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My America: Art from The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955
January 27 - May 7, 2006
(above: Theresa Bernstein, Self-Portrait, 1914, oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum: Gift of Girard Jackson. © William and Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz Foundation)
My America: Art from The Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955, was organized by The Jewish Museum (New York, N.Y.) as one of its special exhibitions during its centennial year in 2004, and it will be on view at the Columbia Museum of Art from January 27 through May 7, 2006. 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 American 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. (right: Ben Shahn, New York, 1947, tempera on paper mounted on panel, 36 x 48 inches (91.4 x 121.9 cm). The Jewish Museum; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Oscar and Regina Gruss Charitable and Educational Foundation, 1996-23. © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y. Photo ©The Jewish Museum. Photo by John Parnell)
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 of American society, art, culture, and history.
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 modern 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. (left: Ben Shahn, New York City (Merchant, Bleecker Street), 1932-1935, gelatin-silver print; sheet and image: 6 x 9 1/8 inches (15.2 x 23.2 cm). The Jewish Museum: Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund, 2002-33. © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo ©The Jewish Museum. Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc.)
The second section, "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 Shahn 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 devoted 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. (right: Raphael Soyer, Seated Couple, 1954, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches The Jewish Museum: Gift of Mathew and Roslyn Besdine, JM 99-76. © Estate of Raphael Soyer. Courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York.)
"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.
The fifth and final section, "Moving Towards Abstraction," 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 modern 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, curator at The Jewish Museum.
About The Jewish Museum
The Jewish Museum was established on January 20, 1904, when Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated 26 ceremonial art objects to The Jewish Theological Seminary of America as the core of a museum collection. Today, The Jewish Museum maintains an important collection of 28,000 objects -- paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, archeological artifacts, ceremonial objects, and broadcast media. Its distinguished exhibitions, public programs and educational activities have been acclaimed internationally for inspiring people of all backgrounds. (left: Raphael Soyer, Dancing Lesson, 1926, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches (60.9 x 50.8 cm). The Jewish Museum: Promised gift of the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation. © Estate of Raphael Soyer. Courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York. Photo ©The Jewish Museum. Photo by Jonathan Morris-Ebbs)
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