Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 13, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Zaplin / Lampert Gallery. The essay, written in 2000, was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Ira Moskowitz: Works on Paper. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue please contact Zaplin / Lampert Gallery through either this phone number or website:



 

Ira Moskowitz: Works on Paper

by Robin West

 

... the drawings and lithographs by Ira Moskowitz are notable for an emotional response to the Indian life. He may be called a representational or realistic draftsman, but in my estimation this quality places his work in line with the great tradition of the past which produced the masters ...

John Sloan

 


THE UNSEEN TIES THAT CONNECT HUMAN BEINGS, the customs and traditions of everyday life, are what inspire Ira Moskowitz and infuse his work. Born in 1912, the son and grandson of rabbis, Ira's childhood was spent in a small, closeknit village in Poland. It was perhaps a nostalgic longing to return to the sheltering towns of his early youth that drew Moskowitz to the familiar, daily rituals of life wherever he traveled. His works on paper capture routines -- from Indian ceremonies in the Southwest, to the activity of village markets in Mexico, to the rites of Hasidic Jews in Israel.

Moskowitz's art is deceptively simple and unlabored. With strong technical skill, as well as a keen ability to empathize with his subjects, Moskowitz is able to recreate not only specific visual details, but also the mood of the scenes unfolding in his pictures. He imbues ordinary, everyday events with a freshness and spirit that makes them moving and new, as if seen for the first time. Viewers are carried away into these scenes. One is in the middle of the activity that Ira Moskowitz paints; one is not just an observer.

While memories of his youth in Eastern Europe would forever influence his work, Ira Moskowitz moved with his family to New York City in 1927, when he was just 15 years old. Ira initially spent his time on religious studies, but was anxious to pursue his more passionate interest in drawing. It was in New York, as a student of Harry Wickey and Jerome Meyers at the Art Students League ( 1928 -32), that Moskowitz honed his talents as an artist. He succeeded in selling a number of prints he produced during this period, and was thus able to afford to travel to Mexico and Israel in the mid-to-late 1930s. In Mexico, Ira was drawn to the traditions of the native peoples; in Israel, he was absorbed with the religious ceremonies of the Hasidic Jews. The prints and drawings Moskowitz created in Mexico in 1941 earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1943.

In 1944, after several prior trips to the area during which they had become friends with several of the Taos Founders, Ira and his wife, the artist Anna Barry moved to Taos, New Mexico. They would reside in the area on and off until 1955. Like many others, Moskowitz was entranced by New Mexico's light, landscapes, and cultures. By the time Ira arrived there, the region had already attracted Georgia O'Keeffe, Robert Henri, and Leon Gaspard; the Southwest was starting to be recognized as an art center. Moskowitz and his wife became acquainted with Oscar Berninghaus, Andrew Dasburg, Ernest Blumenschein, and Mabel Dodge Lujan, among others. Ira wrote of that time that "Our house was always open and we had scarcely a single meal without visitors dropping in."

Inspired by several accomplished printmakers, including Gene Kloss, Doel Reed, John Sloan, and Gustave Baumann, who were living in New Mexico during the same period, Moskowitz began to experiment with lithography, His prints, full of shadow and light, are made up of fine lines and vivid forms. One of the most powerful of these lithographs, Storm, Taos Valley (opposite), was awarded the First Purchase Prize by the Library of Congress in 1945. The image is strong and the scene is one of much movement; but, of course, while strongly felt, these attributes are mostly invisible. One can feel the beat of the rain and the force of the wind. The omnipresent bright light of the Southwest is there, yet so is the darkness of the threatening clouds. The viewer is easily transported into the scene; Moskowitz's mastery of evoking a mood, as opposed to a straightforward depiction of a scene, is clear in this drawing. Again, the image appears deceptively simple, the artist's technique unlabored.

The former Director of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art compared Moskowitz to both George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller for his ability to so accurately document local Indian cultures -- their daily routines and sacred ceremonies. An early series of drawings he completed on the American Indian were exhibited in 1944 at the Los Angeles County Museum's first show of drawings. In 1945, he received a contract to provide the illustrations for a book on the Indians of the Southwest. Over the next year or so, Ira completed more than 300 drawings of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples. His work from this period reflects a great compassion and esteem for the Native Americans. Indeed, John Sloan noted that Moskowitz "approaches the Indian not with curiosity, but with friendliness, respect, and awe." That respect was mutual; Ira was often invited by local Indian elders to take part in public ceremonies and private healing rituals.

Almost 50 years later, Moskowitz still fondly recalled his years in New Mexico as one of close interaction with the Indians of the area:

 

I often traveled to various ceremonials with pueblo Indian friends. I went on trips with John Concha [a Taos Indian Chief] where we stayed in tents or makeshift shelters. I once started out with several Indians from the Santo Domingo Pueblo to the Gallup ceremonials. We stayed there overnight and, in the morning, the women came out to sprinkle pollen, chanting and blessing our journey. In the car, we drove home, the men chanted most of the way. We became very attached to this magical life and to all of New Mexico. . .
 

The result of this bond is clear:

 

[Moskowitz's drawings of the Indians are] full of power and certitude. They depict their subjects and capture their spirit as has not been done before. They are communication, which is on aspect of true art.

-- OLIVER LAFARGE

 

The book of these drawings, first published as Patterns and Ceremonials of the Indians of the Southwest, with the text written by John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was published in 1949 to much acclaim. The lithographs from the volume were sold in New York and generated a lot of publicity. The New York Times and The Herald Tribune printed lengthy articles on the book.

In the mid 1950s, Moskowitz returned to New York City and began working in fine arts publishing. After editing a four-volume publication on the greatest drawings in the world's collections, a seven-year project published in 1962, Moskowitz began to spit his time between New York and Paris. In 1967, he settled again full time in New York City and continued his drawing. He often collaborated with Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrating his acclaimed books and fanciful tales about Eastern European Jewish life at the turn of the century.

Ira Moskowitz's body of work spans more than 70 years and covers a broad range of subjects, but its overriding themes of community and ritual remain constant. Moskowitz's insight into, and ability to convey, the common links that unite seemingly disparate individuals is striking. It is a talent that can form a connection between different generations, as well as diverse cultures. His art thus transcends both time and geographic boundaries. Moskowitz explained it best in 1990:

Reflecting on my work, I believe that its common denominator is our shared humanity. We all participate in the scheme of this unknowable universe. . . I have learned that the single most vital quality that makes a drawing great is just that one incomprehensible spirit one senses in it. . .

 

About the author

Robin West is a freelance arts writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
 


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