It used to be thought that the Second Commandment’s prohibition on making images meant there could not be a Jewish visual art. In his 1966 essay “Is There a Jewish Art?” art critic Harold Rosenberg grappled with the very question posed by his title. He didn’t think there was, because he didn’t think there was a single Jewish style. Yet he found, as Margaret Olin writes in “The Nation Without Art,” an “Old Testament provenance” for a Jewish found art, writing in his essay that “the idea that if you inhabit a sacred world you find art rather than make it is clearly present in the Old Testament.” Forty-five years later, the new exhibit at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “Reading the Visual / Visualizing the Text,” the inaugural exhibition of the JTS Arts Advisory Board, shows the tremendous creative potential in a Jewish art that finds art rather than makes it.
In “Reading the Visual/Visualizing the Text,” five featured artists have been given the opportunity to do just what Rosenberg described: to find art within the sacred worlds of both Jewish tradition and throughout the JTS building itself. For the exhibit, each artist paired his or her own pre-existing or newly created work with something from within JTS’s treasure trove of manuscripts and photo archives.
When you enter the JTS building, you see on a screen suspended from the ceiling the video installation “Between the Lines,” by media artist Ben Rubin, whose LED light sculpture “Beacon” (2010) permanently illuminates the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
For JTS, Rubin has abstracted the patterns of each page of the more than 5,000 pages of the Babylonian Talmud into geometric shapes that constantly morph and change on a screen.
To see these constantly moving patterns fluidly and endlessly changing shape and color but adhering to the Talmudic form of a central text with discussion flowing around it evokes in a striking visual way the dynamic debate and discussion that is at the heart of the Talmud.
Rubin’s inability to read Hebrew allowed him to get at the essence of the Talmud through this visual language. The artist’s approach reminds me of Margaret Olin’s analysis of Martin Buber’s retelling of a Hasidic tale in which a boy is supposed to be supposed to be studying texts, but gets distracted. The boy glances away from the letters, which are depicted in visual terms, allowing him to see the landscape as if it were a painting. Rubin’s work, like this tale, show “two modes of visual perception,” the intertwining of reading and looking.
Artist Danielle Durchslag took her inspiration from photos she found in the JTS photo archive. In her series, “Relative Unknowns,” Durchslag takes hundreds of tiny pieces of paper, folding, crumpling, collaging and layering them to re-create photographs of “relative unknowns” in her own family.
Here she has interwoven her photo reconstructions on the wall with reprinted photos of unidentified figures she selected from the JTS photo archive. Those she has mounted on vintage board and treated to make them look like old photos.