New York Jewish Artists: Celebrating 100 Years Of Creative Influence

New York Jewish Artists

Sy Colen Artist and writer explores the seminal roots of the New York School and beyond, uncovering many leading artists, who happened to be Jewish.

At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was the center of advanced art. Artists from across Europe and America headed for this caldron of creativity.  Among the most talented Jewish arrivals were Chaim Soutine from Belarus ; Marc Chagall a Russian; Jules Pascin, a Bulgarian; an Italian, Amadeo Modigliani; and an American, Max Weber.

Max Weber (1881-1961), born in Bialystock, arrived in Brooklyn with his family when he was ten.  He returned to Europe as an art student in 1905, and took full advantage of the opportunities that Paris offered: he befriended the great, naïf painter, Henri Rousseau; studied art with Henri Matisse; and attended gatherings at the salon of Gertrude Stein, on whose walls hung a major collection of modern art. Weber was mesmerized by Cubism.

In 1910, shortly after Weber returned to the United States , he was given a show at the pioneering gallery of Alfred Steiglitz.  The public, however, was still not ready for modern art. Unable to sell his work at that time, Weber became a teacher at The Art Students League in New York City and advocated modernism and cubism, qualities that are reflected in his own paintings and sculptures.   Later in his career, he also portrayed Jewish subjects, like Hassidim in the ecstasy of prayer and dance. In 1934 he painted “The Talmudists,” which was hung at Jewish Theological Seminary.

During World War I the pioneering modernist, Marcel Duchamp spent time in the States.  His painting, “Nude Descending the Stairs,” shown at the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913 earned him immediate notoriety.  When this elegant, reserved, aristocratic European met Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890-1976) – 5 foot 3 and a half inches; ebullient; humorous; and artistically inventive – a lasting friendship was formed.  The artistic radicalism of Duchamp, three years his senior, inspired the American to explore art at the very edges of its frontiers.  Radnitzky yearned to distance himself from his Jewish identity and his family.  His father’s job as a sewing machine operator in a sweatshop made him feel ashamed.  He changed his name to Man Ray, a perfect avant-garde moniker for a modern artist with a future, but no past.

Man Ray’s struggle to distance himself from his past surfaced in a 1920 sculpture consisting of a sewing machine carefully wrapped in a blanket and tied securely by a strong rope.  On one side he attached a small sign: “Do not disturb,” written in three languages.  Fortunately, this desperate need to sever the familial umbilical cord, a theme that haunted him, also inspired Ray to create glorious pieces of radical art.

In July 1921, Man Ray headed for Paris . He was welcomed by Duchamp, who speedily brought him to Café Certa to meet the Dada circle.   Even without a grasp of the French language, Man Ray still impressed the group.

Later in the year, before the opening of his first show in Paris, Man Ray was absorbed by a simple tailor’s iron.  He attached fourteen nails in a line to its flat side and created an icon of modern art.  He had transformed the iron into a spiked weapon.

Kiki of Montparnasse, shapely and volatile, became Man Ray’s favorite photographic model and his lover.  Kiki is the subject of some of his most revered photographs.  In “Blanche et Noir” (1926), her face lies flat on a table and a black African mask stands upright, balanced by Kiki’s hand.  The image is unforgettable – simple, powerful and poetic.  But Kiki was not a passive partner.  During a quarrel, Kiki, who knew his vulnerabilities, attacked him as a “filthy Jew.” Escape from his past was a Sisyphean challenge.

Man Ray’s innovations and achievements in the arts – photography, painting and sculpture – earned him an international reputation and honors.  His achievements in photography contributed to its evolution into an art form.                         .

In 1940, as Nazi armies advanced, Man Ray returned to the States along with a distinguished cohort of European artists. Their presence acted as a stimulus, a challenge, and an inspiration to American artists who were coming to maturation and leading the charge into abstract art.  It was the success of the Abstract Expressionists – Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning – that led to New York becoming the center of the art world.  Three Jewish abstract artists were part of this elite group – Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko.  They were considered, along with Clifford Still, the spiritual wing of the movement.  All four were determined to express the sublime in their art.

