Art in the USA

United States
by Samantha Baskind

The term Jewish American art, like the more generalized Jewish art, is fraught with complications and variously understood. Critics debate whether Jewish American art need only be art made by a Jewish American, independent of content, or if both the artist's and the artwork's identity must be Jewish. Indeed, working in myriad styles and adopting both figuration and abstraction, some artists address Jewishness and the more specific Jewish American experience, while others make art indistinguishable in subject from their gentile counterparts. If a Jewish American artist should be defined sociologically or by theme remains an open question, and thus in this essay Jewish American artists are accepted by either criteria, leaving the matter for the reader to decide.

Before 1900

While Jews arrived in America as early as 1654, they did not enter the visual arts in a meaningful way until the 19th century. The freedoms accorded Jews enabled them to participate in the plastic arts, but the loosening of religious strictures as well as uneasiness about the respectability of an art career disappeared slowly. Hesitancy was often the result of the Second Commandment, the prohibition against graven images. Myer *Myers was an 18th-century silversmith who made both lay and religious objects for colonial merchants. He created rimmonim for several synagogues, including New York's Congregation Shearith Israel and the Yeshuat Israel Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. In the 19th century, a handful of Jews painted portraits. Wealthy patrons commissioned the brothers Joshua and John Canter (or Canterson) to record their visages. Theodore Sidney *Moïse, Frederick E. Cohen, and Jacob Hart Lazarus are other 19th century Jewish portraitists of note.

Solomon Nunes *Carvalho is the best-known painter from this period. In addition to making portraits of members of the Jewish community, he did allegorical portraits, including one of Abraham Lincoln (1865). Carvalho created a few biblical paintings and landscapes as well, but his fame rests on his work as a daguerreotypist for John C. Frémont's 1853 exploratory expedition through Kansas, Utah, and Colorado. Max *Rosenthal was the official illustrator for the United States Military Commission during the Civil War. Later, Rosenthal painted Jesus at Prayer for a Protestant church in Baltimore, presenting Jesus with phylacteries on his forehead and right arm. The altarpiece was promptly rejected. Henry *Mosler began his career as an artist correspondent for Harper's Weekly during the Civil War. Like many non-Jewish artists, Mosler went to Europe for artistic training. He soon became a painter of genre scenes, frequently picturing peasant life in Brittany, France. His canvas The Wedding Feast, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon, records Breton marriage customs (c. 1892).

The eminent sculptor Moses Jacob *Ezekiel made numerous portrait heads, including a bronze bust of Isaac Mayer Wise in 1899. The B'nai B'rith commissioned Ezekiel's large marble group Religious Liberty for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and in 1888 he designed the seal for the recently established Jewish Publication Society of America. Ephraim Keyser created commemorative sculptures, for instance President Chester Arthur's tomb at the Rural Cemetery in Albany, New York. Katherine M. Cohen studied with the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and made portrait busts. These early painters and sculptors worked independently and were not readily known to each other. They created in relatively divergent styles along the same trends as the larger American community. It was not until the 20th century that Jewish American artists began interacting and taking art classes together.


Among the large 1880 to 1920 influx of immigrants to the United States were two million Jews. Mostly from poor communities in Eastern Europe, these immigrants were eager to assimilate. The Educational Alliance, a settlement house on the Lower East Side of New York City where many immigrants went to learn American manners and customs, offered art classes starting in 1895. Art classes were discontinued in 1905, resuming in 1917. From the school's reopening until 1955, Russian immigrant Abbo Ostrowsky served as director of the institution. Many well-known artists studied at the Alliance, including the sculptors Saul *Baizerman, Jo *Davidson, and Chaim *Gross, and the painters Philip Evergood, Barnett *Newman, and Moses *Soyer. The Alliance sponsored art exhibitions as did other Jewishly identified venues in New York. In 1912 the Ethical Culture Society's Madison House Settlement arranged a show of Jewish Russian immigrant artists, such as Samuel Halpert, in which Gentile artists also participated. The People's Art Guild held over 60 exhibitions from 1915 to 1918. In May 1917, 300 works by 89 artists were exhibited at the Forverts Building (the Yiddish daily newspaper the Forward), of which over half were Jewish. Well-known philanthropists Stephen Wise, Judah Magnes, and Jacob Schiff helped sponsor the exhibition. From 1925 to 1927 the Jewish Art Center, directed by Jennings Tofel and Benjamin *Kopman, held exhibitions focusing on Yiddish culture.

