, always greeted by the waiters with enthusiasm. Even though it was a sweltering New York summer afternoon, he wore his fedora and sport coat; as usual, he would not leave his home without them on. We talked about printmaking, some of the artists he admired, and why he painted Jewish subjects.Jack believed that the over the ages the Second Commandment prohibited Jewish art and he wanted to do something for his people by filling that gap. Channeling William Wordsworth, he told me that this would be the last time we would be together: “I’ve been lonely as a cloud and it’s time it stopped.” He recalled old friends that day, including Raphael Soyer, a close friend of Jack’s and the artist on whom I wrote my first book.

Raphael Soyer was a topic we addressed on more than one occasion. Jack because he was so fond of Soyer, and I because I welcomed the personal insights after all the years spent researching and writing about him. During my first visit to interview Jack I sat in his living room under a Soyer drawing and he shared a story about a visit he paid the older artist shortly before his death. Jack remembered that in 1987, while keeping Soyer company at his bedside, he took his friend’s hand and kissed it: “Raphael’s hand was the only artist’s hand I ever kissed. In fact, the only other person’s hand I kissed was my father’s.” As I prepared to say my final goodbye to Jack this story came to my mind, and I felt compelled to bestow on him that same gift of admiration and respect. And so I kissed Jack’s hand, one that had painted rich, powerful, and luminous canvases for nearly a century. His hand lingered in mine and the warmth in Jack’s tired eyes betrayed his affection even as he gruffly said “Oy vey.” Jack was still Jack and for that my heart swelled.

As I left, Jack watched me through the window. I finally tore my eyes away and walked through the West Village, unabashedly crying. An extraordinary man with a remarkable history and the last great living figurative artist of mid-twentieth-century American art would soon be gone.

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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Interviewing the Artists I Write About

Monday, August 11, 2014 | Permalink

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. Her most recent book is Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

For the most part I write about twentieth-century Jewish American artists. For a period of time I favored artists that came of age during the Great Depression and so I did not have the opportunity to interview most of them. In 2005, while researching an encyclopedia I was writing, I sent the same questionnaire to all of the living artists that I planned to include in the volume. Among the questions I asked were: “What, if anything, do you consider Jewish about your art?” “How, if at all, has your Jewish identity influenced your art?” “How do you define Jewish art?” “Does one artwork, if any, exemplify your Jewishness? If so, why?”

Here are five particularly intriguing responses:

1. Audrey Flack, known especially for her intensely illusionist photorealist paintings, defined Jewish art from her always-unique perspective: “I guess Jewish art is specifically religious art like Christian art and like Muslim art. It’s a catchy thing because Jews aren’t supposed to make images. Jewish art is probably humanist. . . . With Jews there’s a celebration of life. I think minimalism is the opposite of Jewish art. One green pea on a piece of roast beef.”

Audrey Flack, World War II (Vanitas), 1976-77

2. When asked about what, if anything, figure painter Philip Pearlstein considers “Jewish” about his realist art, he replied, “almost nothing, but I think that [my art] is very American – specifically New York and perhaps that includes something Jewish.”

3. Conceptual and performance artist Eleanor Antin described her perspective on the Jewishness of her art as such: “I don't think being Jewish has been particularly relevant in my work, though maybe my independence has had something to do with it. I've been more or less fortunate in my career – though artists are never satisfied – but I've always been something of an outsider. I never fit in that neatly with anybody else. My state of permanent exile. My personal Diaspora. Given this lousy world, it’s not such a bad place to be. And perhaps my comedy. My work has a dark streak but it’s also funny. Maybe that’s a Jewish trait. Laughing all the way to the cemetery.”

4. Photographer Arnold Newman reflected on a series of works made in Israel that he considered influenced by his Jewish heritage: “I made a lot of photographs of Israel. I sometimes went there to attend annual meetings of the board of the Israel Museum. My Jewish knowledge and my heart influenced the way I photographed Israel. The prime ministers, who I photographed, are history more than anything else. I put together a show of 57 photographs of Jews from all around the world that influenced Jewish history and culture. Can you call that Jewish art? I don’t know. One of my best non-portrait photographs is of the Western Wall. There was a rabbi at the Wall and he asked me not to photograph him, so I photographed his shadow.”

5. Pioneering feminist artist Miriam Schapiro chose to address her Jewish identity, explaining that she is “not religious. It is the cultural aspect of Judaism that interests me. In other words – where I came from and how these people lived before me and now. When I am interested to discuss my identity – being Jewish comes to mind and I make a work that reminds me of what it is to be Jewish.”

These artists’ responses are diverse, to say the least, as are the many other comments and reflections that I received. Invariably, when I give book talks or public lectures I am asked: “What is Jewish art?” The audience, of course, expects me to share a definitive answer – I am the so-called expert. What I offer are the words and thoughts of the very artists that I have studied, while we look at some of the art in question, which I show during my presentation. I open up the conversation to the group with whom I am speaking and we try to find an answer together.

The answers are rarely the same.

Samantha Baskind is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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