The People & The Book: Who are today's Jewish artists?

Like contemporary art and architecture in general today, Jewish art is varied and complex.

Yaacov Agam, 90, in front of a building he decorated in Tel Baruch (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yaacov Agam, 90, in front of a building he decorated in Tel Baruch
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The world of Jewish art is increasingly surreal today. By surreal, I do not mean that Jewish art is increasingly influenced by historic artistic surrealism. Rather, I mean that the world of Jewish Art is increasingly a strange, disjointed and surreal place. It has many parts and few of them work together.
For example, visit almost any major museum in the world today and take notice of the level of Jewish philanthropic support of the arts. It is outstanding. Perhaps a majority of the names of the galleries, sections, and even museum buildings you will see bear recognizable Jewish names. Then look for the art of Judaism in those museums. I am not talking about art by Jews like Camille Pissarro or Sir Jacob Epstein. Chances are you more likely to find a ceramic bagel or a clever Hanukkah menorah in the gift shop than an actual piece of art with Jewish content displayed by a museum curator.
Some will say that is because there is no Jewish art or that Jewish art has largely been insignificant, perhaps until recently. But we have all been down that rabbit hole before especially since Harold Rosenberg’s 1966 much debated “Is There a Jewish Art?” article in Commentary.
Second, and by contrast, the post-World War II period has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of Jewish museums, especially Holocaust museums. Many, if not most of these institutions, are historical and artifact based, deeply expressive of Jewish visual culture but not necessarily reflective of Jewish Art. The Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) and its 60 some members bears witness to the vitality of Jewish museum life in North America.
Third, take a deep dive into the academic world of Jewish art history. It is possible that there are more historians of Jewish art today than there are serious Jewish artists. Just look at the academic team assembled at The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University or the writings of Matthew Baigell (Rutgers) or Larry Silver (University of Pennsylvania) or the feminist analyses of Shulamit Reinharz (Brandeis) or the probing work of Prof Melissa Raphael in the UK. The academic exploration of Jewish art and Jewish visual culture is alive and well in the world of critical scholarship.
On the other hand, if you ask Jewish tourists in Israel before they walk into scheduled visits to preselected galleries in Safed or Jerusalem whose art they are looking to purchase, most will not be able to supply you with the name of a single artist except for Marc Chagall or maybe even Menashe Kadishman. Indeed, much of what passes for Jewish art today is the stuff of gift shops or what might be called Jewish décor art produced specifically for synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and Federation lobbies. Hopefully, we can all agree that “Tree of Life” simcha walls and iconic presentations of the Kotel generally fall short of the minimum threshold for inclusion in “Jewish Art.”
A scene in the current hit Israeli TV series Shtisel about a Haredi family from Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood is a somewhat cynical statement about the status of Jewish Art in that part of the Jewish world and perhaps about Jewish Art in general. One of the lead characters in “Shtisel,” Akiva Shtisel, is an “artist by birth” with an irrepressible desire to draw. Like the protagonist in Chaim Potok’s classic 1972 book, My Name is Asher Lev; Akiva’s natural inclinations are in conflict with the world into which he was born. Ironically, Akiva finds employment in a religious art gallery as a ghost artist for the establishment’s unscrupulous “artist” owner.
In other words, real art is suppressed in favor of approved portraits of leading rabbis. “Shtisel,” in my opinion, is not just talking about religious hypocrisy. It is also pointing to the larger problem of authenticity in the world of Jewish art today.
According to Jewish religious tradition, Jewish art finds its origins in Vayakhel, the Torah portion for the week this year (2019) ending on March 2, where we are introduced to Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 35:30), the principal artist and architect of the original sanctuary in the desert. Centuries later, the Zionist movement founded the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1906 to help define a national Jewish art for the Jewish people. Early in the history of the Bezalel Academy a dispute broke out pitting the need to educate craftsman who could support themselves through practical work and visionary artists pursuing art for art’s sake. Later, the school moved away from national Jewish art to general contemporary art. Today, the Bezalel Academy is an academic unit of the Hebrew University.
So, who are the Bezalels of the Jewish journey today? Who are the leading Jewish artists creating and designing the most important Jewish art today. To answer that question, I visited the websites of leading Jewish art institutions like New York’s Jewish Museum and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Art Museum and looked at whom they were featuring in their recent exhibitions. I also asked directors of several different Jewish art museums and galleries as well as a number of serious Jewish art collectors.
A number of artist names were mentioned repeatedly and are the basis of my unofficial, unscientific list of contemporary Bezalels. The reality is that there is serious Jewish art today and it is one of the best-kept secrets of contemporary Jewish life. It is varied across many different types of art which use a seemingly endless array of different methodologies and materials. As the original Bezalel was an architect, my list also includes contemporary architects. However, it is important to point out that few of these artists exclusively focus on Jewish themes and for most of them, Jewish art is only a part of their larger artistic endeavor. In other words, Jewish Art is a lot like Jewish life today.
