Tipping his head to the left, avoiding banging into the ceiling, my tall dad, Jay Moss, would go down the steps to our Long Island basement, after many family dinners. At the other side of the large cement floor barely lit by one fixture, he would tighten the two long fluorescent bulbs above his 10-foot-long worktable. Turning the radio on, listening to Bernard Meltzer’s show “What’s Your Problem” on WOR, he would begin to sculpt. While I watched TV near the kitchen — he often watched good shows like “MAS*H” and “Hill Street Blues” with me — I’d hear him chiseling or turning on an electric table saw. It would hum, then loudly buzz, as he pushed the wood through.
During the day, and some evenings, he worked upstairs in an office next door to my bedroom, designing lamps for various lighting companies. But most nights he did art for art’s sake, not to pay the mortgage.
As a child of the Depression, he was aware of the need to provide for his family, and he assigned his creative art instincts to a time and place, consciously or not. His work life was a priority. As driven as he was to create — heading to the basement so many nights to sculpt, and going to city museums with my abstract artist mom, Sabina Moss, to see the work of others — his priority was being financially comfortable.
Now 91, freed from the need to earn a living, and able to give his mind time to focus on what it sought to express — the horror of war and evil in general — he’s been sculpting more than ever. This has led to his first show in New York City, at Manhattan College in Riverdale. Forty-two of his sculptures are on display at the college’s O’Malley Library until December 16.
Much of his work has dealt with his experiences in the Great Depression and on the frontlines in World War II. Maybe if he had started out many years later, beyond poverty and war, the focus of his work would have been different, and he’d have remained in the city schmoozing with other artists. He wasn’t like, say, artist and rocker Patti Smith, who, as a young adult, essentially chose to live in poverty in Brooklyn and the Chelsea Hotel with artist and boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe. They did work to some extent, but art was, in every way, a priority. Yes, it was a risk, but that energetic and emotional investment in what they loved led to the accomplishment of their goals, not to mention, money and fame.
“We hadn’t much money but we were happy,” Smith wrote in her book.
My dad took pretty much the opposite route, growing up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn over his dad’s tailor shop. Isadore Moskowitz sold blouses he made and sewing machines. With business going well, they moved to Oakland Street in Flatbush, where his dad bought a brand new 1930 Chevy.
But soon after, the family of five fell down the national fiscal cliff like almost everyone else in the Depression. They ended up in an apartment in Greenpoint. More moves in the borough followed.
Dad’s artistic inclinations emerged nonetheless, particularly as his teachers encouraged his mother to transfer him from Eastern District High School to the High School of Industrial Arts where he focused on graphic arts, three-dimensional design, and studio drawing. For credit, he spent his last semester working in the company office of Davega, an electronic and sporting goods chain, where he provided design ideas for local stores’ model windows.
During summers, he played drums in the Catskills and was an arts and crafts counselor at Camp Wayne in the Poconos. He built a totem pole there, his first large sculpture-related artwork. But art was put on hold when he was drafted into World War II. Africa was his first stop abroad. “When we landed in Casablanca, the Army knew that they’d use us on the front lines in Anzio,” dad told me at the library across from his building. “When troops needed to rest we’d replace them.”
In Anzio, Italy, he was assigned to dig infantry foxholes, which flooded with water from the nearby ocean. “When I got to my foxhole I didn’t think it would be filled with water this much,” he said, raising his hand between his ankle and knee.
He remembers being in the same trench nonstop for seven or eight days, standing, leaning at night, hoping to nap, with his head down on the flat surface above the foxhole. His feet and ankles swelled to the level of trench foot. Medics cut his boots to remove them and hospitalized him for three weeks. He remembers being in Anzio, where 7,000 British and Americans died, for months longer.
In Marseille, France, his 36th Engineer Regiment had to make roads of wood that went to the front. “The roads were so mushy that the trucks couldn’t go by,” he told me. While creating that critical path, he saw trucks come back with about a dozen dead soldiers from the front. “They were bouncing, in the back of the truck,” he said. “All we saw were the knitted caps.”
Many months later, in Innsbruck, Austria, he was again hospitalized to recover from pneumonia and malaria.