Mark Rothko (1902-1970), was born in Latvia .  His father, distanced from traditional Judaism, nevertheless decided that one of his children should learn Torah.  Mark was chosen to enter a Cheder.  Three was the typical age for a male child to begin his formal religious studies.  Mark spent seven years in the Cheder before the family moved to America.  He studied Jewish texts for long hours each day.

It was the normative design of a page of Jewish religious literature that directly influenced the composition of this great painter’s mature art.  Study a printed page of Torah: the biblical text in one block occupies perhaps a third of the page, and would, considering its primacy, be printed in bold and large lettering.  Other texts, those of the classical commentaries on the Bible, appear in other rectangular blocks of space written in small letters.  Rothko’s mature style copies this basic design.  However, he replaces the blocks of text with colors and he tried to make these blocks of color as sublime and numinous as the words of the Torah.  Rothko’s signature style, achieved in 1949, is as Jewish as Chagall’s, even though Chagall portrays shtetl scenes, while Rothko’s offered abstractions.

Sadly, Rothko suffered from depression and as it deepened in the late 1950’s, the brilliant colors of his palette – oranges, yellows, reds, blues, and purples – began to darken.  By 1964 dark colors dominate; and by 1970, the year he committed suicide, light had vanished from his paintings.

Barnett Newman (1905-1970), a New York native whose parents had immigrated from Lomza, Poland, had the good fortune to have the renowned art critic Thomas Hess praise his mature art and its Jewish iconography.  Hess leafed through books in Newman’s library until he discovered the key to Newman’s inspiration in the Book of Genesis and in the volumes of mystical Jewish literature.   He found underlined passages and handwritten notes that revealed ideas that influenced Newman’s “Zip” paintings.  The Zip was a line or lines of color that divided a field of color.

Newman opined that his first Zip painting, “Onement,” ushered in his mature art phase and was a watershed moment in his life.  The title, Onement, was an abbreviated version of “(at)onement.”   Among his other works inspired by Jewish ideas are “Genesis,”  “Primordial Light,” “ Day One,” and “Abraham.”

His large painting “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (1950-51) and his 25 foot high sculpture, “Broken Obelisk” (1963-67), are frequently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974), returning from Europe after studying museum collections and gallery shows, settled into the lifestyle of a professional artist.  His level of sophistication and his artistic ambitions impressed his younger friend Barnett Newman and other neophytes.  Newman and Gottlieb first met at the Art Students League.  In 1931 he introduced Newman to Milton Avery and Mark Rothko.  They would meet at Avery’s home to study his powerful and original work. That the lessons were not lost becomes clear when one compares the mature work of these three artists with Avery’s.

Gottlieb viewed his art as the expression of his subconscious. Throughout the 1940’s, Gottlieb’s signature style was the pictograph.  He divided each canvas into boxes and painted a simple form in each box – the outline of a body feature or a purely decorative element. In the 1950’s, a new style emerged.  In  “Blast II” (1957) a flaming red circle floats in an expanse of white and below the circle is a black amorphous shape.

Gottlieb is credited with initiating the historic protest by New York artists against the Metropolitan Museum for consistently selecting conservative judges for its modern art competitions. Gottlieb drafted a strong statement of protest that was signed by 28 leading artists. All agreed not to enter the competition.  On May 22, 1950, the letter made the front page of the New York Times.  Life covered the story.  Its group photograph of “the Irascibles,” as they were dubbed, added to the uproar.  The successful protest educated the public, turned the spotlight on the artists of the New York School and put pressure on the Met to change its attitude toward advanced art.  Gottlieb had proved his mettle as artist and social activist.

Philip Guston (Goldstein) (1913-1980) became a highly respected member of the Abstract Expressionist cohort.  During the 1960’s he began to find abstraction too confining, and by 1970 was ready to assert his personal and artistic freedom.   At the time he was 57, not an easy age to begin anew.