My list is limited to living Jewish artists and, therefore, does not include work by recently deceased artists like George Segal (d. 2000), Larry Rivers (d. 2002) and Miriam Schapiro (d. 2015). My list includes Holocaust artists and Israelis who specifically include Jewish and Zionist themes in their work.
Here is “My Unofficial and Incomplete List of Contemporary Bezalels:”
• Yaacov Agam, a popular Israeli sculptor is well-known for his optical and kinetic art. His Hanukkah Menorah at Fifth and 59th in NYC is often cited as being the largest Hanukkiya in the world and representative of his large urban projects.
• Ilit Azoulay, like Agam, is also Israeli and a graduate of Bezalel (although much younger. She is a montage photographer of distinction who also uses varieties of Israeli building materials in her exhibitions
• Samuel Bak, a child survivor of the Holocaust, is a prolific painter who interprets the Shoah with complex, surrealistic images, often on small canvases.
• Sophie Calle is a French installation artist and photographer well known for her exploration of private life. Apropos of this theme, her 1996 Erouv de Jérusalem was exposed at Paris’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme.
• Judy Chicago, one of America’s most important feminist artists, is well known for several large art installations. Along with her husband, Donald Woodman she created a massive study of victimization, a travelling exhibition called, The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985-93).
• Nicole Eisenman, a granddaughter of Esther Hamerman, a distinguished folk artist, taught at Bard College and was the winner of a Guggenheim fellowship. Her painting “Seder,” was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in 2015 and explores the intimacy of family life through faux colorization and interpretative characterizations.
• Dani Karavan, an Israeli graduate of Bezalel, is a landscape sculptor. His monuments to the Negev Brigade and “Way to Peace” on the Egyptian border are among the most best known of his many public projects in Israel.
• Jason Lazarus is a Florida-based artist who explores “vision and visibility.” His “Live Archive” was featured at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in November 2013.
• Daniel Libeskind is a Jewish Polish-American architect. Among his many projects are the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the 2014 World Trade Center master plan.
• Joshua Neustein was born in Poland but lives in New York. His “Drawing in the Margins”, was realized October 2012 at the Israel Museum Jerusalem, showing 67 works that spanned 40 years.
• Adi Ness is a contemporary Israeli photographer whose parents are of Iranian Jewish descent. His most famous work, “The Last Supper,” uses Israeli soldiers as models. Ness is gay and often explores the homoerotic in his work.
• Mark Podwal is both a medical doctor and an artist. His book illustrations, greeting cards and newspaper cartoons are much beloved in the American Jewish community.
• Archie Rand, Presidential Professor of Art at Brooklyn College. Rand, whose work is often wonderfully colorful, has received numerous synagogue commissions. In 2017, his “The 613” [Mitzvot] was featured at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
• Moshe Safdie is an Israeli-Canadian architect who came to prominence because of his work on Habitat 67, a model-housing complex in Montreal. He designed Yad v’Shem, Israel’s leading Holocaust Museum. Safdie was commissioned to design the tombstone of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.
• Stanley Saitowitz is a South African-born architect and designer whose is well known in the Bay Area in California. He has designed major synagogues, Holocaust museums and Museums of Art (Tampa).
• Art Spiegelman is best known for his graphic novel series, Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Spiegelman’s work highlights the various interconnections between the modern comic and Jewish visual culture.
• David Tartakover is a Senior Lecture and alumnus of the Bezalel Academy who won the Israel Prize for design in 2002. In 1978, Tartakover designed the Peace Now logo.
I also think any list of major artists doing Jewish art today should include several non-Jewish artists. Where would we be today in the world of Jewish art without the contributions of Michelangelo and Rembrandt to Jewish visual culture or even, more recently, Andy Warhol?
Most important in this regard is the Holocaust Art of Anselm Kiefer, born in Germany in 1945. Kiefer is a major artistic interpreter of the Holocaust. He often uses large canvases and a variety of different materials in his work.
Frank Stella, an American minimalist, is well-known for his 1970s of Polish synagogues some of which are now prominently displayed in POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Finally, the Israel related work of Kehinde Wiley, an African American artist, was featured at the Jewish Museum in 2012. Wiley recently painted the official 2018 portrait of President Barack Obama.
Like contemporary art and architecture in general today, Jewish art is varied and complex. Much of it is post-modern and discontinuous with previous trends in Jewish visual culture. It is often “out of the box” and seeks to redefine both what we mean by art and Jewish culture. Like the ancient Bezalel, contemporary Jewish art is somewhere between slavery to the past and uncertainty about getting to tomorrow’s Promised Land of the arts in Jewish life.
Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA and Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. Sussman has taught Jewish History at Princeton and Hunter College and served as Chair of Jewish Studies at Binghamton University-SUNY. He is currently editing a collection of his essays on contemporary Jewish life.