A Jewish Woman’s Work

The latest exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York explores feminist themes.

Double Red Yentle 311 (photo credit: DEBORAH KASS)
Double Red Yentle 311
(photo credit: DEBORAH KASS)
THE JEWISH MUSEUM IN New York has taken on an ambitious pursuit. Its most recent exhibit, “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism,” which opened on September 12 and is set to continue through January, explores connections between Jewish identity and feminist art, and in doing so, touches on more fundamental questions, such as: What makes a painting “feminist”? And who is a feminist artist?
Daniel Belasco, Henry J. Leir associate curator at the Jewish Museum, who organized the show and is currently completing a book on feminist consciousness in the New York School of art, says he is aware of the challenges posed by presenting such a broad, subjective topic in a compact exhibition.
Still, he feels the issue was an essential one for Jewish Museum audiences. “For those of us who are under 50, our lives have been especially impacted by feminism and will continue to be impacted in the future, so it’s definitely an important issue to study. Feminism also continues to inform art and art institutions and that’s why I felt the urgency of engagement,” he tells The Jerusalem Report in a telephone interview.
That urgency can be seen in the choice of works on display. Most are provocative, emphasizing a bold defiance of the traditional art world, as opposed to more subtle methods of subversion or attempts to slowly rediscover traditional forms of “women’s art.”
With some 30 paintings and decorative objects, the show is largely drawn from the museum’s collection, although a few pieces are on loan. The 27 artists whose works are featured span the 1930s to the present, yet the show does not attempt to be a survey of feminist art and the works are not presented in chronological or strict stylistic order. Rather, they are divided into six themes: self-expression, the body, decoration, politics, writing and satire.
The topics provide a loose structure, so that walking through the rooms feels like partaking of a visual smorgasbord; one gets to nibble a little at each selection.
MANY OF THE PIECES, SUCH AS the 1962 still life “Matzo Meal” by Audrey Flack, depicting storebought Passover products, have an obviously Jewish feel. Other works lack explicit Jewish content but were included because the artist herself identified as Jewish, in some cases having actively championed social causes from both a Jewish and feminist perspective.
One prominent example of such a work is Judy Chicago’s (née Judy Cohen) 1971 “Sky Flesh,” a minimalist grid that gives way to sprayed layers of soft pinks and blues. Although the piece lacks clear Jewish content, Chicago is so well known for her multimedia work addressing feminist and Jewish subjects that her inclusion doesn’t seem to require an explanation. Similarly, Rosalyn Drexler’s 1966 painting “Is it True What They Say About Dixie,” which equates images of male power with racism in the South, lacks an apparent Jewish connection but seems to be included as a reference to the many Jewish feminists who have been active in the struggle for racial equality in the US.
Indeed, the exhibit has a clear emphasis on the role that Jewish women of the 1960s and 70s have had in furthering feminist art, with one wall text suggesting that Jewish feminists may be more attuned to social issues because of widespread links to leftist politics. A good number of the paintings, both by women and a few men, reflect a kind of feminism that works best alongside other forms of social activism.
In addition to Drexler’s piece, which suggests connections between racial and gender equality, other works tread related ground. “Victims, Holocaust” by Nancy Spero was created in 1968 as part of a series of anti-war drawings, inspired by her opposition to the war in Vietnam. This piece, like her other “war drawings,” as she called them, conflate male anatomy with violence and weaponry. Here, the cruelty of the perpetrators of the Holocaust is seen as connected to a culture predicated on a distorted form of male dominance. Meaningful resistance to political injustice is thus joined to a questioning of a prevalent sexist culture.
For some observers, this kind of feminism, while powerful, will likely feel a little bit dated. Another theme of the exhibition that feels fresher is the challenge to the agesold objectification of the female body. In the works shown, the naked female body is often redrawn and seen anew, bursting with personality and individuality, in contrast to the symbolic meaning historically granted to women’s bodies.
One of the older paintings on display is Lee Lozano’s (née Lenore Knaster) 1962 untitled painting of a headless woman with Jewish stars in place of breasts, and a single breast worn as a pendant around her neck. Full of humor and irony, it seems to equate well-worn religious symbolism with the objectified female body, both of which the artist rejects.
As observers confront this warmly rendered woman’s body, many smile and even laugh. A humorous approach by the artist brings the sensitivities evoked by the piece down to earth, where body and spirit join.
Lozano’s painting is echoed by a very recent work in the exhibition’s satire section. One of the few pieces included that suggest a contemporary, post-feminist aesthetic, Nicole Eisenman’s 2010 painting “Seder,” features a cartoonish scene of a family at a Seder table. The viewer’s perspective is from the head of the table, looking out at those seated around the table. At the center of the disorienting scene are large, pink, swollen hands breaking the matza. Each Seder participant has a plate with a round piece of gefilte fish and a dollop of horseradish on top, taking the form of a woman’s breast. The humorous nods to the female body intertwined with the familiar Jewish domestic scene and an unusual perspective – in which viewer becomes participant – serves to shake up old conceptions of religious traditions and puts women’s bodies, always a contentious subject, at the head of the table.
