Look Up: The Life and Art of Sacha Kolin

Lisa Thaler
  • Review
By – December 22, 2011

Depar­ture” is a paint­ing that cap­ti­vates a woman at an art show in Win­net­ka, Illi­nois in 1998. Ten years lat­er, that woman, Lisa Thaler, pub­lish­es a book about the artist, Sacha Kolin (1911 – 1981), whose work is rep­re­sent­ed in a num­ber of muse­um col­lec­tions but whose name is hard­ly known. 

Despite numer­ous exhi­bi­tions, Sacha Kolin had nev­er achieved much recog­ni­tion, even dur­ing her life­time. Nev­er­the­less, the book is end­less­ly absorb­ing, giv­en the rich details the author has gath­ered. Writ­ing in a con­cise jour­nal­is­tic style, Thaler’s gene­ol­o­gist recre­ates the artist’s life and milieu and doc­u­ments her art. Thaler researched the artist glob­al­ly, reach­ing into her past in Vien­na, from where her par­ents fled, to Israel, where many rel­a­tives had set­tled, and into all Sacha’s pro­fes­sion­al con­tacts. Exam­in­ing archival mate­r­i­al, perus­ing gallery and muse­um inven­to­ries, inter­view­ing friends, acquain­tances, cred­i­tors, Lisa Thaler left no source untapped to cap­ture the char­ac­ter and per­son­al­i­ty of her subject. 

Sacha Kolin strug­gled to live well on mea­ger means. She helped to cre­ate the mar­ket for wealthy patrons to donate art works to uni­ver­si­ty art col­lec­tions, where­by the patrons receive tax ben­e­fits. She pur­sued donors in order to sell paint­ings to sup­port her­self and her father. The author paints” a por­trait of Sacha, who arrived in New York with her par­ents in 1936 at the age of twen­ty-five. Her dis­place­ment and refugee sta­tus didn’t seem to affect her spir­it. Her peren­ni­al opti­mism is reflect­ed in the book title, tak­en from her paint­ing Look Up: The Sun is Shin­ing.” Sacha worked in sev­er­al medi­ums: pen and ink, water­col­or, and oils as well as sculp­ture. Thaler includes fas­ci­nat­ing details about Sacha’s father, an engi­neer who had designed inno­v­a­tive pro­pellers that were used in air­planes and lat­er in oth­er machin­ery. She makes a case that his designs inspired some of Sacha’s art. Active in the post- World War II art world of New York City, much of Sacha’s work ref­er­ences the pop­u­lar art styles of that period. 

Thaler seems to feel oblig­ed to men­tion Sacha Kolin’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty — or lack there­of— in the epi­logue: “…She applied her Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty to a range of cul­tur­al motifs and aes­theth­ic styles, includ­ing a belief in jus­tice and equal­i­ty, a com­mit­ment to tikkun olam [repair of the world], a sense of imper­ma­nence, and a long­ing to return to a (if not the) home­land.” (True as that may be, Sacha chose to have her remains cre­mat­ed through the Trin­i­ty Church Cre­ma­to­ria.) Thaler came to think of Sacha as the ulti­mate sur­vivor.” It remains to be seen if she is suc­cess­ful in res­cu­ing her from obscurity. 

Heav­i­ly illus­trat­ed and doc­u­ment­ed, the book is a trib­ute to the author’s dili­gent research and love of her sub­ject. (She doc­u­ments close to 2,000 art works.) An after­word,” titled Ten Lessons for Geneal­o­gists, Art His­to­ri­ans, Artists and Jour­nal­ists” is evi­dence that the author intends this book to be a blue­print for the field of fam­i­ly history. 

Of the 438 pages, only 314 are the main text. The remain­der con­sist of notes, illus­tra­tions, chronol­o­gy, and index, plus 24 pages of col­or plates and many fam­i­ly photographs.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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