Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art, Edited by Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd

By Belz, Carl | Shofar, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art, Edited by Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd


Belz, Carl, Shofar


New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001. 301 pp., 95 black and white illustrations. $35.00.

In writing my doctoral thesis on Man Ray in the early 1960s, I focused my attention on his relationship to Dada and Surrealism via descriptions of his stylistic contributions to those movements. My approach was in keeping with the way art history was widely practiced at the time, which was essentially formalist, a methodology derived from modernist art that entailed treating art objects as more than less autonomous entities requiring individual interpretations of their "meaning" but little in the way of contextualization beyond their visual relationships to one another. Accordingly, it never occurred to me to probe Man Ray's biography for clues to the meaning of his work, as Milly Heyd does in her essay, "Man Ray/Emmanuel Radnitsky: Who Is Behind The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse?," in which she impressively demonstrates how, in this (a sewing machine wrapped in a blanket) and other works, the artist shamefully sought to conceal "the self-image that he associated with his Jewish family's sweatshop experience." From this "new art history," Man Ray's art, like Man Ray's identity, emerges as more complex -- and more problematic -- than I had once supposed.

Fifteen essays, all but five of them previously unpublished, comprise this scholarly, Israeli-American study of Jewish consciousness and modern art. No effort is made to isolate specific Jewish characteristics in art -- there's no search for a "Jewish style." Rather, as the introduction states, "By Jewish art, the coeditors mean an art created by Jewish artists in which one can find some aspect of the Jewish experience, whether religious, cultural, social, or personal." Thus, as Milly Heyd finds the Jewish experience in Man Ray, so Donald Kuspit and Avigdor Poseq independently find it in Chaim Soutine, Harriet Senie finds it in Richard Serra, and Gannit Ankori finds it in Hannah Wilke -- in each case convincingly, thereby demonstrating anew how modernism engages the world obliquely, for no explicit Jewish subjects appear in any of these artists' works.

Those subjects and the experiences associated with them are in fact the concern of the majority of these essays, which embrace a wide range of artists from both the mainstream and the margins of today's art historical discourse, from contemporary figures such as Morris Louis ("Sacred Signs and Symbols in Morris Louis: The Charred Journal Series, 1951," by Mira Goldfarb Berkowitz), Chantel Akerman ("Graven Images on Video? …

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