Art in the United States
American Jewish women have made major contributions to the art world as artists, photographers, gallery owners, museum curators, art critics, art historians, and collectors at least since the beginning of the twentieth century. Tracing the development of this group in previous centuries is difficult because biographical documentation concerning American women in the art world is scarce and the existing material rarely mentions religious origins. Since most of the artists involved do not deal with explicitly Jewish themes, and many changed their names or adopted their husbands’ names, deciding which American women artists are Jewish often involves guesswork. Whereas this poses a problem for the researcher, it also indicates to what extent these artists have integrated into the general fabric of American art and society.
The desire to become fully American, which characterizes all immigrant groups, is true of Jewish immigrants as well, and even more so of their children, who often felt ambivalent toward their parents’ foreign accents and customs. Jewish artists—many of whom were immigrants or descendants of immigrants—also experienced the complex dilemmas of acculturation. Their decisions as to whether or not to express their Jewish identity in their art often reflect or exacerbate inner conflicts related to their perception of their position in American society. An installation titled Postcolonial Kinderhood (1994) by Elaine Reichek (b. 1943) exposes the tensions inherent in assimilation and the burden of secrecy that it entails. Reichek, who grew up in an assimilated environment of German Jews who tried to espouse all things American, re-creates her childhood bedroom with all the props that composed its simulated American genealogy. Yet, within the traditional American trappings, messages that expose what had been repressed in a conspiracy of silence begin to surface: for example, the samplers and towels are embroidered with subversive stitches that spell out Reichek’s hidden identity—“JEW.”
The problems of exposure and repression discerned in Reichek’s installation preoccupy many American Jewish women artists. Mapping the oscillations between affirmation and denial of specific facets of their identity reveals a progression from denial to affirmation first of gender issues and only later of ethnic or religious components. The initial negation of particularistic aspects of identity through the use of a “universal” language of art, often consisting of neutral subject matter or an abstract style, was a strategy that allowed Jewish women to integrate into the dominantly male American art world. In a field known more for sexual bias than for religious discrimination, the crucial problem for most of these artists was gender rather than Judaism. From the beginning they demanded to be taken seriously as artists. Later, particularly since the 1970s, they emphasized the value of women’s experiences and created visual images to express them, while trying to deconstruct the predominantly male canon and to search for alternative narratives.
This development is reflected in the professional names Jewish women artists selected. For example, at the beginning of the century, Theresa Bernstein preserved her Jewish family name, but abbreviated Theresa to “T,” obscuring her female identity. This maneuver led to her receiving an invitation to join a group of highly regarded male artists, which was withdrawn as soon as they discovered she was a woman. The case of Lee Krasner (née Lena Kreisner) is more complex. She Americanized her name to Lenore Krassner in the 1920s because she had always felt that the synagogue discriminated against women. However, the purpose of the subsequent change in the 1930s from Lenore to Lee—a sexually neutral name—was to hide her identity as a woman. In contrast, in 1969 or 1970, Judy Gerowitz (née Cohen) changed her name to Judy Chicago, affirming her identity as an independent woman divested of “all names imposed upon her through male social dominance.”
In general, two major influences caused American Jewish women artists to reaffirm their Judaism. The first was the Nazi persecution of Jews and the Holocaust, which, from the late 1930s through the mid-1950s, led male and female artists to assert their Jewish identity through depictions of Jewish genre, biblical themes, and—rarely in the case of the women—scenes of slaughter and the camps. After this point, such expressions were rare until the 1970s, when they appeared in art either for personal reasons or as a result of commissions. Since then, the subject has become increasingly important, both among survivors, who begin to express their memories (e.g., Edith Altman, Alice Lok Kahane, Vera Klement, Kitty Klaidman, and Daisy Brand), and among children and grandchildren of survivors and refugees, who deal with their family histories (e.g., Mindy Weisel, Debby Teicholz, and Deborah Davidson).
The second influence that triggered a reaffirmation of Jewish identity in art relates to general cultural and social trends within American society. During the last decades, the concept of America as a melting pot was gradually replaced by visions of a multicultural society based on ethnic diversity, and the concept of a “universal” art reflecting a master-narrative was challenged by the belief in the necessity of pluralistic art forms that would express the multiple perspectives from which human experience may be viewed. Consequently, art dealing with ethnic and religious specificities became accepted as valid and significant. Following these trends, which postdate the interest in female identity, a growing number of artists began to explore their identities as Jews. These ideas have manifested themselves in exhibitions such as Memories of Childhood, so we’re not the Cleavers or the Brady Bunch (1994–1997) curated by Bernice Steinbaum, which expresses the diversity of American society by including American Jewish, African-American, Native American, Japanese-American and Chinese-American artists. A shift in the curatorial policies of New York’s Jewish Museum also reflects this “ethnic” trend. After years of promoting American avant-garde art, the museum mounted five major exhibitions that explore aspects of Jewish identity in modern art, two curated by men—Avram Kampf’s The Jewish Experience in Art of the Twentieth Century in 1975–1976 and Norman Kleeblatt’s Too Jewish? show in 1996—and three shows on contemporary American Jewish art curated by Susan Tumarkin Goodman in 1982, 1986 and 1993. Whereas the earliest of these exhibitions included only three American women, in the latest, after growing exposure in Goodman’s shows, over half the participants were women, clearly demonstrating the radical change that had taken place in the position of American Jewish women artists during the last two decades
The following discussion combines a chronological overview with a survey of some of the major Jewish women artists who have contributed to the visual arts in the United States.