In the early decades of the 20th century some artists, such as Abraham *Walkowitz, William Meyerowitz, and Jacob *Epstein, began their nascent careers by picturing imagery of the Lower East Side. The gentile observer Hutchins Hapgood described East Side imagery in his 1902 text, "The Spirit of the Ghetto" as typically Jewish. Characterizing such work as "Ghetto art," Hapgood named Epstein, Bernard Gussow, and Nathaniel Loewenberg as exemplars of the mode. To illustrate Hapgood's evocation of the cultural and religious nature of the Jewish people, Epstein made 52 drawings and a cover design for the book. Epstein later became an expatriate, settling in London and gaining fame as a sculptor.

The photographer Alfred *Stieglitz championed modernism in the 1910s. While most of the artists that Stieglitz supported were not Jewish, the avant-garde painter and sculptor Max *Weber enjoyed his patronage. An underlying tone of antisemitism, or at least an intense nativism, pervaded some discussions of modernism at this time. The conservative critic Royal Cortissoz described modernism as "Ellis Island art," while others termed it the art of aliens. Indeed, modernism was frequently associated with Jews, a position later adopted by Hitler.

Many artists addressed political, social, and economic issues, especially during the Great Depression. It has been argued that traditions of social justice impel Jewish artists to create imagery of the underdog. Although secular in theme, these works – influenced by the Jewish experience – would be recognized as Jewish American art even by critics who define the term in its strictest sense. Working as Social Realists in the 1930s, the *Soyer brothers (Raphael, Moses, and Isaac) observed the mundane details of life, like waiting in an unemployment line, with gentleness and compassion. Peter *Blume and Ben *Shahn were more overtly politically committed; Shahn made over 20 images decrying the ethnically biased trial and execution of Italian American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. William *Gropper expressed his political sympathies as a cartoonist for the left-wing publications New Masses and the Yiddish daily Morning Freiheit. Some artists' work appeared in the Yiddish journal Schriftn and in The Menorah Journal, a periodical devoted to Jewish culture that also attempted at various times to define Jewish art.

Louis *Lozowick, who worked as a Precisionist painter of city scenes and at times as a Social Realist, was also an art critic for The Menorah Journal. In a 1924 article on Jewish artists who recently exhibited in New York, Lozowick mentions Theresa *Bernstein, William Gropper, and William *Zorach, among others. Although few of the names devoted their art to Jewish themes (at least at that time), Lozowick's identification of the artists as Jewish indicates that he, like many critics, understood the term Jewish artist as connoting the ethnic identification of the artist rather than the artist's subject matter. A year later Peter Krasnow explicitly defined Jewish art in The Menorah Journal as any art produced by a Jew regardless of subject. In this early period of Jewish integration into America, most artists tried to avoid this kind of discourse, fearing that such categorization would pigeonhole their work as Other or parochial. There was, however, ambivalence on the part of many artists. To be sure, even if artists shied away from the classification "Jewish artist," several still displayed their work at the aforementioned Jewish Art Center and the Educational Alliance, among other Jewish locales. The art exhibitions of the Yiddisher Kultur Farband (YKUF), a Communist organization dedicated to fighting fascism, were also quite popular. Established in September 1937 by the World Alliance for Yiddish Culture, YKUF's first art exhibition was held in 1938. Minna *Harkavy, Lionel *Reiss, and Louis Ribak were among 102 artists who showed work on both Jewish and non-Jewish material.

In 1936, nine Jewish artists formed a group they dubbed "The Ten" (the tenth spot was reserved for a guest artist). *Ben-Zion, Ilya *Bolotowsky, Adolph *Gottlieb, Louis Harris, Jack Kufeld, Marcus Rothkowitz (Marc *Rothko), Louis *Schanker, Joseph Solman, and Nahum Tschacbasov exhibited together for four years. That the artists shared a Jewish background is typically understood as a coincidence. No common style or theme pervades the group's work, but most members were committed to modernist developments.

In the 1940s Jack *Levine worked as a Social Realist, although he painted more satirically and expressionistically than did the practitioners of the mode in the thirties. Beginning in 1941, Levine painted and made prints of biblical figures and stories in addition to his politically motivated art. After his first biblical painting, Planning Solomon's Temple, Levine rendered hundreds more images inspired by the Bible's narrative. Often employing Hebrew labels to identify figures, Levine's biblical works, he explained, attempt to augment Jewish pictorial expression, which he felt was hampered by the Second Commandment. The Boston-born Levine began a lifelong friendship with Hyman *Bloom when the pair started studying art together at a Jewish Community Center in their early teens. Bloom also retained the human figure in an increasingly abstract art world, painting secular and religious matter in brilliant colors.


