Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art

Article excerpt

Edited by Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001. xvii + 301 pp.

The intersection of visual expression and Jewish experience has long been fraught with ambiguity and confounded by the most basic attempts to define its parameters. Such questions as "what is Jewish art?" or "who is a Jewish artist?" address thorny issues of the role of art in a religion that is traditionally thought to eschew graven images or any figurative representation. In the past, studies of Jews in the plastic arts were frequently attempts to catalog and "claim" as many artists as possible who were born of Jewish parents. Now, however, contemporary studies of Jews and the visual arts are often part of a more sophisticated dissection of Jewish and minority group identity that increasingly cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It is in this interdisciplinary spirit, one which takes Jewishness as its unifying theme, that Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd's important volume has been produced.

Baigell and Heyd, two of the most accomplished scholars in the field of Jewish art history, have set ambitious goals for their collection. Heyd, a faculty member at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, brings a number of Israeli scholars to the enterprise in addition to her own expertise in modern and modern Jewish art. (1) Baigell, a long-time member of the Rutgers University art history department, who pioneered much of the research about socially conscious American Jewish artists, has enlisted a wide-ranging group of American scholars. In addition to expanding the body of factual knowledge about Jewish artists, the editors and their coauthors ask probing questions about the relationship between personal history and visual representation. They record the search by secular Jewish artists to find meaning in religious texts, the relationship between Jewishness and universalist social agendas, and the importance of both the Holocaust and gender in interpreting a host of personal experiences, from R. B. Kitaj's eternal sense of "Diasporism" to Hannah Wilke's terminal cancer.

The book's value in highlighting these areas is one of its chief drawbacks as well; its effort to offer a taste of several different art historical approaches, eras, and geographical centers often lends it the character of a textbook, rather than a cohesive work whose contributions are bound together by common threads of inquiry and discovery. Its format flows loosely from an initial group of essays on Jewish identity, art, and history, to post-modern art installations. Some of the earlier essays, by Norman L. Kleeblatt, Elisheva Revel-Neher, and Ziva Amishai-Maisels, are among the most valuable in the book, providing historical background and laying grounds of inquiry for the articles that follow.

Although there are several essays that feature Israeli artists, and there is a fair representation of European (and occasionally Latin American) Jewish artists, most of the artists discussed in the book are American--from the elusive Dadaist Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitsky) and the muralist Ben Shahn, to members of the heavily Jewish, left-wing John Reed Club Art School that receives mention in two articles. In this sense, the "complex identities" explored in the book are often those of Jews who have lived most or all of their lives in the United States. In many of these artists' life stories we can sample from a smorgasbord of experiences that contributed to American Jewish culture--from the environment of the shtetl to the trauma of the pogroms, from the immigrants' memorable overseas journeys, to the gritty, tubercular cauldron of the sweatshops. The articles also reflect echoes of political radicalism and the effects of both assimilation and the Holocaust on the Jewish psyche. …