At the beginning of the century, very few American Jewish women were professional artists. As their numbers slowly increased during World War I, many of them joined the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, founded in 1889, usually preserving their Jewish names and sometimes even stressing their religion. For instance, Louise Waterman Wise first exhibited under the name Mrs. Stephen S. Wise (an uncommon procedure in this group), to stress that her husband was a famous Reform rabbi. Others, such as Bernstein, served on juries in the 1920s, while Bena Frank Mayer later served on the board of directors. The New York Society of Women Artists, founded in 1925 as a more professional, avant-garde, and radically feminist group, included ever-increasing numbers of Jewish artists, several of whom were among its founders (e.g., Bernstein and Minna Harkavy) and leaders: Bena Frank Mayer was twice elected president and, from the 1940s on, Ethel Katz served as both president and honorary president.
This active role in the organization of feminist art activities continued in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, a decade of great upheaval and change. For example, Nancy Spero was one of the founders of WAR (Women Artists in Revolution) established in 1969 to pressure museums and galleries to show the work of women artists, and Brenda Miller was active in the 1970 ad hoc committee that demanded equal opportunity for women at the Whitney Museum’s annual exhibitions. In 1971, Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago established the first Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, and in 1972, Barbara Zucker and Dottie Attie were among the founding members of AIR (Artist in Residence), the first women’s cooperative gallery in New York. Jewish women also played an active role in numerous publications and feminist venues, as well as in feminist art scholarship. In fact, it was Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” of 1971 that launched the debate on women’s art and set the parameters of feminist art history.
These feminist groups were not, however, these artists’ only affiliations. Jewish women also participated in and exhibited with general artists’ groups and held solo shows. For instance, in the 1930s, Krasner, Ruth Gikow, and Lucienne Bloch were active in the Artists Union and painted murals for the WPA—a field considered a masculine domain. In the 1940s, Krasner and Perle Fine were active in the avant-garde Abstract American Artists group. In 1938, Harkavy was one of the founding members of the New York Sculptors Guild, which was run for many years by Dorothea Schwarz Greenbaum, who was also active in founding the Artists Equity Association in 1947. Gikow was a founding member of the National Silkscreen Society, and June Wayne founded and directed the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Parallel to the rise of the women’s movement in the late 1960s, the number of American Jewish women artists increased greatly, as did their contributions to contemporary American art.
Florine Stettheimer and Theresa Bernstein exemplify the diversity in origins and milieus that characterized American Jewish women artists in the early twentieth century. Stettheimer, born into a wealthy, assimilated New York German Jewish family that had been in the United States for generations, spent part of her childhood in Germany. Rejecting marriage on feminist grounds, she enrolled in the Art Students League in 1892 and traveled in Europe from 1898 to 1914, painting in an academic style. Back in New York during World War I and inspired in part by her recently developed hatred of Germany, in her late forties she changed her conservative “European” style to a neo-naive “American” style with strong Fauve colors and mannerist elongations, through which she depicted New York life and culture in a lightly satirical manner. Although proud to be a Jew, she did not express Judaism in her art, as there was little experience of it in her life.
Theresa Bernstein’s parents were from Vienna, but she was born and studied art in Philadelphia, exhibiting in New York galleries and at the National Academy of Design by 1913, and holding her first solo show in 1919. Her contact with Jewish circles and her adhesion to Zionism grew after her 1919 marriage to the artist William Meyerowitz (1898–1981). However, while he depicted Jewish themes and experimented with cubism, she concentrated on landscapes and scenes from American life painted in an Ashcan School style, using bright colors. She rarely painted Jewish subject matter.
The number of American Jewish women artists rose in the 1920s and 1930s, and their activities expanded from painting into sculpture. Many of them adhered to a naturalistic style and depicted the life around them. Like their male counterparts, but to a lesser degree, during the 1930s and 1940s they expressed political sentiments in their art, reacting to national and international events. Thus Anita Weschler’s stylized sculptures of this period express both her antiwar stance and her patriotism, while Berta Margoulies sculpted women and children tensely awaiting news following a mine disaster. Minna Harkavy (1895–1987), born in Estonia, also sculpted An American Miner’s Family in 1931, and reacted to the Holocaust in her 1939 statue of a sad mother and child, titled Lamentations, and in her later The Last Prayer. Rivka Angel (née Angelovitch), born in Russia in 1899, was so worried as to the fate of the family she had left behind that she used her naivist style to paint Hunger and Children Burning in a Fiery Furnace.
