Marrying I.B. Singer and Grandma Moses

At Work in the Chassidic Art Institute

By Robin Cembalest

Published October 05, 2010.
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Originally published in the Forward April 22, 1994.

It is early evening in Crown Heights, and children fresh from yeshiva trickle into a narrow storefront. They dump their books, fling off their coats and sprawl on the gray industrial carpeting. There they spend the next hour raptly contemplating a kitchen kettle. This is not some obscure Jewish ritual — though for the Chasidic world, it is pretty arcane stuff. They are learning how to create the illusion of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional sketch pad. “Kindele, who remembers shading?” coos a motherly woman perched on a folding chair. “Where is the light hitting it?”

Welcome to the Chassidic Art Institute, the only institution devoted to teaching, exhibiting and promoting Chasidic art. Located at 375 Kingston Ave. (just down the street from the International Messiah Center), CHAl holds classes, distributes art materials, sends mailings, publishes catalogs and organizes exhibitions. It houses seven shows each year in its gallery (open Sunday through Thursday from noon to 7 p.m.) and sends many others on the road.

“I doubt that another Chasidic group would do what we’re doing here,” says Zev Markowitz, the Russian-born director of the space. “Most would simply neglect art unless it’s very decorative. This is mostly Lubavitch. It’s a much more progressive movement.”

Still, the phrase “Chasidic Art” does seem a clear-cut contradiction in terms, given the fact that Chasidim tend to take the second commandment’s proscription against graven images very literally. But the Lubavitch believe that art is an expression of “inner” reality, not “physical” reality. “The Rebbe himself is a great admirer,” says Mr. Markowitz. “He says the artist, as any other human being, has a right to express himself. He has to go beyond the community to show his art. He has to grow.”

As Chaya Pellin, a local resident who once studied at the Arts Students League, talks the students through the art of still life — producing some remarkably accomplished results — Mr. Markowitz stands silently at his desk, reading a prayer book. Unlike most of the local businessmen along Kingston Avenue, he is clean-shaven, wearing conventional street clothes along with a yarmulke. The son of a Russian art collector, he studied art history at the University of Leningrad and immigrated here in 1977, the year of a Chasidic art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. It was so popular that a few months later, Mr. Markowitz, along with local artists and patrons, including Rabbi Elye Gross, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Dr. Barry Savits, director of surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn, and criminal lawyer Barry Slotnick, founded CHAI.

“I still promote it and tell friends and acquaintances about it,” says Mr. Slotnick, who owns “seven to 10” Chasidic paintings. “Every Jewish home should have at least one.”

The works CHAI sells range from $20 posters to $12,000 paintings. All proceeds go to the artists; CHAI’s annual budget of $50,000 comes from the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council as well as city and state arts agencies. CHAI will organize an exhibition for any congregation, “even if it’s Conservative,” Mr. Markowitz notes. To such venues he sends “strict Judaica” — scenes of Jewish life, sometimes with a touch of magical realism by artists like Zalman Kleiman, Raphael Eisenberg and Chenoch Hendel Lieberman.

Indeed there is no particular style to the work the institute shows. Much, it’s true, is folkloristic and somewhat primitivistic, a marriage of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Grandma Moses. There is a surfeit of red-cheeked rabbis dancing in celebrations, engaged in learned discussions, raising their voices in song — or, in the case of a luminous work by Mr. Kleiman, airborne in a horse-drawn cart on the journey from Chaslavitch to Lubavitch. The next show, running from May 2 to June 5, spotlights the work of Mary Forgaty, a Canadian artist who derives her imagery from research about lost shtetls and rabbinic dynasties.

But there is also the Arnerican Impressionism of Samual Rothbort and the more Abstract Expressionism of Alexander Rutsch, complete with drips and sweeping black brush strokes. Mel Alexenberg uses computers, fax machines and communications satellites to make paintings and prints that “deal with the curious relationship between the Torah’s term for fine art, MeLeHet MaHSheVeT, and the modern Hebrew term for computer angel, MaLaH MaHSheV,” according to the press release for his 1989 show at CHAI.

Chai’s purview is not limited to the Jewish arena — it wants to take its product to mainstream museums and galleries. “If not specifically Chasidic, you could draw attention to some very competent work,” says Aaron Berman, an art consultant who frequently works with CHAI and who sold Chasidic art from the back room of the 57th Street gallery he ran for 12 years. “Some of the contemporary art at the Jewish Museum is not as competent as that coming out of CHAl Art Institute.”

Recently CHAI has had particular success promoting the work of Russian- born painter Michael Gleizer, for whom it recently published a hard-cover, full-color catalog. Mr. Gleizer produced a sizable body of somber, painterly scenes of Jewish life — despite the long ban on such subject matter — before he immigrated here three years ago. Though he still paints Jewish scenes, much brighter and gayer now, he also is exploring more existential territory in a series of old men in-front of floating chess boards with titles like “Eclipse of Time.” Last year, with the help of Rep. Charles Schumer, CHAI placed a selection of Mr. Gleizer’s work in the Cannon Office House building. Last month he showed at the gallery in .Cardozo law school, part of Yeshiva University’s Brookdale Center downtown. Earlier this year he was among several CHAI artists who were included in an exhibition in the community gallery of Brooklyn Union Gas.

All of this proselytizing would probably still be taboo if it were not for the pioneering career of lieberman (1900-1976), who is believed to be the first Chasidic, professional artist. Lieberman, soon to be the subject of a book published by CHAI, was born in a Russian shtetl, showed at the major museums like London’s Tate Gallery m the ’50s and ended up in Crown Heights, where he became very close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. A letter Rabbi Schneerson wrote to him encouraging him m his art — which will be reprinted m the book — is considered the founding document of Chasidic art, the written evidence that painting can coexist with ‘piety.

“This is the brain of a man who went beyond the realm of talmudic thinking on a high cultural level,” says Mr. Berman, who is working on the book. “My grandfather was a grand rabbi. The very thought of art didn’t appeal to him. It’s true with many of these Chasidic sects. How many Chasidic Tabbis refer to art as a way of life?”

The Rebbe is in fact much more open-minded about art than most people would expect, it seems. “Five years after I began to collect Lieberman’s work he moved a chest of drawers away from his closet,” Mr. Berman recounts. “There was a treasure trove of some of the most erotic art I’ve ever seen.” Lieberman signed these works — but in places where the frame would cover his signature. “I had nine or 10,” says Mr. Berman. “I have only two left. They were sold from my gallery to Chasidim. If they were not Chasidim they were Orthodox.”

A newly wed Chasid, Mr. Berman says, bought a painting that was “a masklike image; the hands were covering the private parts.” Another was a “caricature of a lustful sailor aboard the Bremen. He had one prostitute on either side, his fingers are all over their bodies — one on the vulva, the other one on the breast” (“It’s all done from imagination,” Mr. Berman stresses.) There are other works: nude males and females dating back to the ’20s. When Mr. Berman saw this hidden trove, he says, he asked Lieberman: “By the way, did you show this to the Rebbe?” The artist’s reply was: “I show him everything.”

“This is the sort of thing that is absolutely not permitted,” says Mr. Berman. “Nude figures — absolutely not. But the evidence is here. And the Rebbe knew about it. So long as you didn’t put it in the CHAI art institute.”

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