Identity remixed in provocative displays at the Jewish Museum, the New Museum, the Whitney, and Tate Modern
In 1994, Elaine Reichek, an artist from Flatbush, Brooklyn, installed a version of her childhood bedroom in the Jewish Museum.
She set up a four-poster bed from the Ethan Allen 1776 collection, just like the early American furniture her parents bought for her. She painted the walls a sinister shade of green. She brought in a washstand, braided rugs, a fire screen, samplers, and other decorative touches suitable to the typical New England colonial-era home.
In other words, the bedroom in A Postcolonial Kinderhood didn’t look Jewish at all. It wasn’t supposed to. It was home décor as assimilation tactic, a way for new arrivals to insert themselves into the narrative of American history. “Wanting ‘to pass’ was an issue in my childhood,” the artist says. “My parents wished they grew up with those samplers.”
Well, maybe not these particular samplers, which are embroidered with comments from Reichek’s friends and family about their Jewishness. “The parents of Jewish boys love me,” reads one. “I am the closest thing to a shiksa without being one.” (A shiksa is a pejorative word for a non-Jewish woman; the speaker was the artist’s daughter.)
To an audience accustomed to earnest reconstructions of the lost worlds of the shtetl and the Lower East Side, Reichek’s sinister rendering of the next stop on the Jewish American journey was audacious. Where was the nostalgia?
The reaction, positive and negative, is among the documentation that will be added to the piece when it reappears in the galleries tomorrow, 20 years after it was commissioned.
This is the third time the Jewish Museum has shown A Postcolonial Kinderhood, which it acquired in 1997.
The second time was in 1996, when curator Norman Kleeblatt included part of it in “Too Jewish?”, his survey of how Jewish artists were challenging traditional identities. “This was one of the handful of works that jumpstarted the discussion of Jewish identity within the larger framework of identity politics and multiculturalism,” says Kleeblatt, the museum’s chief curator. “Jews worked so hard to assimilate, and were so successful at it, that they weren’t even considered a marginalized group in the multicultural discussions. Yet growing up, the baby-boomer generation (and the one before) still experienced subtle anti-Semitism and sensed themselves as being outsiders. But unless it was a woman, gay or lesbian, Jewish didn’t count.”
With newly added personal memorabilia, “Elaine Reichek: A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited” introduces the artist as an actual character in the piece, who left Brooklyn and studied at Yale before embarking on her sometimes controversial art-world career. Which is real and which is fiction? Will the s-word still raise eyebrows? How does this reflect on the immigrant experience a generation after it was made?
Such questions have been playing out as museums showcase art made in the mid-90s, when multiculturalism and hyphenated identities took center stage. These include the New Museum’s recent “NYC 1993,” and the Tate Modern’s permanent-collection gallery on identity politics–as well as Ellen Gallagher’s current exhibitions at both (in New York through September 15 and London through September 1). While Reichek was decorating her postcolonial bedroom, Gallagher was collaging ads for black wigs and hair-straightening, the beauty equivalent of shopping at Ethan Allen. And she took aim at other stereotypes by lifting the rolling eyes and big lips from black minstrel imagery and transforming them into abstract motifs.
These are major themes in “I, YOU, WE,” an intense and poignant selection of works from the Whitney’s permanent collection that is worth catching before it closes September 1. Curator David Kiehl focuses on the ’80s and early ’90s, moving from the postmodern fixations of Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, and others, to the identity politics of Shirin Neshat, Juan Sanchez, Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass, and more.
Then there is the gallery devoted to AIDS, which shows how far we have come, or haven’t. There is the General Idea AIDS logo, which riffs on Robert Indiana’s LOVE. There are the drawings Sue Coe made in AIDS wards, and David Wojnarowicz’s famous photo of Peter Hujar right after he passed, and Keith Haring’s elegiac bronze altarpiece.
This gallery includes three works the Whitney had never exhibited, until now: Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me (1987), an indictment of Ronald Reagan; Frank Moore’s Puritan Theorem (1991), and a beautiful painting by Hugh Steers of a patient in a hospital bed. Titled Bed Pan, it is a clear reference to Manet’s Olympia, with the ailing figure taking the place of the insouciant prostitute and the black orderly standing in for her maid. It was painted in 1994; the artist himself died of AIDS the next year.
This is identity politics too, creating a record of lives before their vanishing. It shows how much art history of the ’90s remains to be told.