Ruth Gikow (1915–1982), who depicted subjects such as The Tenement Fire of 1939, is a good example of this socially conscious group. After marrying Jack Levine (b. 1915), she combined her roles as artist, wife and mother by having a studio at home, a solution she found frustrating. This combination of roles is expressed in a list she wrote on the back of an account of paintings she had sold: “Lanes [a clothing store]—Blouse / Bank—$20 / Finish Queen Esther [a major painting] / Defrost / Bread.” However, she also claimed: “Being married to Jack sharpened my sense of self. He is so well recognized . . . and so formidable as an artist that I had to find myself or get swallowed up.” After World War II, she followed his lead in turning increasingly to Jewish genre and biblical themes while continuing to comment on contemporary social issues. On the other hand, her softer style influenced his later works.
The art of Lucienne Bloch (b. 1909) also reflected her involvement with American social and racial issues. Her mural for the House of Detention for Women in New York City depicted mothers and children in an integrated playground. Other murals reflected the grim reality of the Depression years and conveyed her empathy for the poverty-stricken slum dwellers. Bloch rarely depicted Jewish themes, although she added a shofar to the musical instruments in one mural and collaborated with Eric Mendelsohn in decorating Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids. The humanistic, socially conscious understanding of Judaism as an ethical set of values that opposes discrimination and injustice, evidenced in the works of Gikow, Bloch, and others, continues to dominate the lives and work of many artists to this day.
On the other hand, in the course of their forty-year marriage, Sally Michel (b. 1905) and Milton Avery (1885–1965) developed a lyrical abstract modernism, mainly depicting landscape and family life. Throughout the Depression years, it was Michel who supported the family by drawing illustrations and caricatures for the New York Times and various magazines. She remained in her husband’s shadow, and only after his death was her collaborative role in creating the “Avery Style” acknowledged. Their daughter, March Avery (b. 1932), continues to paint in the family style.
From the 1930s on, a growing number of Jewish American women also played an increasingly important role as abstract artists, although they often felt discriminated against as women in this male-dominated movement. Several of them married artists who were major figures in their respective movements and had similar problems to those faced by Gikow and Michel (e.g., Lee Krasner—Jackson Pollock; Helen Frankenthaler—Robert Motherwell; Hedda Sterne—Saul Steinberg). A few use occasional Jewish or biblical themes in their work (e.g., Fine, Ethel Schwabacher, Janet Sobel); for others, such themes were relatively unimportant (e.g., Sterne, Eleanore Lockspeiser, and Judith Rothschild). Some received synagogue and other commissions from Jewish organizations (e.g., Frankenthaler and Sophia Adler), while others show hidden levels of Jewish or female identity in their works. Studying a few of these artists will clarify their development within abstract, Jewish, and feminist parameters.
Many of the early prominent abstract artists eschewed an overt identification with Judaism while working in supposedly “female” media or emphasizing “female” forms. In contrast, others, such as Lee Krasner (1908–1984) stated: “My painting is so biographical, if anyone can take the trouble to read it.” Remnants of her Orthodox upbringing as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants survive only in her habit of working from right to left as Hebrew is written, and in her fascination with foreign calligraphy, although she specifically chose Arabic rather than the Hebrew and Cyrillic alphabets of her childhood. While living with Pollock (1912–1956), she tried to preserve her own style, but adopted his all-over design, thick impasto, and—after his death—his swirling abstract expressionist forms. Her breakthrough work to her own style, Prophecy, painted in 1956 just before his death, was inspired by childhood nightmares. In her later works, she dealt with birth, death, and rebirth, expressed through “pregnant” forms, occasionally using New Testament titles, but no Jewish ones.
Some of the abstract artists who came to the fore in the 1950s and 1960s were more open to expressing their Jewish identity and less overt in stressing their femininity. Louise Nevelson, born Leah Beliawsky in Russia, suffered from antisemitism there and while growing up in Maine. Leaving her husband and son to devote herself to art in 1931, she exhibited at first at the New York Society of Women Artists, expressing memories of the shtetl world of her childhood in Forgotten Village of 1950. However, her approach to Judaism is perhaps best suggested in two semiabstract sculptures from c. 1948. In one, a light-colored woman with a five-point American or Russian star on her head is represented standing firmly, her breasts prominently displayed. In contrast, in the other work, a dark neuter figure, crowned with a six-point Star of David, sinks into the base like a lifeless corpse, with only its head protruding. Nevelson’s major works are compartmented abstract wood reliefs, which express a personal “universal” mythology. Her commissioned synagogue reliefs and Holocaust memorials also express only universal rhythms, as she claims that “religion, if you feel it, belongs to the world.”
The Jewish identity of Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928) was expressed in more positive ways. Her adolescence had been complicated by the death of her father in 1939 and by the effect of the Holocaust on her German-born mother. Frankenthaler’s major contribution was to color field painting: Mountains and Sea of 1952, in which the transparent paint seeps into the unprimed canvas, inspired Morris Louis’s veils, which she in turn developed after his death in 1962. Frankenthaler used Jewish motifs during periods of emotional crisis, such as that following the death of her mother in 1954. In 1955, she commemorated the tenth anniversary of the end of World War II with Holocaust. Following the Sinai campaign of 1956, she painted Mt. Sinai, whose dynamic forms suggest both the mount itself and the divine revelation that took place on it. These forms were echoed in Jacob’s Ladder, done in 1957, the year she met Motherwell (1915–1991), who used similar Jewish symbols in his synagogue decorations. When they were divorced in 1971, she returned to the Bible to express the break. The space separating the two long thin shapes in Lot’s Wife suggests her identification with the wife who, looking back, was left behind.
