"TOO JEWISH?" AND
"EXILES AND EMIGRES

by Nancy Kay Turner

 

[This is an awkward note, but we think it's necessary to point out that this text-only article is the result of the remarkable coincidence that two of our important museums, lacking an explicit policy on copyright and the Web, have asked us not to run images. Yes, we think the caution on their part is much TOO cautious, and, yes, it bugs us to run Nancy Turner's fine article with no visual references. But, yes, we are cooperating. These are the first and only institutions we have thus far encountered to have asked this of us. And we certainly hope they will attend to this policy-setting soon. It shouldn't be very difficult--we say that Web copyright protection fears are groundless. Anyone wishing to discuss this can e-mail or call us. This isn't the place to go into it. There are two important exhibitions to discuss!--Ed.]

"You deny what is Jewish in you, and that is too, too Jewish!"
Fritz Lohner, Israeliten und andere Antisemiten, pp. 32-33

(UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art, West Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood) In 1989, Norman L. Kleeblatt, Curator of Fine Arts at the Jewish Museum, went to Archie Rand's studio in Brooklyn to look at fifty-four paintings dealing with the Hebrew Bible. The artist stated that he felt that no one would exhibit his work because it was "too Jewish" in its subject matter and vulgar style.

Undeniably attracted and repelled by the power of these images, Kleeblatt realized his own discomfort was due to his feeling that the work was indeed "too Jewish", even for the Jewish Museum.

The irony of this situation and its ramifications started Kleeblatt on a two-year inner and outer exploration of the concept of otherness in the Jewish community, and led him to discover how contemporary artists were dealing with their cultural identity.

In "Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities", Kleebatt has gathered the work of twenty-three artists, including Ken Apetkar, Kenneth Goldsmith, Archie Rand, Dennis Kardon, Ilene Segalove and Art Spiegelman among others, whose work includes paintings, comics, drawings, installation, videos, sculpture, assemblage and mixed-media.

These Jewish artists, much like the German Jews during Hitler's time, are assimilated, often non-observant Jews who are marginalized already just by being artists, or women, or gay.

However, it is safe to say that fifty years after the Holocaust, and living in a country where there are finally popular Jewish identified characters on tele- vision (Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld and Dr. Joel Fleischman in Northern Exposure), the atmosphere is right for Jews to begin to exhume nasty and embarrassing stereotypes and to begin to appropriate some of these images in order to deflate their power.

Conceptual artist Ken Aptekar takes on the widespread practice by Jews of changing their looks and their names to eliminate all outer signs of Jewishness. In the tersely titled Albert. Used to be Abraham, Aptekar appropriates a Dutch portrait from the seventeenth century over which he places text that calls the sitter's identity into question in a pointed, but gently amusing manner.

Lover's Quarrel is Dennis Kardon's double self-portrait of himself as a "regular" American dude, as signified by his baseball cap, who is literally attached (albeit by a painfully visible scar) to his Jewish, yarmulke-wearing self. With this dual image, Kardon successfully illustrates the poignancy of trying to wear two sometimes mutually exclusive "hats" in American society.

Another artist, Kenneth Goldsmith, who experienced anti-Semitism while growing up in a New York suburb, uses images of famous Americans who seem to be conflicted about their Jewishness. Bob Dylan, born Bob Zimmerman, is an example of this. Not only did Dylan change his name, he also apparently underwent a Christian transformation in the seventies and then later returned to his Jewish roots.

In Goldsmith's mixed-media collage on paper Bob Dylan, a photo of the singer is placed over a background of Hebrew writing placed upside down, rendering it even more obscure than it already is. Pictures of other counterculture superstars of the radical sixties, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg, coexist with text in a parody of one of Bob Dylan's own videos. In politics, literature and music, Goldsmith seems to be saying proudly that these brash "Jews" made a significant contribution to modern culture.

Though not all the work is equally compelling, this is still a rewarding show, which thoughtfully and often humorously explores the complexities of stereotypes, self-loathing, and the steep price of assimilation. The exhibition catalogue stands on its own merits as a dense and fascinating 187-page book that includes among others, essays by art historian Linda Nochlin, art theorist Rhonda Lieberman and even a piece by playwright Tony Kushner.

At the same time, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is showing "Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler", a sequel to its successful and moving Degenerate Art exhibit. This show focuses on a particular time frame, but also explores, albeit in a more intellectual manner than the "Too Jewish?" exhibition, some of the same issues -- political and religious intolerance, relationships between the dominant culture and new immigrants and issues of identity.

Unlike the "Too Jewish?" exhibit, most of the exiles and emigres are household names--Josef Albers, Max Beckmann, Marcel Breur, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Walter Gropius, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Vasily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, and Kurt Schwitters to name a few.

The grand sweep of the exhibition is demonstrated by its vast historical scope as it tracks these artists from London, Paris and Amsterdam (1933-45), as they escape to the United States. Through historical photographs, films, and documents, the viewer is introduced to immigration policy (still pertinent today) and other trials of the newly arrived and those wishing to emigrate. How the art world received and helped these famous figures is shown along with their immense importance as teachers in American institutions such as Harvard and Yale.

Accompanying this handsome and extensive exhibit is an epic tome of a catalogue--450 pages of essays, and texts on each of the twenty-three artists included in the show. As we continue to absorb political refugees from repressive regimes, it is important to be reminded, by a stunning tour de force show such as this, of the enormous contribution these new exiles and emigres will make to our cultural life.