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An Alternative Post-War Jewish Art World

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 5, Number 2, July 2012
pp. 71-77 | 10.1353/jji.2012.0029

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In his April 8, 1965 New York Times article "The Jewish Museum: What is It, Why is it, and What Next?" art critic Sam Hunter identified the uptown Manhattan museum as pulled in two directions: one, it served as a repository of historic ceremonial Judaica, defined by continued ties to the Jewish Theological Seminary; two, it functioned as an exhibition space for contemporary art appearing to "have no immediate bearing on Jewish affairs." This division was first announced in 1957 with the exhibition Artists of the New York School: Second Generation and exacerbated by the show 1970 Software Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art. One can still find it in this year's Kehinde Wiley exhibition, World Stage: Israel. Such exhibitions reveal a complex institutional definition of what constitutes Jewish art within greater contemporary art practice.

In remarks in a1966 lecture at the museum, later published in Commentary as "Is There Jewish Art?" art critic Harold Rosenberg's declared, "First, they build a Jewish Museum, then they ask, Is there a Jewish art?" He proposed several possible criteria for establishing "Jewish art" as a specific category: art produced by Jews, art concerned with identifiable Jewish subjects, Jewish ceremonial objects, Jewish folk art and ephemera, and "metaphysical Judaica." With each category deemed unsatisfying, Rosenberg determined, "There is no Jewish art" if one attends exclusively to stylistic choices and practical function. Instead, he echoed Hunter's criterion of an "intellectual sympathy" that evolved from a Jewish Enlightenment culture and that accommodates challenging and novel art production.

This attempt to align post-war American art with Jewish intellectual tradition simply on the basis of an under-analyzed, culturally specific appreciation for advanced culture is troubling to say the least. Rather than tackle the topic of a "Jewish art" from the standpoint of stylistics and utility (too limited) or intellectual rigor (too broad), it is perhaps better to query the practitioners at this subject's center. Recent attempts at canon formation have generated lists including standard mid-century figures of Jewish-American heritage, including Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ben Shahn, and Leonard Baskin. However, as the exhibition records of the Jewish Museum demonstrate, these lists demand amending.

Three recent books—Vanessa Corby's Eva Hesse: Longing, Belonging and Displacement, David Kaufmann's Telling Stories: Philip Guston's Later Works, and Annie Cohen-Solal's Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli—offer the possibility of such an alternative lens. Each considers the career of a major figure of post-war American art whose work is informed by a rejection of, embrace of, or ambivalence toward Jewish identity. Additionally, the texts analyze how negotiating a multi-hyphenate identity in personal and professional realms under intense assimilationist pressures affected the reception of both the art and the artist within their historical age as well as today. Although not always successful as individual scholarly exercises, these texts collectively propose substituting a "Jewish art" world defined by aesthetic-based typologies for a Jewish "art world," to borrow Howard Becker's term. Beyond just artists, an art world expands to include the collectors, curators, dealers, critics, and historians who contribute to the creation, presentation and reception of artwork. This world runs alongside and intersects with a greater post-war Jewish American culture. As such, it offers an opportunity to consider this art world's relevance to shifting definitions governing what constitutes contemporary Jewish art.

Corby provides an ambitious study of the connections between gender, ethnic, and religious heritage, and personal trauma, that shaped not only Eva Hesse's work, but also scholarship about Hesse over the past four decades. The text merges Ann Wagner's important historically-grounded work on Hesse with a more nuanced reading of trauma and mourning, keywords often associated with the artist. Corby locates loss and displacement within greater social and cultural conditions: the everyday experience of German Jewish families during the Holocaust and American Cold War culture.

The author calls for a new methodology for the examination Hesse's work, borrowing Bracha Etinger's psychoanalytic model of "new trans-subjective vision." (181) The artist's work is treated as the space of encounter between artist and viewer that fosters an affective...

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