New York’s Jewish Museum launches timely exhibit on troubling society

We Fight to Build a Free World was curated New York-based artist Jonathan Horowitz, who for three decades has created works in various mediums that engage with politics and culture.

A VIEW of the ’We Fight to Build a Free World: An Exhibition’ by Jonathan Horowitz, currently at The Jewish Museum in New York. (photo credit: KRIS GRAVES)
A VIEW of the ’We Fight to Build a Free World: An Exhibition’ by Jonathan Horowitz, currently at The Jewish Museum in New York.
(photo credit: KRIS GRAVES)
 NEW YORK – As the world rides the crest of one pandemic wave after another, while horrific violent attacks on civil rights trigger massive protests, New York’s Jewish Museum has inaugurated a compelling exhibit that places visitors at the front line of those struggles with We Fight to Build a Free World: An Exhibition by Jonathan Horowitz.
Originally scheduled to open in March 2020, We Fight to Build a Free World was curated New York-based artist Jonathan Horowitz, who for three decades has created works in various mediums that engage with politics and culture. 
When Horowitz was first approached about the exhibit three years ago, antisemitic incidents had surged nearly 60% over the previous year, making it the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported according to the Anti-Defamation League since the ADL started tracking incidents in the 1970s.
“A confluence of events in 2017 led to a surge in attacks on our [the Jewish] community – from bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and children harassing children at school,” said ADL CEO and national director Jonathan A. Greenblatt, .
The exhibition’s title is adapted from a painting by Ben Shahn, which is on view and from which Horowitz drew inspiration. Shahn had been commissioned to produce visual propaganda for the US Office of War Information in 1942, and he engaged four artists to contribute on four topics: Edward Millman (suppression), Käthe Kollwitz (starvation), Yasuo Kuniyoshi (torture), and Bernard Perlin (murder). The piece was never shown.
Three years ago, Horowitz gathered 36 contemporary artists to create protest posters that are displayed on a faux brick wall, emphasizing urban grit, and addressing bigotry, gun violence, gay rights, fear, racism, and the environment. 
The exhibit features more than 80 works of painting, sculpture, photography, and video, including examples of American social realism from the 1930s and 1940s, new works by Horowitz, as well as the 36 commissioned protest posters by contemporary artists.
One of the most notable pieces on display is Horowitz’s monumental sculpture Untitled (August 23, 2017-February 18, 2018, Charlottesville, VA), which is on view for the first time. The work recreates the statue of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at the center of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as it stood after the rally for six months, shrouded in a black tarp. 
For many Americans that event shined a national spotlight on antisemitism and white supremacy in the United States. The rally, which brought together hundreds of self-described neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and Ku Klux Klansman, was met with a vigorous counter-protest. In the resulting conflict, more than 30 people were injured. In the days following the violent confrontations, the Charlottesville City Council ordered that the Lee statue be covered by a black tarp. Horowitz’s sculpture powerfully memorializes a crisis point in American history.
One cluster of works in the exhibition looks critically at how minority groups have been represented by the Hollywood film industry, including a selection of photographs by the Asco collective that took Chicano representation into its own hands in the No Movie photographs from the 1970s, creating stills for films that do not exist. 
A NEW video work by Horowitz, Best Picture (2020), focuses on the 2019 Academy Awards. In that year’s Oscar telecast, people of color saw increased representation but mostly by serving as presenters, rather than being honored as nominees and award recipients. The award for best picture that year was given to Green Book, the latest in a long line of Hollywood “white savior” narratives – movies where a white lead character comes to the rescue of a non-white character, whose plight is the purported subject of the film.
The exhibit reaches back to the 17th-century portrait of Moses Levy by Gerardus Duyckinck illustrating an intensely assimilated Jewish merchant; to Robert Colescott’s biting critique of the theme of freedom in his brash satirical reworking of a classic American history painting starring – rather than the white George Washington at the helm – George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook; to Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes that repurpose a 19th-century art form with her disturbing tableaus such as Middle Passages.
As a background for works from the 1930s and 1940s, Horowitz appropriates an enlarged reproduction of a Thomas Hart Benton 1942 painting, Invasion, with the color removed and the image tinted sepia. Benton’s work, using stereotypes and racist tropes, was part of a series intended to shock and rally United States citizens to support World War II. The painting and others in Benton’s Year of Peril series became some of the best-known American propaganda images of the war. 
Viewers will appreciate the ideological counterpoints to the Benton image, works by Charles White, Robert Gwathmey, Gordon Parks, Philip Evergood, and Henry Sugimoto that cast a critical eye on racism in America.
At the opening of the exhibit, Horowitz noted, “Today violent acts against Jewish people in the United States are at a historic level, and violence against black, Muslim, Latinx, and LGBTQ individuals has increased alarmingly as well. Ethno-nationalism has become a dominant political force around the globe. It is within this broader context that I chose to think about the show.” 
In his own manifesto, Horowitz writes:
I started with some basic questions, like:
“Where am I?”
America, the Jewish Museum.
“What is America?” “What is the Jewish Museum?”
And “Who am I?”
Growing up, it was never possible to forget that I was gay.
Every day, over and over, I heard the word “faggot.” Sometimes coming out of my own mouth.
I knew I was Jewish
But “What is a Jew?”
I’m not religious.
I knew my skin was white, but I didn’t think about the privilege
it afforded me. I think about it now.
I think more about being Jewish now, too.
Clearly, this exhibit is acutely relevant and brave. It addresses immigration, assimilation and cultural identity by juxtaposing diverse works, making thematic connections across time and place, raising questions and fostering dialogue.
The exhibit inaugurates the reopening of the museum to the public and will remain on view through January 24, 2021. Admission to the museum and the exhibit are free through December 31, 2020. Tickets with assigned times are required in order to help the Jewish Museum maintain a building capacity of 25% and a socially distanced experience for all visitors. Reserve tickets online at or call (212) 423-3200.