Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comMatthew Baigell
Syracuse University Press ($45)

by Daniel Morris

An emeritus professor of art history at Rutgers, Matthew Baigell has over the last decade become the foremost scholar of 20th century Jewish American art history. Where his previous titles in this area—Jewish Artists in New York: The Holocaust Years and Jewish American Artists and the Holocaust—focused on a specific theme, the current volume offers a broad introduction to an emerging field while continuing to emphasize the Shoah as the signal event to which Jewish artists respond in their work.

Baigell’s intends his study of what he calls “fourteen representative modern artists” as a first step into a field that he admits requires further research. One artist represented here is Helène Aylon, a contemporary feminist mixed-media and installation artist who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox environment in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Baigell illustrates that Aylon “has challenged the ways in which Jewish tradition has treated women,” focusing on a work in which “she placed on large surfaces membranous sacs filled with oil.” At first relaying Aylon’s own comment that her artwork might refer to female sanitary practices—“unconsciously suggested by the prayer invariably said by the Orthodox after using the bathroom”—Baigell then admits his own study at this point is merely speculative. “I mention this interpretation to make the point that an enormous amount of work needs to be done in order to begin to understand the kinds of knowledge and experience that a person from an Orthodox background can bring to his or her art consciously or unconsciously, and that might be lost if not recalled and written down soon.”

Arguing that time is of the essence, Baigell stresses the need for more art historical scholarship to take place before vulnerable Jewish folkways, histories, and memories are lost, depriving future viewers of the full significance of the rich visual traditions of American Jews. “Their works are important in that they contribute to the centripetal action of Jewish survival rather than to the centrifugal action of cultural dispersal.” Specifically, Baigell groups Max Weber, Ben-Zion Dinur, and Hyman Bloom as immigrants born around 1900 who painted genre scenes of Hasidic men dancing or praying, studying Talmud, or holding the Torah. For these artists—who remembered the old world but lived uneasily in the new—the genre scenes became emblems of cultural identification and security while also connoting fears of a vanishing Orthodox past. “The world Bloom invokes in these portraits is not one of the quotidian, of daily activities in the Orthodox community, but rather of the loss of religious knowledge and the loss of memory of the ancient ways and customs. It is as if these men, the learned men of Bloom’s childhood whom he wants to memorialize, are vanishing before our eyes . . .”

Unlike the work of the genre painters, it is not easy to decipher the Jewish content of Mark Rothko’s enigmatic stacks of colored rectangles from the 1950s. Baigell nonetheless reads Rothko as a Jewish artist through his emphasis on memory and his conflation of a mythic past with contemporary experience, especially in paintings of Greek tragic figures such as Agamemnon; he argues that Rothko’s fascination with Greek tragedy is his oblique way of dealing with the Holocaust. In Barnett Newman, another influential mid-century abstract painter of the New York School, Baigell reads the signature “zip” paintings in which a “narrow stripe appears to be on the same plane in depth as the larger, but less intensely colored rectangular shapes” in the context of Lurianic Kabbalism. Kaballah, it turns out, has been important to several artists including the contemporary abstract painter and sculptor Tobi Kahn, as well as for the Lithuanian-born social-realist painter Ben Shahn. Baigell interprets Shahn’s inclusion of Hebrew letters in many of his pictures as “a meditation on the mystical qualities of letters” in The Zohar.

In dealing with art that contains obscure Hebrew texts, Baigell performs a scholarly service by unpacking the often elliptical meanings of Jewish iconography. Such is the case with his interpretation of Shahn’s “Allegory” (1948) as representing the hand of God about to smite Aaron, which Baigell reads as a Biblical parallel to the Holocaust. Baigell also associates artists such as Jack Levine and Abraham Rattner with the politically radical dimension of Judaism, saying their “art-making finds its roots in the prophetic hope for social betterment that has helped fuel Jewish religious concerns since biblical times.” As is typical of many of the artists under discussion, Rattner is interpreted as a socially conscious artist, but one who comments on contemporary events (the Holocaust, the newly founded state of Israel, atomic warfare) through Biblical parallels. Some of Rattner’s pictures recall the prophet Ezekiel, associated as he is with themes of destruction, resurrection, and redemption. In general, the Bible, understood as a living text subject to contemporary midrash, has replaced the nostalgic genre scenes of Eastern European Hasidic life found in early 20th-century painting as the contemporary Jewish artists’ preferred link to Jewish tradition.

Unlike the study of Jewish American literature, Baigell admits serious analysis of Jewish American art is still in its infancy. “In comparison to those who have written so copiously about Jewish American authors and cultural figures over the last several decades, art historians are light years behind.” Benefiting from his own correspondence with many of the artists under discussion, as well as from his knowledge of Jewish traditions and themes, Baigell here offers a fine study of how Jewish-American artists attempt to redeem history through memory, often in the face of losses that would be almost inconsolable without representation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007