The major contribution of Eva Hesse to twentieth-century sculpture is related to her innovative use of unconventional materials, soft shapes and expressive forms that run counter to the austere formalism of minimalist sculpture. Born in Hamburg, Hesse was separated from her family at the age of two. Although the family later reunited and immigrated to New York, the horrors of the war years affected her mother, who became mentally ill and took her own life. Whereas Hesse’s proto-feminist works, such as Ishtar or Ringaround Arosie of 1965, express her identity as a woman, her elusive and enigmatic imagery may be connected to her early childhood experiences as a Jewish refugee. Hesse turned to sculpture and developed her mature style only after she had returned to Germany in the mid-1960s. Her attempts to structure and balance chaotic and collapsing forms, the rigidity of deceptively soft materials, and the fragility of the seemingly aggressive forms transmit a feeling of disorientation, threat, and insecurity, which may be analogous to the conflicting emotions and vulnerability she felt as a child.
Beverly Pepper (b. 1924, née Stoll) is best known for minimalist sculptures, which often draw their names from Greek myths and deal with universal themes. However, at the beginning of her career, in a commission for a John F. Kennedy memorial in Israel, she combined the burning bush, a menorah, and Hebrew letters. Later, she used neutral geometric shapes but occasionally referred to Judaism through her titles. Thus, in 1972–1975, her formalist series of tilted pyramids aroused associations with Egypt, which she evinced through biblical and transliterated Hebrew titles: Exodus, Pithom (a city built by Israelite slaves in Egypt), Pithom Revisited (inspired by Israeli forces in Egypt during the October 1973 war), Pisgah [summit] and the two-piece Perazim [gap or breakthrough]. In 1995, she again combined evocative forms and names: The sculpted broken walls and stele of her abstract Forms of Memory recall ruins and old Jewish tombstones. The use of Hebrew titles that sound cryptic to the general public was also adopted in the early 1970s by Lila Katzen (née Pell, 1926–1998) in Pasim [stripes] of 1972–1974, and by Rosemary Mayer (b. 1943) in her 1974 Bat Kol [a female voice, meaning both an echo and a voice stating the will of God].
The titles of the nonobjective compositions of Louise Fishman (b. 1939) began to reflect her Jewish identity in the 1980s: Had Gadya and Bitter Herb are associated with Passover, while Sanctum Sanctorum uses abstract imagery to express the equally abstract notion of the sacred. The somber Kaddish, painted in 1988 following her visit to Auschwitz and Terezin, expresses the artist’s mourning for the victims of the Holocaust. Fishman states that painting is for her an act of prayer and that the influence of Judaism on her work is profound.
Other abstract artists have only recently begun to explore their Jewish identity. Although Melissa Meyer (b. 1947) was a member of the feminist collective Heresies, and proudly identifies as an American Jewish woman, it is difficult to locate aspects related either to gender or religion in her abstract canvases. Lilith of 1993 is an exception. Created while the artist’s mother was ill, it reflects Meyer’s realization “of no longer being a child—being totally self-reliant furthered my identification with Lilith as a woman outside the ‘Garden.’” The red colors exude a vibrant energy: Lilith, Adam’s first wife who tempted Eve, according to the midrash, is presented as warm, sexual, and fertile, but also as threatening. The artist explains, “I am interested in women on their own—who are independent, courageous and forceful. I identify with her myth as a woman and as an artist.”
Harriet Feigenbaum (b. 1939) had also expressed neither feminism nor Judaism in her hay sculptures, which were inspired by haystacks she had seen in Italy. Her work developed into large environmental structures resembling primitive dwellings and later into reclamation art projects that reveal her commitment to ecological issues. In the late 1980s, a commission to construct a Holocaust memorial triggered Feigenbaum’s interest in her Jewish roots. Before this, she recalls, “I was just a secular, ethnic Jew.” Raised as an atheist, she felt deprived of cultural roots and had to research the meaning of being Jewish. In the end, the memorial she created for New York’s Appellate Courthouse honors all Holocaust victims—six million Jews and five million others. In the 1990s, Feigenbaum continues to express her identity as a Jew. A recent complex, multipart sculpture of fossilized stones, titled This is not a Ruin, it’s a Theater, evokes the desert environment of the ancient Middle East. Within this construction, she carved elements relating to Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, and contrasted the uncompromising positions of men in kaffiyehs and skullcaps with the veiled heads of fleeing women.