Toward the end of his two and a half years in the war, he was based in Germany, where he met Holocaust survivors from Dachau and Buchenwald. Survivors in nearby towns provided him with photographs and asked him to find a way to share them with their relatives, who had emigrated to the U.S. Dad sent seven pictures to his mother, Josephine Moskowitz, in Jackson Heights, Queens. She gave them to the Forward and they appeared in the October 14, 1945 issue.
After he returned home, no one nudged him to share his experience. He and veteran pals didn’t discuss the war. They had all been there and done that difficult stuff and there was no reason to head back.
There were occasional reminders of his war experiences later in life. At the factory of Bruce Industries, a Philadelphia lighting company he designed for and visited often in the 1970s, he saw factory workers with numbered tattoos on their wrists. “There were an abundant amount [of concentration camp survivors] that gathered in that part of Philadelphia,” he recently told me.
He did share stories with family when one of us asked him about it, or if he was reminded of something. I didn’t discuss World War II with my pals either as few of them had dads as old as mine (43 when I was born). Even at Lawrence High School, or my Hebrew school in Cedarhurst, New York, teachers didn’t ask us about family in World War II. I don’t even remember them asking whether any of our family died in, or survived, the Holocaust.
When dad began to have more time to work on his sculpture, the impact of his experiences was evident in the work he produced. Though his work didn’t address World War II specifically, it conveyed the frightening impressions of war.
While he can’t say what experience led to what piece of art, meeting Holocaust survivors, and experiencing horror in general, clearly inspired his piece “Stalag Theater.” Unidentified bodies make their way across a stage made of lead. Their numbers linked to a wire fence surround them.
When I look at “Stalag,” and many other sculptures of his, I always think of its beauty first. I know the piece represents a concentration camp, but it draws me in. His sculptures focusing on the frightening and horrific attract even if their meaning appalls.
Until the exhibit, I never looked closely at “I Have Seen the Enemy,” as it was covered for most of its existence with garbage bags at Dad’s Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio. A person is stretched from the top of his hair headed upward, to his tippy toes. He is essentially forced to stare at the enemy, a tiny metal face a foot away.
“Oscar for Torturers” makes perhaps his most direct political statement. Ask him and he’ll tell you who he’d like to hand it over to — Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, two key Bush staffers who led the war in Iraq.
There is some hope, too. “Peace Missile” consists of a metal rocket wrapped with a flowery rainbow chain.
Many of the works have nothing to do with any of this, like “Samuel Beckett.” Dad liked Beckett’s photo on a book jacket and sculpted him younger, carving only a few lines in his forehead and adding hip, dark glasses. Is this autobiographical? Dad’s long, handsome face is somewhat similar to Beckett’s.
The exhibit includes a sculpture of a colorful art deco stage featuring ballet. It is influenced by his time at NBC, where he designed stage backgrounds for TV shows including “The Jack Paar Show,” “Howdy Doody,” and “Your Show of Shows.”
His work at NBC is impressive, but not what he’s most proud of. “Real, meaningful art wasn’t what I was involved in,” he said. “I was involved in earning a living.”
“It seems that later in life, when I did a lot of these sculptures, I had an opportunity to do them and it was in my subconscious,” he said. “It came out on its own. I didn’t even ruminate on it. I just did it. It was very much buried in my deep psyche and it came out later in my life. When I thought back, I thought what a horrific experience it was.”
His art wouldn’t be what it is without that experience. So I asked him: “As the artist you are, are you at all glad you were a soldier in World War II?”
Stunned, he opened his eyes wide.
“F–k no!” he said.
Regardless, he has always wanted his work to be seen. The exhibit at Manhattan College is a big accomplishment in and of itself.
About 20 years ago, he went to the Ivan Karp Gallery in SoHo and shared photos of his work with Karp himself. Though he couldn’t accept it for exhibition, Karp, who died a couple of years ago, told Dad he liked his work very much. Dad was so moved he quickly called my mom to tell her the news. But that was the end of his attempt to get his work seen in the city.
“If I had to go to galleries and get rejected that would be too painful,” he told me.
Nevertheless, he says he will continue to sculpt. “It’s in my DNA,” he said.
Jordan Moss is the former editor of the Norwood News in the Bronx. He blogs at www.bronxmatters.com.
More of Jay Moss’s work may be seen on his website: jaymoss.weebly.com