Museums, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, August 26, 2004

"Masterworks of the Jewish Museum" by Maurice Berger and Joan Rosenbaum, The Jewish Museum/YALE, 2004


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"Is there a Jewish Art?" asked the critic Harold Rosenberg in a 1966 lecture of the same title at the Jewish Museum. "They build a Jewish Museum, then ask, Is there a Jewish Art? Jews!"

The Museum in question, starting life as a room of judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1904 and now a thriving, beloved, often controversial institution in the former Warburg Mansion on Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile, celebrates its centenary this year with a sumptuous coffee-table tome of its highlights ("Masterworks of the Jewish Museum," Yale University Press, $60). The volume presents 120 examples from the museum's horde of 28,000 objects which include ceremonial judaica, artworks, and an extensive archive of film and TV.

But Rosenberg's pugnacious quip from the 1960s is just as pertinent today, with the museum's provocative programming and self-questioning presentations. When it comes to Jewish culture, identity crisis isn't so much a characteristic as a precondition.

In the first half-century of its life there wasn't much complication. The initial displays lined up torah finials and breastplates and spice boxes in neat vitrines where the virtuosity and styles of different communities could be compared and marvelled. As Joan Rosenbaum, the museum's director, recounts in her introductory essay, the collection grew exponentially in the 1920s when the vast collection of Hadji Ephraim Benguiat, which had been on loan to US National Museum (the forerunner to the Smithsonian), was transferred to New York. This includes such exquisite works of craftsmanship as a renaissance torah ark, a seventeenth-century torah case from Damascus, and a highly ornamental baroque Hannukah lamp that echoes the now-lost architectural decorations of wooden Polish synagogues.

Another great collector, Benjamin Mintz, had brought his holdings of Polish judaica to the 1939 World's Fair and remained with the outbreak of war. In the same year, the great collection of the Danzig community was sent to the Seminary for safekeeping on condition of its return if after fifteen years if the community there was safe; if not, they should remain in New York "for the education and inspiration of the rest of the world."

The Holocaust, inevitably, touches almost every aspect of the Jewish Museum, though not to the extent of course of the more recently formed Jewish museums in Germany which chillingly document a lost civilization, and the fact of its loss. A carved, wooden "grogger" from the Mintz collection, for instance, a noisemaker sounded in the Purim service at the mention of the name of Haman, dating from 1933, has the head of Adolf Hitler as one of its anvils.

There was a lot more noise coming out of Hitler images in 2002, however, with the museum's "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art". This highly controversial exhibition looked into how contemporary artists confronted the trivialization of the Holocaust in the mass media drew protests from survivors and others. Its curator, Norman Kleeblatt, who had debuted at the museum with a well-received highly learned investigation of art and caricature in the wake of the Drefus Affair, had already raised eyebrows with an earlier show, "Too Jewish?" which looked at artists who played with media stereotypes with uncomfortable humor. Tellingly, nothing from these exhibitions makes the "masterworks" grade of the present volume, to which Mr. Kleeblatt contributes. But what the shows do signal is an indicative clash of values between a self-consciously sophisticated notion of art as signfier of complex cultural meanings, on the one hand, and a purer sense that anything you see in a Jewish museum ought to reflect Jewish values.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim The Return of the Jewish Volunteer 1834, oil on canvas, 33 x 37 inches, and right, Ross Bleckner Double Portrait (Gay Flag) 1993, oil on canvas with collage, 108-1/8 x 72-1/4 inches; both images courtesy The Jewish Museum

This debate reflects earlier anxieties about what art should do in a Jewish museum. In the 1960s the museum underwent a radical transformation. A new wing was donated by the patrons Albert and Vera List, and with it came a revised mandate: to showcase contemporary art. Many of the leading players in the burgeoning New York School, artists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Sol le Witt, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Diane Arbus, the critics Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro (a mentor to the museum), Leo Steinberg, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, the dealer Leo Castelli, were Jewish. There was a sense that the Jewish Museum should reflect this achievement, and also make up for an absence of cutting edge art in the city's major museums.

The idea, however, wasn't at all limited to Jewish art or artists; the Jewish Museum assumed the mantle of presenting progressive art by Gentile or by Jew. (Of course, a lot of Judaica is made by non-Jewish craftsmen, but that't another matter.) Looking back, it hard to work out whether the museum's "idealogical shift" as Maurice Berger (by coincidence, Senior Fellow at another List bequested institution, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School) describes it represents highminded idealism or outrageous chutzpah: either way, the museum staged seminal exhibitions in this period, including the first retrospective of Jasper Johns in 1964, and the sculpture survey which launched the minimal art movement, Primary Structures, 1966. The appointment of Kynston McShine, an African-American, as curator signalled the progressive-mindedness of the museum in this period.

The experiment was short-lived: to the dismay of the artworld, trustees axed the secular contemporary art program in 1971, retreating to its original remit as a center for Jewish history and culture. "The question of assimilation versus separatism-an issue debated by Jews for centuries-came out of the closet as a significant museological problem," as Mr. Berger puts it. Perhaps symbolically, when the museum expanded again in the 1990s, architect Kevin Roche covered up the International Style List wing with a pastiche of the adjoining Warburg mansion.

But to regroup isn't necessarily to regress. The assimiliationist stance of the 1960s, with its emphasis on abstract and conceptual directions, smacked at once of modernist hubris and minority apologetics. The "reactionary" trustees who wanted some Jewishness from their Jewish Museum arguably anticipated multiculturalism and postmodernism by valuing the particular over the general, the fragment over the whole. Ironcially, the anthropological tendency in the museum's approach, whether to art and artefacts, that stresses social and historical context over aesthetic experience, and might seems "museologically" more sophisticated, appeals to a more Jewish particularism; whereas the sense (among protesters against "Mirroring Evil" for instance) that art should be good, if not beautiful, belongs to a more idealistic sensibility that got buried with the List wing.

But who says the choice is between abstraction and Jewish particularism? A beautiful 1950s torah curtain by Adolph Gottlieb carries across the "pictograph" style of the Abstract Expressionist with a grid of symbols, some traditional, some idiosyncratic. A wavy line forming a "W" that can be read as udder-like forms is interpreted as a private joke of the artist's to signify "breastplate."

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