Art historian Samantha Baskind, author of, among others, “Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art” and the Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists, now tackles thorny problems of identity and representation in her latest book. “Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America” asks why several modern American Jewish artists were inspired by biblical themes when their goyish contemporaries dismissed such imagery as “outmoded.” Their use of such imagery could involve complex, multilayered metaphors, and even included humor, yet always expressed a highly serious inner essence.
Baskind notes that even artists noted for irony and satire, such as Jack Levine and Larry Rivers (born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg), produced ardent visual interpretations of the Tanakh. The former artist set out to paint a tribute to his late father in “Planning Solomon’s Temple,” depicting his father as Shlomo and himself as Hiram, both labeled with Hebrew inscriptions above their figures. Unlike Levine’s usual oozingly curvaceous figure drawing, a style suited to his oft-decadent subject matter, the two figures are depicted on a single plane, in an archaic visual statement echoing Christian-inspired works by the fauvist painter Georges Rouault. Whereas Levine’s Hiram is generally seen as the royal architect and king of Tyre, who sent building materials and laborers to construct the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, Baskind plausibly argues that Levine may have painted himself as a different biblical Hiram, an artist who was the son of a Tyrian who cast bronze and made decorations for Solomon’s Temple.
Levine followed this iconographical nicety with many other Tanakh illustrations as a complement to more celebrated canvases such as “The Feast of Pure Reason,” a spoof of political corruption in Boston, or “Gangster Funeral.” “Moses on Mount Sinai II” shows the lawgiver as rotund and voluminous, like a figure by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Moses’ girth and wry smile suggest a kind of Santa Claus clutching the Decalogue.
This whimsical rereading of tradition conformed to Levine’s secular view of Judaism as a patriarchal transferal of tradition, rather than a sober belief system. As a boy, Levine’s outlook was so secular that he refused to be bar mitzvahed. In an interview quoted in “Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America,” Levine told Baskind, “I’m a Jew. I’m a patriarch. I don’t give a hoot about the religion, but my parents are what mattered. The fifth commandment [Honor thy father and thy mother]… that one is okay with me.”
No less idiosyncratic and surprising is the Jewish-themed art of Larry Rivers, who changed his name while working as a jazz saxophonist in Manhattan in the 1940s. In his so-called “unauthorized autobiography” written decades later, Rivers admitted that abandoning the name Grossberg “somewhere not too down deep… was shameful.” In the 1980s, as if making amends, Rivers created the monumental triptych, “History of Matzah.” Commissioned by art dealer Jeffrey Loria (also the owner of the Miami Marlins) who admired his earlier ironic historical works, Rivers painted vignettes of praying hasidim, Baruch Spinoza, Theodor Herzl and Yehudi Menuhin against a background of matzah. The bright pink palette of the vast, peopled canvases lends a vaudevillian’s exuberance to the paintings’ serious themes, akin to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I.”
Yet Rivers was as ambiguous in his statements on Judaism as he was about most things in his life (despite fathering several children with a succession of wives and female companions, he also had gay relationships with the poet Frank O’Hara and others). The meaning of an earlier Rivers work, “Bar Mitzvah Photograph Painting,” likewise remains difficult to define. It affectionately shows a bar mitzvah boy flanked by his little sister and parents, with the stamped word “REJECTED” in block letters over them, as if in a photographer’s proof. Rivers later claimed that the word “rejected” does not bear the “psychological undertones you might think,” implying that it was not the Jewish family being rejected, but rather the image of them. Baskind suggests that the “rejected” stamp may be an affirmation of Rivers’s otherness as a Jew, but the artist himself clearly preferred a multi-faceted reading.
Even “Larry Rivers as Felix Nussbaum,” an apparently literal transposition of his own face onto the 1943 composition “Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card” by the German Jewish Holocaust martyr Nussbaum, leaves many questions open. Rivers gave himself a paler, more ghostly face than Nussbaum’s flesh-colored original, and a sharper-featured, more East European look than Nussbaum’s more delicately drawn visage. Was Rivers possibly presenting himself, with Jewish ID in hand and yellow star embroidered on his overcoat, as the quintessential East European Jew?
Nor was the American artist Ronald Brooks Kitaj more definitive in “The Jewish Rider,” an alluringly enigmatic portrait of his friend, the British art historian Michael Podro, who was the son of Jewish refugees from central Europe. Podro is seated in a fauvist-colored railway carriage in the pose of Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider,” although less athletically than that famous cavalier. Kitaj wrote:
“My Rider, I believe, is on his way to visit the sites of the Death Camps in Poland, many years after the war. I was inspired by a report someone wrote, who rode a train from Budapest to Auschwitz to see what the doomed souls might have seen… Along the right is the red carpeted corridor, and at its top is The Gentile Conductor (as a power of darkness). Jews were often made to buy tickets on the trains which would carry them to their murder.” From this, Baskind extrapolates that Podro is an “uncomfortable traveller who sits awkwardly in his seat,” whereas the Rembrandtesque pose may just be an affectionate jest about heroic aspirations of sedentary Jewish friends, juxtaposed with the goyish equestrian. Such multifaceted artworks support varied interpretations, although Baskind notes that the substantial corpus of Bible-themed art has been little discussed by critics and art historians: “Jewish content, ultimately viewed as controversial or even unseemly, is excluded… [I]n America the unmarked norm is taken as Christian, and Jewish subjects consequently stand out as marked and therefore as culturally alien and strange.” She cites the hostile comments of American Jewish critic Hilton Kramer on a 1955 art exhibit in which one painter’s works were “too stylish to be palatable… [like] finding gefilte fish at a cocktail party.”
“Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America” sets such hifalutin exclusionary criteria aside to better investigate many fascinating artworks, and even one or two pieces of artistic gefilte fish.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.