Jewish art geography, from Aleph and Arbus to Robert Zimmerman
Lots of familiar names pop up in “Jew York,” the exuberant summer group show that opened at Zach Feuer and Untitled galleries last week.
Alex Katz, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, Diane Arbus, Jon Kessler, Orly Genger, David Altmejd, Dustin Yellin, Mika Rottenberg, Arlene Shechet, Nicolás Guagnini, Joel Shapiro, Aura Rosenberg, Greg Goldberg, Dan Colen, and Roy Lichtenstein are just some of the 87 Members of the Tribe whose works appear in the two gallery spaces.
But there’s one that even “Jewish geography” experts won’t know:
The checklist says he’s dead, but the real fake Juston Guston is very much alive.
It’s the alias of a contemporary artist whose surname resembles the original surname of Philip Guston, the artist formerly known as Philip Goldstein. (The real Guston, meanwhile, is here with one of his sublime “Poor Richard” Nixon drawings from 1971.)
The new Guston appropriated his name from one Jewish master, the base for his mixed-media work from another. His contribution to the show, The Disquieting Duck, is a reproduction of The Birthday, a 1915 Chagall in MoMA’s collection that’s one of the romantic touchstones of early modernism. The floating, kissing lovers are still here, but they’re overpainted with a large cartoonish yellow duck.
Why a duck?
The title, the method, and the duck were taken from a series that Danish artist Asger Jorn made with thrift-store paintings in the ‘60s, Juston Guston explained in an email.
There’s no Groucho in “Jew York,” but his famous comment about not wanting to join a club that would have people like him as a member comes to mind, because five or so artists, according to Feuer, declined to be in the show.
Luis Camnitzer, who was born in Germany and raised in Uruguay, was among the unbelievers. He thought a show of artists with nothing in common except their Judaism was “tinged by an aroma of weird fundamentalism.” But he worried that if he rejected the invitation, he was rejecting his Jewish identity.
So he sent a letter explaining his reasons, and that’s his piece in “Jew York.”
“Jew York” doesn’t pretend to offer a common thread uniting the artists besides their ethnicity. Part of the fun is teasing out the interconnections—that’s what Jewish Geography is all about.
Anyway, its random diversity is kind of the point, along with the Yiddishe humor of its press release and its title’s brash pun. In the past this whole enterprise would have been considered “Too Jewish”—say around 1996, when Norman Kleeblatt staged “Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities” at New York’s Jewish Museum. Cary Leibowitz, represented here by a little text piece titled Hi Jewboy Hi, is one of the stereotype-busting “Too Jewish” artists who turn up in “Jew York,” along with Deborah Kass, Elaine Reichek, Hannah Wilke, and Ilene Segalove.
They share the space with other mini-schools of Jewish artists: the haimische feminists (Eleanor Antin, Joyce Kozloff), classic Conceptualists (Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner), identity-politics tricksters (Tamy Ben-Tor, Jamie Sneider, with her naughty/nice Jewish-pinup-girl calendar), to name a few. Also present is Jennifer Rubell, who installed a large brown leather sofa in the middle of the small, white-box space.
It’s called My Shrink’s Couch, and no, you can’t lie down on it.
Unexpectedly, the figure who is lying down here is the fiddler from Vitebsk, who has finally climbed down from the roof in Chagall’s 1979 painting Le Peintre au Chevalet à Saint-Paul. (Neither this nor the other “Chagall” in “Jew York,” Juston Guston’s, have anything to do with the artist’s actual New York period, a dark era after he fled the Nazis that is the subject of a Jewish Museum show this fall.)
A young Anne Frank is here, reimagined in a modern-day setting by Keith Mayerson, and so is Albert Speer, in Matthew Weinstein’s Thomas Kinkade Inside the Third Reich, from the series of rectified library catalogue cards he’ll show at Carolina Nitsch this fall.
There’s Sandy Koufax, the Dodger who became a Jewish hero by sitting out the World Series when it fell on Yom Kippur, in a Warholesque rendering by Kass.
Of course Barbra is present—in some of Kass’s “Jewish Jackies,” and in an Erica Baum photo, and Woody Allen, via Sara Greenberg Rafferty, and Bob Dylan, a shape-shifter in the religion department whose original name (like Guston’s) was too Jewish.
There are abstractions, too, including a luminous, mystical Peter Halley titled Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Rochelle Feinstein sent in a sensuous white blob on linen that looks like it’s trying to resolve itself into language. Dated 1994, it used to be called Geography. For this show, she popped the word Jewish in front. So now it’s called (jewish) Geography (2013). That sums it up.
Image on home page: Deborah Kass, Four Barbras (detail), 1992, silkscreen on canvas. Photo: Kendall Mills. Courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.