The sculptures of Barbara Zucker (b. 1940) display a wide array of images, such as “huts” that resemble prehistoric breast- or dome-shaped dwellings, geometric shapes based on Vermont architecture and whimsical fanlike forms. Zucker expressed her feminist stance in For Beauty’s Sake, a series of abstract sculptures that suggest the physical interventions to which women subject themselves in order to conform to society’s ideals of female beauty, such as shaving legs, straightening hair, and enlarging breasts. Here, as in many of her works, “Jewish humor” is an important ingredient. Like many Jewish women of her generation, Zucker repudiated organized religion at an early age, but later felt that she had “lost something precious.” Never reluctant to speak out on feminist or social issues, she recalls being ambivalent and embarrassed at being Jewish, yet felt guilty for harboring such emotions. In the 1980s, she began to explore her Jewish identity. For example, the series Decoys for the Spirit (1985—1987) alludes to the cherubim and seraphim described in Exodus. A Collection of Opinions, exhibited in 1989, was inspired by the bat mitzvah of the daughter of close friends and consists of seven sculptures based on the objects in the Tabernacle described in the Bible. The affinity she felt with these Jewish ritual “sculptures”—known only through textual descriptions—enabled Zucker to find a new approach to Judaism.
In like manner, following her son’s bar mitzvah, a rereading of the book of Genesis, and a trip to Israel, Ann Sperry produced her own version of the biblical story of creation. Her strong sculptures made of industrial steel were transformed into shapes that evoke the power of cosmic creation.
Unlike Feigenbaum, Zucker, and Sperry, who at some point in their artistic and personal development consciously turned to Jewish subject matter without abandoning their other concerns, many other abstract artists, while viewing themselves culturally as Jewish women, do not deal with feminist or Jewish issues in their art. For example, the environmental sculptures of Elyn Zimmerman (b. 1945) reveal her awareness of ecological issues and the spirituality of specific sites, rather than Jewish sources. The minimalist and conceptual work of Brenda Miller (b. 1941) also does not address issues of gender or religion. Since her immigrant parents were eager to prove their loyalty to their new country, their “Jewish legacy” to their daughter was one of political and socialist involvement that she later translated into left-wing political activity rather than into art. Sylvia Netzer (b. 1944) also aspired above all to be an American, and tried to distance herself from her immigrant parents’ “foreign” milieu. Only recently did she realize that the sense of insecurity and threat expressed in her installations may be related to her early internalization of her parents’ anxieties concerning their families caught in the Holocaust.
Parallel to the development of these abstract artists, numerous painters and sculptors continued to create figurative art, receiving new impetus from the mid-1950s on. Mary Frank, the daughter of abstract painter Eleanore Lockspeiser (1900–1986), returned to figurative art, especially to the human form, as her major vehicle for expression. In her drawings, prints, and clay sculptures, she creates a poetics of fragility and sorrow that reflects the tragic beauty of the life cycle. Like Hesse, Frank experienced a tormented childhood as a Jew in Europe during the war years, enduring immigration, separation, and ultimate estrangement from her father. Her early marriage to Robert Frank, the rootlessness of their family life, and the tragic death of both her children imbued her with a sense of mourning, loneliness, and profound pain. She sublimated these emotions into clay sculptures that depict fragmented human figures that merge with nature, their limbs metamorphosing into branches and leaves, evoking a sense of decomposition tinged with hope. Although drawing from her personal experiences, works such as Piet and Persephone express a mother’s mourning and despair in universal terms. Several recurring images in Frank’s oeuvre relate to her experiences as a Jew. A mid-1980s series of diptychs, The Cart, juxtaposes two separate images: a concentration camp inmate and a cart loaded with cadavers. Looking at the artist’s earlier work with this series in mind, one is struck by how closely many of her frail figures seem related to Holocaust imagery. In another series, The Barque, the figures that embark on a journey across the sea, leaving others behind, evoke an archetypal voyage to the underworld. On another level, they seem to reflect Frank’s early experiences of immigration and rootlessness. Moreover, in her monumental Horse and Rider of 1982, the broken and tormented body of the rider recalls the charred bodies of war victims, while the double-headed Apocalyptic horse merges Rousseau’s War with medieval visions of death to express a post-Holocaust version of horror.
The clay sculptures of Grace Bakst Wapner also reflect her concern with universal themes. The archetypal figures in her Dyads series, reminiscent of prehistoric art, seem to be involved in the timeless drama of human relationships. The biblical scenes included in this series stress interdependence between women and men, Jews and non-Jews. For example, Ruth and Naomi stresses the friendship and loyalty between women of all creeds. Several works related to Abraham evoke the primal conflicts among sacrifice, faith, and paternal love. In a recent work, Wapner joined the contemporary movement by American women to redefine Jewish rituals so as to foster equality between the sexes. Inspired by a feminist seder, she created Elijah and Miriam cups, which complement each other like yin and yang. Their texture and shape evoke the ancient pottery of the Middle East, thus combining biblical roots with contemporary American Jewish culture.
Universal concepts pertaining to human relationships and interdependence are also expressed in the paintings of Selina Trieff (b. 1934). Trieff paints herself in various guises, identifying as male and female, human and animal, mythical and biblical creatures, who embark on existential journeys, in search of meaning. Only in hindsight, years after she painted her gallery of Self-as-Other figures, did the artist realize that they were “eternal wanderers,” related to the experience of the Jewish people.