A number of the leading Abstract Expressionists were Jewish. Adolph Gottlieb, Philip *Guston, Franz *Kline, Lee *Krasner, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko are among several artists who eschewed representation in the late 1940s and 1950s. The style(s) in which the artists worked are difficult to generalize, but they typically painted on large canvases and were interested in spontaneous expression. Although abstract, Newman's painting has been understood as shaped by his Jewish sensibilities, in part because of titles like Covenant and The Name, and also because, it has been argued, his knowledge of Kabbalah influenced his "zip paintings," which can be read as symbolic of God and Creation. Some second-generation Abstract Expressionists were also Jewish. Helen *Frankenthaler and Morris *Louis stained unprimed canvases with thinned color that seemed to float on and through the canvas. Louis named a series of his paintings with letters from the Hebrew alphabet. Clement *Greenberg and Harold *Rosenberg, two of the main art critics who promulgated abstraction, were Jewish.

Although better known for his criticism of contemporary art, Rosenberg also wrote one of the canonical articles on Jewish art. Published in Commentary in July 1966, Rosenberg's sarcastic and provocative essay "Is There a Jewish Art?" continues to serve as a springboard for scholarly discussions of Jewish art in America and abroad. Influenced in part by the formalist concerns of Abstract Expressionism, Rosenberg argued that an authentic Jewish art must be defined stylistically.

Artists who worked as Social Realists during the 1930s turned their sensibilities toward the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Raphael Soyer made a lithograph titled Amos on Racial Equality (1960s), which quotes Amos in Hebrew and English and depicts a white woman carrying a black infant. Ben Shahn's lithograph Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By (1965) portrays an oversized interracial handshake. The title comes from Leviticus 19:16 and is printed in Hebrew and in English at the top of the image. Artists of the next generation also addressed social issues. After the fact, R.B. *Kitaj comments on the integration of blacks into professional baseball with his painting Amerika (Baseball) (1983–84). Jewish-black relations have become strained since the civil rights movement, a situation Art *Spiegelman tackled with his cover design of a black woman kissing a ḥasidic man for the February 1993 issue of the New Yorker.

Two Jewish artists initiated the Feminist Art Movement. At the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, Judy *Chicago and Miriam Schapiro jointly founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971. Chicago is especially known for her enormous multimedia installation The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (1974–79). Made with over 400 collaborators, The Dinner Party was created to raise awareness of a forgotten women's history in a male-dominated society. Audrey Flack and Barbara *Kruger are also important feminist artists; Flack's photorealist paintings comment on stereotypes of femininity and Kruger deconstructs power relations in her photomontage images. Recent scholarship has argued that many of the early feminist artists were Jewish because as perennial outsiders and as the children or grandchildren of radical immigrants, fighting for justice and equality was a natural heritage. With such a link, feminist art by Jews would also be considered "Jewish Art" by critics who feel that elements of the Jewish experience, spiritual or secular, must be a prerequisite for art to receive this label.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Jewish artists worked in diverse manners. Jim *Dine and Roy *Lichtenstein engaged a Pop idiom in the vein of Andy Warhol during the 1960s. Emerging into the public eye in the 1970s, Philip *Pearlstein paints figures in a flat, unemotional style that treats the human form with the same objectivity as the inanimate objects surrounding the model. Also painting figuratively, Alex *Katz typically fills his large canvases with the flattened, simplified heads and shoulders of his sitters rendered in crisp color. Sol *LeWitt explored and wrote about Conceptual Art in addition to making Minimalist sculpture, and Jonathan *Borofsky continues to make multimedia site-specific installations using his own life as source material. In contrast, sculptor and Process artist Richard *Serra asserts that his focus on the physical qualities of material and the act of creation leave little room for expressions of the artist's personality.

Some artists who mostly worked akin to the mainstream for the majority of their careers became interested in Jewish matter later in life. Raphael Soyer illustrated two volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer's memoirs (1978, 1981) and two short stories by Singer for the Limited Editions Club (1979). Larry *Rivers also illustrated a Singer story for the Limited Editions Club (1984) and painted an enormous three-paneled painting tackling the nearly four-millennia history of the Jews called History of Matzah (The Story of the Jews) (1982–84). Husband and wife William Meyerowitz and Theresa Bernstein traveled to Israel 13 times after 1948 and painted many images of the land after pursuing a more traditional American art trajectory before this time. Chaim Gross began sculpting Jewish subjects in the 1960s. While Ben Shahn and Leonard *Baskin explored some Jewish topics early on, they more consistently embraced Jewish identity in the visual arts as they aged, notably with Haggadah illustrations done in 1965 and 1974, respectively. Earlier in the century Saul *Raskin (1941) illustrated a Haggadah with woodcuts.

