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My America: Art from The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955

March 26 - July 25, 2004


As one of its special exhibitions during the centennial year, The Jewish Museum will present My America: Art from The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955, from March 26 through July 25, 2004. The exhibition focuses on the crucial years of 1900-1955, a period of great social and artistic activity during which Jewish artists played a major role in shaping the direction of America art. My America explores the eclectic styles and subjects of American art during this time, and includes over 70 works -- paintings, sculpture, photographs, and works on paper -- by 46 artists such as Theresa Bernstein, Ilse Bing, Albert Bloch, Adolph Gottlieb, Jacques Lipchitz, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Elie Nadelman, Arnold Newman, Larry Rivers, Ben Shahn, Aaron Siskind, Raphael Soyer, Alfred Stieglitz, Max Weber, and Weegee.

Artists represented in the show were born in the United States or immigrated here. Some traveled and made art abroad, later introducing European avant-garde styles to America. For much of the first half of the 20th century, Jewish artists became involved with social and intellectual change - political, humanitarian, artistic, and religious. Many artists used the aesthetic innovations of modernism to break away from their specific cultural and religious backgrounds or, alternately, to embrace their religious traditions. Some made art that confronted established ideas oj American society, art, culture, and history. (right: Elie Nadelman, Dancer, ca. 1920-22, cherrywood. The Jewish Museum: Given in memory of Muriel Rand by her husband William Rand, 1992-37. © Estate of Elie Nadelman. Photo by Richard Goodbody)

My America: Art from The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955, is divided into five thematic sections which reflect the variety of styles and ideas that contributed to the development of American Modernism. The first section, "Becoming American" considers the impact of modern life and modem art on Jewish American artists. Some of the earliest established artists -- including Max Weber and Alfred Stieglitz -- spent time abroad as part of their artistic education, and were credited with introducing avant-garde European styles to the United States. Max Weber's painting Sabbath, 1919, links a modern Cubist vocabulary with a traditional Jewish theme, exemplifying the uniquely American freedom to make artwork based on individual experiences.

"Striving for Social Justice" focuses on artwork made in the Depression era, a time when artists fervently believed that art could bring about social change. In the 1930s American artists formed activist groups that rallied for the rights of unemployed artists, drew attention to the civil rights struggles of African-Americans, and fought against rising Fascism in Europe. Depression-era artists attempted to communicate the social turmoil of a country in difficult times by depicting the hardships of daily life in both urban and rural America. The paintings and photographs of Ben Shalm draw attention to the plight of the American working class. In East Side Soap Box (Study for Jersey Homesteads Mural), 1936, a labor organizer at a New York rally suggests the importance of unionization in improving working conditions in the United States.

"Picturing Ourselves," the third section of the exhibition, is devQted to portraiture. Portraits, once primarily commissioned works for wealthy patrons, became a means of self-expression in modern art. Freed from the constraints of sitters' demands, artists portrayed their friends, family members, people they admired or observed, and themselves while experimenting with new styles and ideas. Theresa Bernstein's Self-Portrait, 1914, with its bright colors and heavy brushstrokes, exemplifies the expressive potential of the self-portrait, while Seated Couple, 1954, by Raphael Soyer, conveys intimacy and psychological tension between the painter and his subjects. Elie Nadelman's sculpture Dancer, c. 1920-22, inspired by a photograph of a vaudeville dancer, draws on classical European sculpture and American folk art traditions.

"Reacting to Tragedy" addresses American artists' varied reactions to the chaos and devastation caused by World War II. During the war years artists' work often dealt with the Holocaust, either directly or indirectly, and expressed a broad range of seemingly contradictory themes: anger and death, mockery and satire, as well as regeneration and transformation. In this section the tragedy implicit in Jacques Lipchitz's sculpture The Sacrifice, 1949-57, a metaphorical interpretation of ritual sacrifice, contrasts with Albert Bloch's March of the Clowns, 1941, a satiric painting that anticipates Hitler's defeat with a celebratory parade of jesters and cartoon characters. (right: Theresa Bernstein, Self-Portrait, 1914, oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum: Gift of Girard Jackson. © William and Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz Foundation)

The fifth and final section reflects the renewed hope inherent in American abstraction of the 1950s. The devastation and destruction of World War II left many artists disillusioned with art's failure to solve social and political problems. Some felt that figuration was no longer a valid form of expression. For many artists, abstraction was the key to the exploration of individual and spiritual concerns. By mid-century Abstract Expressionism had become the preeminent form of modem art, championed by artists and critics alike, who responded to its universal themes. Marcella and Joe Went Walking, 1950, by Morris Louis, includes an abstracted Jacob's ladder painted with Miro-inspired lines over saturated color that anticipates Louis's signature stain paintings. Painters such as Louis and his contemporaries Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell offered a spiritual aesthetic that was at once modern and distinctly American.

The exhibition was organized by Karen Levitov, Assistant Curator at The Jewish Museum.

Also on display through April 11, 2004, is the first of its special exhibitions during the centennial year, an extraordinary group of more than eighty vintage prints by Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990), a photographer who began her career in the cultural ferment of 1920s Berlin and, after spending two decades in New York City, concluded it in her adopted home of New Hampshire.

Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi includes startlingly candid, penetrating portraits of figures from all periods of the artist's life: Lotte Lenya, Peter Lorre, Käthe Kollwitz, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, J.D. Salinger, Berenice Abbott, Paul Robeson, and Marc Chagall, among others. Also included are important documentary photographs (of subjects such as theatrical productions in Weimar Berlin and scenes of 1930s Soviet Russia and Central Asia) and Jacobi's innovative "photogenics," abstract pictures made in the darkroom without a camera.

Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi has been organized by the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, an institution with which the artist had a long association. After being shown at The Jewish Museum in New York City, the exhibition will travel to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (June 18 - September 5, 2004).

Born in 1896 in the Prussian town of Thorn (now part of Poland) into a Jewish family of professional photographers, Jacobi became one of the Weimar era's outstanding women artists. She fled the Nazi regime in 1935, leaving behind most of her archive. From 1935 to 1955 she lived in New York City, where she photographed prominent émigrés and American intellectuals, sometimes working as a photojournalist (for publications such as The New York Times ). She moved to Deering, New Hampshire, in 1955, where she remained active through the 1980s.


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