Audrey Flack (b. 1931) turned from abstraction to the figure in the 1950s to explore her identity as a woman and artist. In the 1960s, she painted the “unimportant” but strong American women she admired as opposed to powerful men such as Hitler and Rockefeller, who determined the fate of the world. Her photorealist paintings of the 1970s express different facets of her life: She identified as an artist with the Spanish Baroque sculptor Luisa Ignacia Roldan, as the mother of an autistic child with the weeping Madonna, as a fragile woman with Marilyn Monroe, and as a Jew with the victims of the Holocaust. Following an illness, she turned to mysticism, framing Christian and Hindu images with Jewish ones in A Course of Miracles of 1983: On the “west” side, a photograph of Albert Einstein and a European Jewish candlestick flank a statue of Christ; on the “east” side, an Old Testament with a Bezalel-style silver cover stands beside a photograph of Baba, a Hindu philanthropist. This interdenominational, multicultural imagery is also found in her sculptures in which she returns to strong women, creating feminist idols that affirm women’s healing and inspiring powers.
Flack’s concern with female divinity was earlier explored by other women artists, some of whom were Jewish. The centrality of this theme during the 1970s is reflected in the dedication of the Spring 1978 issue of the feminist journal Heresies to the Great Goddess, with the lead article by Gloria Feman Orenstein, “The Reemergence of The Archetype of the Great Goddess in Art by Contemporary Women.” In numerous photographs, performances, and ceremonies created from the early 1970s on, Mary Beth Edelson reformulated archaic rituals based on a feminist quest for spirituality. The artist’s search for a spiritual matrilineage was complemented by a parallel quest for human role models. Her 1971 poster offers a humorous and biting revision of Leonardo’s Last Supper in which living American women artists replace Leonardo’s all-male cast of Christ and the apostles. Sixty-seven other women artists frame this iconic image to make it a powerful political statement combating the discrimination against women in the art world and rebutting the assertion that there are no great women artists. At the same time that Edelson re-created Leonardo’s masterpiece, Dottie Attie (née Laibow, b. 1938) was applying a related revisionist strategy vis-à-vis the neoclassical paintings of Ingres and other masterpieces of Western art. By focusing on fragments of these works and attaching various texts to the visual images, Attie offered innovative interpretations of the well-known masterpieces, exposing erotic, violent, and taboo aspects that are often the hidden subtext of canonical works.
Parallel to these feminist activities in New York, in Los Angeles Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago collaborated with their students to create art that expressed women’s lives from a new perspective, exploring taboo issues such as vaginal imagery, menstruation, and lesbianism. Womanhouse, an avant-garde site installation, is an example of their use of collaborative projects to challenge the accepted notion of the individual artist-genius that had been used to explain the dearth of great women artists. Aiming to bestow significance on women’s experiences and to give value to women’s chosen art forms, they defied the hierarchic distinction between high art and crafts, launching the pattern and decoration movement.
Schapiro continues to explore these ideas, integrating fans, kimonos, quilts, and lacy aprons into her art, thus evoking its connection to her artistic foremothers. Her Collaboration Series states her indebtedness to women of the past by celebrating the works of artists such as Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and the Russian avant-garde women of the early part of the century. While Schapiro’s feminism plays a major role in her art, and her American identity surfaces in her frequent use of the quilt, her Jewish identity is rarely discernible. The few exceptions are her synagogue stained glass windows of The Four Matriarchs, and two autobiographical quilts, each of which includes a menorah. Her complex relationship with Judaism is evinced by her contribution to an exhibition about childhood memories. Rather than address her own biography, Schapiro invented an alter ego, Alexandra, a child artist who celebrates Hanukkah and installs a shrine for Anne Frank in her bedroom/studio.
Another leading innovator in the pattern and decoration movement is Joyce Kozloff (b. 1942), whose many public projects reflect her environmental and social concerns. Eschewing conventional hierarchies imposed by Western art, Kozloff often bases her works on the decorative arts of non-European cultures. A recent project deals with city maps: In her feminist map of Paris, the city streets are renamed after famous French women. In Naming II of 1996—her first overtly Jewish work—the streets of New York City are renamed after Jewish women.
The collaborative trend that Schapiro and Chicago advocated found its most elaborate expression in projects initiated by Chicago. The Dinner Party, completed in 1979, included a triangular dinner table set for thirty-nine illustrious women of the past, who were each given a sculpted place setting and embroidered runners and napkins that documented her achievements and significance. In addition, the names of 999 women “swallowed up by history” were inscribed on the floor where this ceremonial meal took place. Chicago’s Birth Project (1980–1985) consisted of eighty-five embroidered, quilted, crocheted, and woven parts produced by volunteers to celebrate the personal and archetypal creative powers of women. In the late 1980s, Chicago rediscovered her Jewish identity. In her Holocaust Project (1993), she associates the Holocaust with other atrocities and injustices, placing Jewish victims alongside Gypsies, African Americans, Native Americans, and lesbians.
This tendency to incorporate images from the Holocaust within a broader political framework had antecedents in the work of artists such as Joan Snyder, Nancy Spero, and Ida Applebroog (née Horowitz, b. 1929). These artists continued and developed the political involvement and social commitment displayed by their counterparts during the 1930s and 1940s.
