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182 SHOFAR Fall 1999 Vol. 18, No. I Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust, by Matthew Baigell. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997. 138 pp. $39.95. Relatively short (117 pages of text), small enough to be read comfortably on the subway, and modest in presentation (only 44 small black-and-white illustrations), this slim volume is the very antithesis of the coffee-table book. It resists the temptation to aestheticize the tragic, thus summing up in its physical form one ofthe ethical principles of art production the author introduces in his book. Matthew Baigell is one ofthe leading historians ofAmerican art. A prolific author, he has written a biographical dictionary of American artists, a major textbook, monographs on such important artists as Thomas Benton, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt, and dozens of articles. He has also written and lectured on Jewish art, as in a key catalog essay for the exhibition Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900-1945 (Jewish Museum, 1991). On the basis ofsuch achievement, one comes to Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust with high expectations. It does not disappoint. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this is not a standard art historical study. Baigell invests a large amount ofpersonal capital in the book-inserting himself in the story in various places, taking on difficult issues, making critical judgments that are sometimes quite harsh. A risky enterprise, but it works: his strong feelings and moral passion give important ballast to a scholarly project. They dictate in fact the very way the book is organized, a free play of chronology and the topical: "I allowed the flow of the text to proceed as the material seemed to warrant" (Preface, p. x). Although Baigell's intention is to concentrate on the art ofthe last twenty years, he offers a short survey at the beginning. In the first chapter, he tells us which Jewish artists grappled in the 1930s with the issue ofNazi actions against the Jews-Ben Shahn and Max Weber, for example-what they did with the information they had, and ifand how it entered their art. He also takes the opportunity to excoriate the Jewish Left for its divided loyalties. Subsequently, he treats the "denial" on the part of many Jews of the war and early postwar period gently for the most part (except for a searing critique ofmodemist art critic Clement Greenberg). One ofBaigell's notable strengths as an art historian is his willingness to incorporate social history into the discourse. In this book, his close study of the literature on Holocaust studies enables him to provide a fitting context for the art he discusses. In the remaining chapters, which constitute the heart ofthe book, Baigell is clearly more sympathetic with the ensuing decades that have produced a resurgence ofinterest in Jewish themes among Jewish-American artists. He applauds those among them who have confronted the central, enduring, overwhelming subject of the Holocaust and admires their artistic vision. Privileging some approaches more than others, he reserves his kindest comments for the "environments" ofthe 70s and their present descendants, Book Reviews t','" "': ",', ' 183 installations. It is the directness, the confrontationality; and the specificity of these works mat he seems to find most effective. Regrettably, he views traditional approaches and the use of traditional religious iconography not only to be uninteresting to the present generation but, more fundamentally, incapable ofthe more intense expressivity demanded by the subject itself. In the final chapter, "Expressing the Inexpressible," Baigell is at his most moving as well as his most brilliant. Here he lets the artists, most ofwhom he has corresponded with and interviewed, do much of the talking. However, he also permits himself to analyze more works ofart at closer range, and what follows is a virtuoso performance. Despite limited text space and often lacking an illustration (a shortcoming throughout the book), he compresses and concentrates words in such a way that the work of art is suddenly revealed to the reader in its richness and complexity. One can learn much from this book, most of all that there are more artists than we might ever have thought-the canonical, the famous...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 182-183
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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