But Guston came from a family that faced the obstacles and challenges of starting life anew.  His family left Odessa and immigrated to Montreal in 1913.  In 1920 they pursued their dreams in Los Angeles.  Guston’s father could not attain a position in his trade, and was forced to work as a junkman.  His failures led to his suicide.  It was ten-year old Philip, the youngest of seven, who discovered his father’s body hanging in a shed.

A closet in the crowded living space, illuminated by a single, bare light bulb, became Guston’s sanctuary.  There he made comic drawings.  His mother recognized his talent and encouraged his art.   At Manual Arts High School, Guston met Jackson Pollock and they became friends.  One charismatic teacher introduced them to modern European art.  Both left school before their graduation. Pollock later headed for New York City and in 1935, at his urging, Guston followed him.

Guston’s early work is realistic.  Mexican mural painting, with which he had some working experience, inspired him, and social realism was a natural philosophical base.   The subjects of several of his paintings in this genre are of Klu Klux Klan members – intimidating, armed, hooded and violent.  Ultimately, the fervor and commitment of the Abstract Expressionists with whom he associated, as well as the excitement of their art, captivated Guston and in the post-War years he produced abstract work that that was elegant and lyrical.

When Guston showed his new work in 1970, the critics and the artists were dumfounded and angry.  Peter Schjedahl, an esteemed critic, hated the work and called it “raucous figuration,”  (Wilson, 227).  His new style of painting was a mix of absurd and comic realism.  It was as if a paintbrush instead of a pen had been handed to Samuel Beckett at the point when he was ready to start working on “Waiting for Godot.”  Guston filled his paintings with crudely painted objects and people – mostly parts of people.  The work was filled with round heads with one eye, ridiculous looking hooded figures, and series of legs as thin as pipes; naked light bulbs, piles of shoes, and cigarettes and butts.

The hooded Klu Klux Klan figures no longer intimidate; they are defanged.  Guston implied that they represent the artist. In one of his later works, the hooded figure is painting a self-portrait.  Did he perceive the KKK as a neutered movement?  What about the stacks of shoes or pipelike legs?   Do they relate to victims of the Holocaust?  Do the assorted objects refer to the junk his father collected in the streets of Los Angeles, probably feeling humiliated as he called out, “alte zachen, alte zachen”?

Anyone walking the streets of New York City could find in the garbage many of the mundane objects seen in Guston’s paintings.

Unlike Guston, however, the august and proud Louise Nevelson behaved more like Guston’s father.  She scavenged the piles of detritus, but solely for the wood.  Nevelson (1899-1988) was born Louise Berliatsky in Kiev, Ukraine .  Her father, who owned a thriving lumber business, brought the family to Rockport, Maine in 1905 and successfully established the same business. Louise always wanted to be an artist. To accomplish this goal she knew she would have to leave Maine.  In 1920 she accepted a proposal of marriage.  The Nevelsons settled in a suburb of New York City and two years later Louise gave birth to a son, Myron.

Nevelson never adapted to life as a suburban housewife.  She took courses, studied art and drama, endured emotional crises and felt unfulfilled.  When her husband’s business suffered reverses, the Nevelsons moved to Brooklyn.  Finally Louise realized that to become a serious artist she had to abdicate her roles as wife and mother.  In 1931, she left her husband, placed her son in her parents’ care, and headed for Munich, Germany .  She studied painting with the renowned teacher Hans Hoffman and always remembered that on her way to class each day she passed the home of Adolf Hitler.

Upon her return to the States, Nevelson settled in New York City, established a studio, and began her routine of foraging for wooden remnants: boards of all proportions and qualities; turned wood that had served as the legs of tables, desks and beds; carved pieces; curved arms of chairs; even toilet seats.  She would then build a series of shallow boxes of the same size.  In each box she would arrange and rearrange a group of remnants until she was satisfied with the composition.  When all the boxes for the sculpture were completed, Nevelson painted them all black. If her plan was to create a sculpture with 18 boxes, she would perceive it as having three stacks of six boxes each.  Many of these works are masterpieces.

