By ANDREA PAPPAS
When I set out to write this essay, the first thing I did was check for recent dissertations on Jewish American art. I was surprised by what I found—or didn’t find. A keyword search for “Jewish American art” yielded only a handful of results. I had expected to find studies that treat Jewishness as part of a multifaceted picture of American art or of an artist’s oeuvre. But art history departments were producing very few indeed.
What’s at stake when scholarship dries up? Studies on Jewish American art and artists—not to mention collectors, patrons, dealers, exhibitions, and historiography—recover the work of artists omitted from the traditional canon. Such scholarship provides a foundation on which to build historical narratives both more inclusive and more accurate than we have at present.
I can think of several reasons for the dearth of recent scholarship. First, the structural barriers for scholars stand nearly as tall as they did 25 years ago, when the field first made inroads in “mainstream” art history.[i] The barriers for emerging scholars are just as formidable. As a discipline, art history has trouble accommodating the art and history of diasporic peoples.[ii] The reason can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when nationalist agendas shaped the organization of the field. Scholars in Germany, France, and England worked— and were trained—along national, linguistic, and geographic lines.
A second problem involves what academic departments prioritize. Few would dispute the necessity of a faculty appointment in early modern art (i.e., the Renaissance). Yet there is little perceived need for an appointment in Jewish art, let alone Jewish American art. In other words, teaching lines tend to follow the traditional priorities. Hence, the pipeline problem: without faculty with expertise in art history, courses in Jewish art will rarely be offered at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
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What can we do about problem #1—the structural barriers scholars face? There are no easy answers, but one thinks of all the faculty with expertise in Jewish American art who hold appointments at colleges and universities without a PhD program in art history. Such faculty comprise an untapped resource; they may be quite happy to engage with graduate student work from time to time.
And what about accommodating the art and history of diasporic peoples such as Jews? Fortunately, there are examples of progress. Great headway has been made, especially when it comes to African American art. After decades of work, seasoned faculty members and a large body of graduate students have produced a robust scholarly pipeline. Sadly, there has been little parallel development in the scholarship of American Jews in the arts.
As for problem #2—the indifference of academic departments to Jewish art—I can only cite the rich history of Jewish American art and artists, a subject eminently worthy of study. We may look, as well, to the wonderful scholarship of David Sperber. His publications examine feminist Jewish artists in Israel and the United States whose work had an extended engagement with the female body and femininity in the context of their relationship to Judaism. This work makes visible, for example, a new dimension of New York-based conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, best known to US audiences for her “maintenance art” projects.[iii] His recent book, Devoted Resistance: Jewish-Feminist Art in Israel and the United States, appeared in 2021, during the pandemic. Scholars who do not have Hebrew, however, should look for his articles related to this topic that have appeared in English.
While we’re exploring problems and solutions, we may consider that religion has long been a marginalized topic in the history of American art, particularly twentieth century art. To the degree that “modern” means “secular,” religious dimensions of identity vanish below the scholarly event horizon. Most studies of religion and its influences in American art tackle the nineteenth century. The one book that explicitly tackles religion in twentieth-century American art has no chapter on Judaism; indeed, the term appears in the index but once, with a single page entry.[iv]
One notable exception is Samantha Baskind’s book on a nineteenth-century artist, Moses Jacob Ezekiel: Jewish, Confederate, Expatriate Sculptor, forthcoming from Pennsylvania State University Press. Baskind also contributed an essay on Ezekiel to Yearning to Breathe Free: Jews in Gilded Age America (Princeton 2023), an anthology associated with a planned exhibition of nineteenth-century American Jewish art. That would have been groundbreaking. Unfortunately, its host, Princeton university, cancelled it over the ties two of artists had to the Confederacy—one of whom was Ezekiel.[v] The exhibition would have provided an unusual opportunity to examine American Jewish art of the period. It also would have offered a chance to take account of some of the complexities entailed in viewing and interpreting the art objects produced during a period of profound polarization in American life—surely a topic of compelling interest in our own time.
In our present, one sees reasons for both frustration and guarded optimism. In the 2021 AJS Perspectives, Jennifer McComas identified three US museums with significant Judaica collections. She also noted that these exhibits are sometimes literally sidelined by installations in hallways rather than main galleries.[vi]
One reason is that ritual objects are usually classified as decorative, rather than fine arts, a distinction contested by many art historians (who see visual and material culture and art as a continuum). Fine arts museums could go further—indeed, many could assemble an exhibition of Jewish artists and artifacts simply by mining their own collections.
In this light, the forthcoming (2025) exhibition from the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University (Bloomington), curated by Dr. McComas, is welcome news. Remembrance & Renewal: American Artists and the Holocaust, 1940–1970, will be the first exhibition to assess the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish artists in the US specifically. The checklist includes not just the expected names (e.g. Abraham Rattner, Jacques Lipchitz) but also welcomes artists who are finally getting their due: notably, Anna Walinska. In line with the welcome erosion of enlightenment-era distinctions of high/low media and decorative/fine arts, the exhibition will include ephemera and ritual objects. It promises to be a timely, landmark show.
[i] For example, among Samantha Baskind’s many publications, see her first book, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art; Mathew Baigell’s publications; and the exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in New York, curated by Susan Chevlowe and Norman Kleeblatt.
[ii] Margaret Olin, “Jewish Art Defined: From Belzalel to Max Lieberman.” The Nation Without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art. (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2001): 3-32; Jenniver McComas, “Decanonization, Jewishness, and American Art Museums” AJS Perspectives, Fall 2021, pp. 72-73.
[iii] David Sperber, “Mikva Dreams: Judaism, Feminism, and Maintenance in the Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 5, no. 2 (Fall 2019), https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.1958.
[iv] Erika Doss, Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists & Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2023.
[v] https://www.timesofisrael.com/outrage-as-jewish-art-exhibit-at-princeton-is-canceled-over-ties-to-the-confederacy/, https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2022/03/princeton-cancel-art-jewish-confederate-moise-ezekiel-milberg, https://religionnews.com/2022/02/10/princeton-university-scraps-exhibit-of-jewish-american-artists-with-confederate-ties/, and https://paw.princeton.edu/inbox/more-about-artists-theodore-moise-and-moses-ezekiel
[vi] McComas, 72; she notes that as of 2021, those museums are the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.