Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty in Amer­i­can Art: A Gold­en Age Since the 1970’s

  • Review
By – September 21, 2020

In his Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty in Amer­i­can Art: A Gold­en Age Since the 1970’s, Matthew Baigell makes the case for the con­tri­bu­tions of today’s Jew­ish artists to con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can cul­ture. In con­trast to ear­li­er artists like Bar­nett New­man (19051970) and Mark Rothko (19031970) who oper­at­ed sep­a­rate­ly from the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, Baigell doc­u­ments how artists of recent years desire to con­tin­ue to work out their own ways to con­nect to the Jew­ish past and con­tribute to the Jew­ish present.” Through pro­fil­ing artists includ­ing Ruth Weis­berg, Car­ol Hamoy, David Wan­der, Siona Ben­jamin, Archie Rand, Richard McBee and Tobi Kahn, Baigell shows how, through the prisms of texts and the forces of assim­i­la­tion, these artists nav­i­gate their dual iden­ti­ties as both Amer­i­can and Jew­ish, exam­in­ing themes of fem­i­nism, gen­der, and spirituality.

Baigell, who as he express­es in the book’s intro­duc­tion, want­ed to title the work We are Liv­ing in a Gold­en Age of Reli­gious­ly Themed Jew­ish Amer­i­can Art and We Real­ly Don’t Know It,” is clear­ly pas­sion­ate about the mate­r­i­al and its impor­tance for our era. Read­ers receive an expert­ly guid­ed visu­al and the­o­log­i­cal tour, from Archie Rand’s self-described cul­tur­al rau­cous­ness” (the artist has remarked I like my rab­bis. They’re fun­ny, vul­gar, wise and right­eous. They are a human­iz­ing ele­ment in my work.”); to Tobi Kah­n’s Shalom Bat chairs - Rachel, Rebec­ca, Sarah, Leah;to Siona Ben­jamin — born into an obser­vant Bene Israel fam­i­ly in Mum­bai — and her blue-col­ored matri­archs in The Four Moth­ers Who Entered Par­adise (a reimag­in­ing of a Tal­mu­dic pas­sage about ancient rabbis).

Now a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the depart­ment of Art His­to­ry at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, Baigell uti­lizes dozens of images, inter­views, and pre­vi­ous schol­ar­ships on these artists and Jew­ish art to detail how, in each of their unique ways, their work con­sti­tutes statement(s) of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish thought.” Breath­tak­ing images accom­pa­ny learned treat­ments of bib­li­cal scenes, Jew­ish immi­gra­tion, rit­u­al objects (both actu­al and imag­ined), divine names, the Holo­caust, and syn­a­gogue inte­ri­ors, as Baigell ana­lyzes how those who pro­filed play an active role in their rela­tion­ship with God” and their fel­low Jews. For exam­ple, com­ment­ing on Wan­der’s The Jon­ah Draw­ings, Baigell notes how Wan­der’s own search for a moral anchor and his own rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Jew­ish God — how to con­tin­ue, how to per­se­vere with­out know­ing where one’s actions will lead, how to over­come the lone­li­ness of being alone in the uni­verse” relates to the themes of the bib­li­cal book.

Read­ers inter­est­ed in the con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish cul­tur­al scene, the nuance and vari­ety of bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tion, and art his­to­ry will gain much from this vol­ume and its depic­tion of artists who, as Baigell writes of Kahn, stretch the para­me­ters of what is think­able and doable” in today’s Amer­i­can Jewry.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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