Later in her career, Nevelson became more flexible. She might attach wood remnants to a beam 6 or 7 feet long and develop a three-dimensional sculpture that stood upright.  She also created assemblages without the box. She created two important pieces that paid “Homage to the Six Million.”

Unlike Nevelson, Mark di Suvero (1933- ) yearned to work in steel.  Finances forced him to start his career “on the cheap,” which meant finding wood for sculptures.   He scavenged for beams of considerable girth, the type found at demolition sites, so heavy that he had to drag them through the street.  His studio was in the East Village – half way round the world from his birthplace – Shanghai , China , where his father, a Jew from Venice and a former ship captain, represented the government of Italy .

Abstract Expressionist art became di Suvero’s primary source of inspiration. In place of the spare, bold, aggressive slashes of black paint that Franz Kline brushed on his canvas, di Suvero used thick beams of wood to build complex sculptures.  A work might also have a chair or a tire hanging at the end of a beam.  In 1960, di Suvero was crushed in an elevator accident.  It was three years before he could walk again.  During that period he began welding metal.  The time came when he was prepared to use steel construction girders as the primary building block for his sculptures.  This meant he could work big.   “Yes for Lady Day,” of 1966-1969, measures 54 feet x 40 feet x 35 feet. It is perhaps not surprising that his sculptures evoke a sense of awe and monumentality.  It is surprising that these large works of great originality also radiate a sense of elegance, grace and enchantment.   One powerful wood and steel sculpture, 22 feet x 30 feet, is titled “Praise for Elohim Adonai,” (Praise for the God of Our Fathers).

Di Suvero led a campaign that resulted in the establishment of Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, on the shores of the East River .  It is an outdoor site that invites younger, emerging sculptors to show their work.

An extensive collection of his major pieces are located at Storm King Art Center , near Newburgh , NY . To see 10 of his major steel sculptures spread out across acres provides a unique experience.

If one drives south from Storm King Art Center, it is possible to enter the Bronx and pass the neighborhood where George Segal’s father had his kosher butcher store. He gave it up to buy a chicken farm near South Brunswick, NJ , an area and an occupation which attracted a number of Jewish Socialists and Zionists from the greater New York area.

Segal grew up on this chicken farm.  He began his art career as a painter, but painting left him unfulfilled.  His friend Allan Kaprow found himself in a similar quandary.  The two aspiring artists discussed alternatives to Abstract Expressionism and struggled to find niches in art that would satisfy them. For Kaprow the breakthrough came in the form of staged events he called “Happenings.”  Robert Hughes describes it as a variant of performance art.   Segal’s path led him to sculpture of the human figure.  He progressed to placing these figures within specific, familiar settings.  The method of sculpture was unusual.  Segal would wrap the body of friends or family members in a cloth strip soaked in plaster, while that person struck a desired pose.  Once the plaster was hard, like a doctor removing a cast, Segal would saw through the plaster and remove it.  He would then reattach the pieces.  Later in his career he would cast the plaster in bronze, with a patina that had the same color and surface of the original.

Segal’s environments capture a familiar scene, a moment in time.   Yet they are timeless creations.  In 1965, Segal’s father died and six months later the son created “The Butcher Shop,” an installation in which the viewer sees a sign, “KOSHER MEAT,” printed in Hebrew.  There is a stainless steel bar with a series of hooks.  A dead goose hangs from one hook and a hacksaw from another.  In the background is the butcher, holding a cleaver in one hand and a chicken in the other. The scene is affecting.  The objects are authentic whereas the butcher and the poultry are white apparitions.

One Segal sculpture stands on permanent display in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC.  Three travelers form a line by a door through which we assume they will pass to board a bus.  Segal has poignantly captured their unease, exhaustion and resolve.

