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.

Relat­ed Content:

Saman­tha Baskind is Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six 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.