A different American beauty
In modern times art and the everyday needs of society have had a tenuous relationship. Although art is often seen as an individual's expressions of a culture at large, it is also seen as ego-centered and frivolous. The latter is mostly a reaction to works that seemingly do not connect to a visual status quo. Artworks that are more difficult and that take more time to understand are often looked at suspiciously. They enter into the purview of our naturalizing ideology slowly, and quite often are relegated to the "free zone" of the "art world."
What is interesting about the new exhibition at the MemorialArtGallery is that it brings together artworks that fit into most everyone's comfort zones with those that are more challenging, and situates them in a framework that is social and more broadly cultural. All the works, representational or not, speak about some very tangible needs, such as the needs of survival and belonging.
My America: Art from the Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955 is a traveling exhibition organized by Karen Levitov, an associate curator at The Jewish Museum in New York City. Although technically an art museum, the Jewish Museum is more than that. The museum sees itself as representing Jewish identity and its evolution through visual art. This exhibit is about a particular Jewish identity that enters the American scene from Eastern Europe and settles predominately in New York, Manhattan's Lower East Side in particular.
The artworks, which include paintings, sculpture, and photographs, are divided into five sections. They include "Becoming American," which deals with picturing the struggles and pleasures of a new life in a modern city, and "Moving Toward Abstraction." This section introduces the viewer to artists who have become disillusioned by more traditional forms of representation and thus move to a more inward place, exploring the individual as a source of social change. And it is the theme of the social that is centrally more explicit in the three other sections of the exhibition.
"Picturing Ourselves" deals with portraits, but even more with people in "meaningful places," while "Striving for Social Justice" addresses the place of art as a tool for social change. The remaining section, "Reacting to Tragedy," places the viewer in relation to the almost unrepresentable atrocities of WWII and the crimes perpetrated against the Jewish people and humanity by the Nazis. It is in this context, that of the social, that the use of abstraction allows for the refocusing of the otherwise "art for art's sake" in light of culture and society.
The Abstractionist's point-of-view is represented by Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell (the only non-Jewish artist who was commissioned to do a mural for a prominent New York City synagogue), and Ben Zion, among others. This work in the hands of museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York becomes about aesthetics, form, and the individual. But here it retains its imbeddedness in the everyday need for survival and belonging.
When Barnett Newman, who is, surprisingly, not represented in this exhibition, was asked by the critic Harold Rosenberg to explain what one of his paintings could possibly mean to the world, Newman responded by saying "that if [Rosenberg] and others could read [the painting] properly, it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism." It is a remark that aggressively reminds us about the role of art in society as well as about culture and democracy. It is also a remark that reveals how William Gropper's painting "Two Senators" (1950) --- an image that entertains all the gestures of abstract expressionism but in a realist manner --- becomes a scathing comment on the corruption in government. (Actually, in some ways, all the works in the exhibition can be seen as socially critical --- not necessarily criticizing but certainly detail-oriented.)
It is interesting that of the 46 artists represented, at least 10 of them thought of themselves as social realist painters. These painters were explicitly concerned with the injustices within society and made specific choices in their artistic careers to have their work point to these events. For example, Phillip Evergood's "The Hundredth Psalm" (circa 1938) is a lynching scene of klansmen dancing and fiddling around the corpse of a hanged black man. It is Evergood's indictment of religion --- specifically, the hypocrisy of religion --- such that, somehow, the invocation of God is really just an excuse to commit a heinous act.
The work of the Soyer brothers, twins Moses and Raphael, at times focused on the familial or introspective, as in Raphael's "Dancing Lesson" (1926) or Moses' "The Lover of Books" (1934). However, the thrust of their work in the 1930s focused on the hard life of the working-class. Another artist, Peter Blume, whose "Pig's Feet and Vinegar" (1927) is a beautiful, jewel-like painting, juxtaposes feelings of social and cultural alienation. Unlike the understandable disenfranchisement of modern urbanity, here in the quiet quaintness of small-town America (waspy New England?) there is a strong feeling of outsiderness. Pigs' feet on a table dominate an interior space in the immediate left foreground while a woman passing by outside seems close but, because of her diminished size, looks as if she were far, far away. It is a classic ploy to create visual tension, and it works. And then there's Ben Shahn and Arthur Fellig and Lottie Jacobi and Theresa Bernstein and...the list is impressive.
This is definitely one of the best shows at the MemorialArtGallery in a long time. There is something here that touches upon the real for all of us, Jewish or not. Something to think about and remember; to laugh, albeit nervously, or to cry; and to ultimately, to live. L'Chaim.
My America: Art from the Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955 | through December 24 | Memorial Art Gallery | 500 University Avenue | Tuesday-Friday noon-5 p.m. (Thursday until 9 p.m.), Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. | Admission is $7; college students and senior citizens, $5; children 6-18, $2; reduced admission Thursday 5-9 p.m., $2. | 473-7720, mag.rochester.edu.