Although she began as an abstract expressionist, Joan Snyder (b. 1940) forcefully expressed both her Jewish identity and her political and feminist concerns in her art. Works such as Resurrection of 1977 deal with women as victims of violence, rape, and murder, while others, such as Boy in Afganistan and Boy in Africa, protest the suffering of helpless children in underprivileged third world countries. From her early Grandma Cohen’s Funeral Painting of 1964 to Morning Requiem with Kaddish of 1987—1988, Snyder referred openly to her Jewish background. Women in Camps of 1988 reflects the artist’s compassion for women and children as well as her awareness of her Jewish roots. The work juxtaposes photographs of Jewish concentration camp inmates with those of Palestinian women in refugee camps. Underlining this visual analogy is a text that is integrated into the composition: “women with babies, bags, grandmas wearing babushkas and scarves and yellow stars . . . the moon shone in Germany, the moon shone in Palestine and men are still seeking final solutions.”
Nancy Spero (b. 1926) has been politically active both as a radical feminist artist and as a militant American antiwar activist. Although she incorporated references to the Holocaust such as swastikas, Stars of David, and images of crematoria into her anti-Vietnam War Series (1966–1970), her identity as a Jew was relegated to the background. In the 1990s, she overtly confronted the problem of Jewish victimization in her installations of The Ballad of Marie Sanders, the Jew’s Whore, based on a 1934 ballad by Bertolt Brecht about a German woman tortured for having sexual relations with a Jew. In these works, Brecht’s text is accompanied by an image of a naked, gagged-and-bound woman based on a photograph discovered in the pocket of a Gestapo officer, and related to Spero’s earlier series The Torture of Women. To this she appended other photographic images of Jewish women, such as those who fought in the Warsaw ghetto and Israeli women of the peace movement, as well as quotations from the poetry of Nelly Sachs and Irena Klepfisz.
Another artist who protested against the Vietnam War was Nancy Grossman (b. 1940), whose 1976 Gunman became an icon of the dehumanizing effects of male aggression. Like Spero’s, Grossman’s work exposes the abusive and oppressive nature of power. Yet, while Spero’s work is usually directed against specific political events, Grossman’s sculptures are generalized statements, pertaining to the nether aspects of the human condition. Her powerful leather figures display a violent dialectic between oppression and aggression, which stems from deep-seated emotions that may be traced to her formative childhood experiences. Grossman’s family life was dominated by repressed antisemitism and xenophobia, and constant conflict between two oppositional systems of belief: Her father was a religious Jew, her mother a Catholic who converted to Judaism. Grossman herself received a religious Jewish education within the fold of her mother’s Catholic family. Her constant struggle to define her identity, coupled with her persistent sense of being forever an outsider, clearly informs her art. Moreover, her use of sewing, zippers, leather, and other materials related to the clothing industry may also be seen as a reaction to the family garment business in which she was obliged to work from an early age. Hence, in contrast to Schapiro’s and Chicago’s celebration of women’s crafts, Grossman’s use of sewing materials has an oppressive quality.
Susan Rothenberg (b. 1945) also expresses this general sense of violence and angst in her art, but does so through images of horses, which she began to paint in 1974 after the birth of her daughter. Toward the end of that decade, parallel to the breakup of her marriage, her horses became more and more tormented: She merged animal and human elements together and painted agonized heads and fragmented bodies. After undergoing psychotherapy in 1983, Rothenberg began to depict her family and memories of her childhood, exposing her Jewish identity only in an occasional title, such as Papa Cohen.
One of the major themes explored by women artists in the last decades has been the female body. Since the female nude was seen as the major vehicle by which male artists transformed women into sex objects, women artists were eager to reclaim it and assert their position as subjects rather than objects. Thus, the nudes of Joan Semmel (b. 1932) completely alter the accepted perspective through which the female body is traditionally viewed. Semmel painted her own body “from the object’s eye”—the vantage point from which one sees one’s own body. Her depictions of heterosexual sex posit equality between men and women, while her latest paintings of the aging female body critique the age discrimination that characterizes American culture.
Nancy Fried, who contributed a lesbian dwelling to the Womanhouse project, began to explore her body image following a serious illness. Her powerful terra-cotta Self-Portraits, created after a breast and her ovaries were removed, reject the norms of ideal beauty imposed by society on the female body. Fried uses her own experience of the fragility of her body and her fear of death to explore a wide range of human emotions related to loss, death, and mourning.
Toward the end of her life, literally on her deathbed, Hannah Wilke (née Arlene Hannah Butter) explored similar terrain in her art. Wilke’s work developed over the years as an exploration of the female body—usually her own: its beauty and scars, its status as an object, its fragility and final demise. She began with a series of photographs and performances, Starification Object Series S.O.S. of 1974–1975, in which her body was exposed as an object of desire but also “scarred” with pieces of chewing gum shaped in vaginal forms. Wilke explained one aspect of these scars as reminders that “as a Jew, during the war, I would have been branded and buried had I not been born in America.” A series of colorful chocolate figurines of her own nude body titled Venus Pareve (1985) offers Wilke’s humorous view of her identity as a Jewish female. In a 1984 installation, titled Support, Foundation, Comfort, Wilke used nude photographs of herself and her mother, who was dying of breast cancer, to explore their close mother-daughter bond, the mortality of the human body, and Jewish mourning rituals. The artist’s final series, ironically titled Intra-Venus, is based on a painful documentation of her own bouts with cancer, the unsuccessful medical interventions, and her fatal physical deterioration. It is a bold and unflinching view—full of black humor—of the female body that failed, and of the human spirit that never lost the desire to live, to understand, and to create.