But Eisenman’s complex parody of feminist symbolism would not be possible without earlier artists who pioneered feminist innovations in art, both in content and technique. The inclusion of several such artists allows for the tracking of this movement over the last half century, and may well be the true strength of this exhibition.
BELASCO SAYS THAT HE TRIED to create a sense of history throughout the exhibition, focusing more on individual works of art than on the personalities who created them. He points to the 1932 selfportrait of Lee Krasner, the Jewish painter married (often unhappily) to Jackson Pollock, as the start of the historical tour; then to what are referred to as second-generation artists, especially active in the mid-60s; finally leading to the postmodern sensibilities of contemporary up-and-coming artists.
One key second-generation feminist artist is Louise Fishman, who was active in 1960s women artists’ consciousness-raising groups and established a “layered, gestural painting informed by feminism.” Her 1981 painting “Golem” refers to the Jewish legend in which rabbis have used kabbalistic incantations to create an animate being out of dirt. In this painting, one sees a series of interlocking circles coming out of a dark background in a style informed by the powerful strokes of Abstract Expressionism. The golem, once the realm of the male mystical figure, begins here a new phase as the creation of a female artist as Fishman uses distinctly feminine circular objects in this work. Like American-Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick’s 1997 novel “The Puttermesser Papers,” Fishman uses the golem as a springboard to consider female creativity – and perhaps motherhood – in a man’s world.
In a style parallel to Fishman, artist Deborah Kass challenges artistic trends set by male artists. Her “Double Red Yentl, Split” from “My Elvis” is a clear viewer favorite, appropriating the format of Andy Warhol’s famed diptych of Elvis Presley in a cowboy outfit. Here we have large depictions of Barbara Streisand in drag as Yentl, the yeshiva boy, reproduced in Warhol’s iconic style. The painting’s wall label describes Kass as an artist who “fearlessly adopts a male-identified style to overcome social barriers to creative achievement.” Yet part of what makes the painting such a draw is the oddness of it, the sense of gender-as-costume. The painting also seems to be suggesting the discomfort of being a female artist in a male world, the need to wear clothes that aren’t really made for you in order to achieve on a public scale.
For those interested in a quieter kind of feminist art, based on the rediscovery of women’s creativity instead of a challenge to male trends, Belasco suggests Miriam Schapiro’s works in the decorative arts section of the exhibit. Schapiro’s 1979 “Blue Burst Fan” synthesizes painting with needlework, once considered woman’s work and here displayed as fine art. Instead of a traditional canvas, the canvas itself takes on the shape of a fan, suggesting ways that feminist artists blur the boundaries between object and painting and welcome new shapes into the canon.
Another piece with a powerful sense of honoring women’s history is Nancy Spero’s 1995 large-scale piece entitled “Masha Bruskina.” Using stenciled texts and reproduced photographs on fragile material that reminds one of Egyptian papyrus, it tells the tragic story of a Jewish teenage girl, who was one of the first Soviet partisans killed by the Nazis. Its collage quality, piecing together information outside of the dominant narrative, pays homage to all the untold stories throughout history through the telling of just one specific story.
Somehow in this one sad retelling, one feels the richness of the lives of all individuals who have been excluded from the annals of history for no particular reason.
To offer further historical framework for “Shifting the Gaze,” the curatorial staff of the museum has created a list of over 550 women artists, from Renaissance Italian weavers to contemporary video artists, who have been represented in special exhibitions at the museum since 1947. The index is available at the museum’s website, www.thejewishmuseum.org.
With such obvious themes of inclusion, the lack of works by Israeli and international feminist artists in this exhibition is made more apparent. Belasco acknowledges that there are many wonderful examples of Israeli feminist paintings, some of which the museum owns or has access to; however he chose not to include them due to “not enough room in a show of this size.”
Israeli feminist artists, he says, have dealt with parallel but different challenges than their American peers. He cites differences in ideology: While Israeli artists were struggling with whether to define themselves as feminists in the 1970s, that was no longer an issue for Americans. Other points of division are content-related. Belasco explains that landscapes are important for Israeli painters in a very different way than for their American counterparts. As for the question of international artists, he says that he was able to identify some pieces of Jewish feminist art, but none of them paintings, and he wanted to keep the exhibit as cohesive as possible.
While the need to focus the exhibition is certainly a legitimate concern, a broader approach to women’s art would have been welcome. Finding room for more international artists and perhaps even more painters of the female experience who don’t fall under a strictly feminist heading would have provided the kind of wide perspective that befits our global times.
In responding to comments from the public – including questions about what works should receive a place in this show – Belasco says he has learned how truly subjective such an exhibition can be. While some complain that too many of the works are strident and provocative, others have asked why so many are light on revolutionary feminist content.
“How people will see this exhibition really depends on what they bring to it,” he explains.