When looking at photographs of Eva Hesse (1933-1970), one is struck by her eternal youth, as if she were caught in a time warp.  Reading her biography removes such illusions. There are no photos of her aging because she died of cancer at the age of 34.  Although her art career was brief and her life tragic, her work is memorable and continues to influence the work of contemporary artists.

Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany .  In 1938, the family fled and settled in New York City.  Her sensitive mother, haunted by the upheavals in her life and the horrors of Nazism, took her own life in 1945.     Eva received her B.A. from Yale in 1959.   Her early drawings were abstract.  A series of ink drawings done in 1964 foreshadowed her use of tubes, wires, and ropes connected or emerging from other forms in her sculptures.   By 1965, her major work was in sculpture.  There are many sausage-like forms attached to each other with strips of surgical hose, as seen in the work “Ingeminate.”  The sculpture “Hangup”  (1966) is a challenging and puzzling piece. It consists of two basic forms: an empty picture frame has its four sides wrapped in cloth and cord and is hanging on a wall.  A steel rod emerges from the top slat near the right end, sweeps down and away from the frame, and reaches the floor several feet from the wall, at which point it loops and stretches back toward the wall, entering the bottom slat of the frame near the left end.

The artist Richard Serra saw a photo of the piece, and was so impressed that he called Hesse , and they met for the first time.  Hesse went on to create wondrous works of art with such materials as latex, fiberglass, polyethelene, wire, and plaster.  She used repetition of forms – whether circles or squares – with hanging wires and tubes.   Like many other sculptors, she needed to employ fabricators to deal with these materials and transform her drawings into sculptures.  It is interesting that the Arko workshop that Hesse used was staffed by men who were all Holocaust survivors, with numbers tattooed on their arms.  Though Hesse left no hint that her work is related to the Holocaust, entering a room filled with her sculpture is to enter an eerie, haunted space permeated by tragic memories.

Standing in front of a sculpture by Hesse ’s friend Richard Serra (1939- ) evokes a sense of awe, a rush of adrenaline, and a thrill.  Like di Suvero, Serra loves to work in steel and to work big.  Instead of the construction beam, Serra’s large creations use sheets of steel – 15 feet wide and 2 inches thick.  Only massive, highly specialized machinery can shape Serra’s creations.  They are frequently curved and sometimes circular.  There is only one entrance into the center of the circular pieces, which Serra refers to as torqued ellipses.   Being in close quarters with Serra’s monumental sculptures leads one to feel both security and danger.  The thick, high steel walls are fortress-like.  They offer protection.  They also overwhelm and intimidate.  What if they should fall is a question that strikes fear in the viewer.   Withal these ambivalent feelings, they are magnificent works of art.

Serra has also created a series of smaller sculptures made with pieces of steel that lean against each other.   Delicate balance ensures their stability.  Or he wedges a large sheet of steel in the corner of a room.  The precarious positions of heavy objects provide marvelous arrangements that produce anxiety and awe.

Who is this man who offers us steel fortresses for protection and for intimidation?  Who creates objects in such equipoise that one hopes he never exhibits his work in a region beset by earthquakes?  His own words provide us with insights.  While struggling to create a piece of sculpture for a synagogue in Germany, Serra recalled that at age five he asked his mother, Gladys Feinberg, “’What are we?  Who are we?  Where are we from?’  One day she answered me.  ‘If I tell you, you must promise never to tell anyone, never.  We are Jewish.’”   Serra comments:  “I was raised in fear, in deceit, in embarrassment, in denial.  I was told not to admit who I was, not to admit what I was” (van Voolen, 2006, 167).

Serra created the sculpture “Gravity” for the US Holocaust Museum.   A statement he made about it has relevance for all of the artists presented in this essay:  “We face the fear of unbearable weight…the weight of history” (van Voolen, 167).

This text has been republished from the original which appeared in the Encyclopedia of Popular Jewish-American Culture, Jack Fischel editor, Publisher: ABC-Clio/Greenwood with the permission of the author Sy Colen.

Photo: L to R Mark Rothko, Man Ray, Philip Guston


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