The sublimation of bodily injury into art that is manifest in Wilke and Fried is also found in the art of Susan Weil (b. 1930). As a child, she was badly burned in a boat explosion that claimed her brother’s life. Left with scars and a limp, she created fragmented images, which she distanced from herself through her media and ostensible subject matter. In the early 1950s, she collaborated with her first husband, Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), on evocative images created by exposing blueprint paper covered by parts of the body to the sun. Later, she explored the dynamics of motor control through images of walking and jumping in which one leg is darkened, and explored a sense of physical balance by setting cutout figures parallel, at angles, and perpendicular to a wall, an idea she developed in performances in which dancers walked on the walls. In the 1970s, she worked with sea horizons and skies whose shapes remain unchanged whether painted on taut, slack, or partially crumpled materials. These works both affirm the stability of the world despite cataclysms, and show that the “body,” whole or damaged, reflects the same basic truths. This reading is reinforced by a series in which hands emerge from crumpled materials, which thus evoke injured body images.
In addition to Wilke and Weil, many Jewish women—among them Eleanor Antin (née Fineman), Rachel Rosenthal (b. 1926), and Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939)—made significant contributions to the genre of performance art, often relying on biographical material and sometimes exposing aspects of their Jewish background.
While experimenting with found objects, such as boots set in different narrative configurations, Eleanor Antin began to explore her identity as a woman and to critique the social construction of the feminine. Her 1972 Carving: A Traditional Sculpture is composed of 148 nude photographs of the artist at different stages of dieting, literally molding her body to conform to society’s ideals, while in her videotape Representational Act she puts on makeup, reshaping her face. In other works from the 1970s, Antin re-created herself with the aid of costumes into a range of other personae, male and female. Only in the 1980s did she begin to explore her Jewish identity, reviving Yiddish theatrical representations of the shtetl with the aid of film.
Like Antin’s Carving and Wilke’s use of gum and chocolate, many of Rachel Rosenthal’s performances deal with food, specifically stressing abnormal food intake. Rosenthal’s obsessive approach to food relates not only to the female body but also to her well-to-do childhood in Europe before World War II. Two other performances deal with her feeling of guilt for having escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe in 1940. In My Brazil of 1979, she invented two alter egos who remained in Europe during the war, one of whom became active in the resistance while the other remained in hiding. In Leave Her in Naxos of 1981, she shaved her head to resemble both a collaborator and a Jewish concentration camp inmate.
Among the younger generation of performance, video, and multimedia artists who explore the female body, the work of Dorit Cypis stands out. Born in Israel in 1951, she arrived in the United States as a child. She renders the female body as a fragmented and re-created entity, an evolving site composed of memories and emotions.
Several of the artists discussed above used their art and their own bodies to protest against the objectification of women in American society. The work of Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) uses different methods to expose the insidious way American media images control our minds, reinforce racism and misogyny, and mold the concept of “self” as a stereotypical gendered body. Using techniques that emulate commercial graphics, Kruger deconstructs the invisible structures that shape the hierarchies and accepted “truths” of American consumer society. Dara Birnbaum (b. 1946) uses video images related to commercial television to uncover hidden power structures in a similar way. Her work warns us of the possibility that everything we do is influenced by the powerful forces of the media. Sherrie Levine (b. 1947) appropriates the works of other artists, undermining concepts such as “originality” and “authenticity” in a way that questions the basic premises upon which modern art and culture are founded..
The recent works of Deborah Kass (b. 1952), Beverly Naidus (b. 1953), Rhonda Lieberman (b. 1960), Ilene Segalove (b. 1950), and Nurit Newman (b. 1962), shown together at the Too Jewish? exhibition of 1996, also react against the media-oriented, superficial consumer society that America has become, yet they do so from a specifically Jewish vantage point. They deal with the stereotypical Jewish nose, the Jewish American Princess who is also an obsessive shopper, and the definitive Jewish female hero produced by popular culture, Barbra Streisand. In these works, the unattainable desire to conform to the American female ideal, epitomized by the shapely, blond Barbie doll, evokes a sense of conflict, frustration, and pain, articulated with the aid of a “Jewish” brand of ironic, self-effacing humor.
Being an American Jewish woman means different things to different people and manifests itself in diverse ways in the lives and work of individual artists. Theoretically, since art is an expression of self, facets of one’s personal identity are necessarily invested in artworks. At times, aspects of an artist’s American and/or female and/or Jewish identity may be clearly discerned in her work. In other cases, however, these cannot be easily traced either by the viewer or by the artist herself. Since American Jewish women artists are not a homogeneous group, their art defies categorization in stylistic, thematic, or any other terms. Yet, whether or not they choose to express American, Jewish, or female aspects of their identity, and regardless of how they decide to do so, numerous Jewish women artists have been making continuous and significant contributions to the visual arts in America.
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