The Holocaust in Jewish American Art

Many Jewish American artists have treated the events of the Holocaust. Nahum Tschacbasov's 1936 canvas Deportation shows a crowd of emaciated deportees restrained by a fence. Ben-Zion was a poet who turned to painting because he felt that words could not adequately express the horrors of fascism and later the Shoah. Exhibited as a whole in 1946, the series De Profundis (Out of the Depths): In Memory of the Massacred Jews of Nazi Europe comprises 17 expressionistic works conveying the artist's distress at the events of the Holocaust that also pay homage to those who perished by Nazi hands. Leon *Golub's lithograph Charnel House (1946) and the Burnt Man series of the early 1950s vividly describe victims being exterminated.

Interest in the Holocaust as a subject for art has only increased in the years since artists felt the immediacy of the tragedy. Audrey Flack's photorealist canvas World War II (Vanitas) (1976–77) presents a still life in collage format, including a Jewish star from her key chain and a photograph of the 1945 liberation of Buchenwald taken by Margaret *Bourke-White. Alice Lok Cahana, a survivor of several concentration camps, uses the visual to work through her memories of the Holocaust in semi-abstract mixed media images. Cahana's art, she explains, is her kaddish for those who perished. The sculptor George *Segal symbolically employs the biblical figures Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus in his Holocaust Memorial (1983), which overlooks the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco's Legion of Honor Park. Another Holocaust sculpture group by Segal is at the Jewish Museum in New York (1982). Judy Chicago's enormous installation Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–93) is anchored by a 4½ by 18 foot tapestry titled The Fall, which portrays the disintegration of rationality. While united by an interest in imaging the unthinkable, Holocaust works by Jewish American artists differ greatly in approach, conception, and style.

Last Decade of the Twentieth Century

In the last decade of the 20th century, Jewish identity became an increasing concern in the visual arts. New York City's Jewish Museum investigated this phenomenon in the 1996 exhibition Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities. Paralleling a larger interest in multicultural difference by other marginalized groups, the 18 artists in the show explored Jewish consciousness, while also testing the viewer's and the art world's (dis)comfort with what was perceived by some as excessively conspicuous Jewishness. These highly assimilated younger artists portray vastly different concerns than their immigrant and first-generation predecessors. Long after Andy Warhol, Deborah Kass appropriates Pop techniques and fascination with celebrity in her portraits of Barbra Streisand (1992) and Sandy Koufax (1994). Titling her Streisand silkscreens Jewish Jackies (playing on Warhol's iconic silkscreens of Jackie Kennedy), Kass proffers the ethnic star while subverting American norms of beauty. Also influenced by Warhol, Adam Rolston's Untitled (Manischewitz American Matzos) (1993) asserts ethnicity into a once "pure" American consumer culture. Dennis Kardon's installation Jewish Noses (1993–95) presents an array of noses sculpted from 49 Jewish models, destabilizing the notion that the Jew can be categorized as a monolithic type.

Indeed, just as Kardon demonstrates that the Jew's body cannot be homogenized, neither can Jewish American art. As this essay has described, Jewish American artists (defined broadly) have worked in manifold fashions, partly and sometimes entirely influenced by larger trends, and at the same time making significant contributions in style and content. Jewish American art is a nascent field, rich in material and long due for further exploration.

Bibliography. Z. Amishai-Maisels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (1993); M. Baigell, Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust (1997); M. Baigell, Jewish Artists in New York: The Holocaust Years (2002); S. Baskind, Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (2004); S. Goodman, Jewish Themes/Contemporary American Artists (1982); S. Goodman, Jewish Themes/Contemporary American Artists II (1986); J. Gutmann, "Jewish Participation in the Visual Arts of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America," in: American Jewish Archives (April 1963), 21–57; M. Heyd, Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art (1999); N. Kleeblatt and S. Chevlowe (eds.), Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900–1945 (1991); N. Kleeblatt, Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities (1996); P. Krasnow, "What of Jewish Art?: An Artist's Challenge," in: The Menorah Journal (December 1925), 535–43; L. Lozowick, "Jewish Artists of the Season," in: The Menorah Journal (June-July 1924), 282–85; H. Rosenberg, "Is There a Jewish Art?," in: Commentary (July 1966), 57–60; O. Soltes, Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century (2003); S. Zalkind, Upstarts and Matriarchs: Jewish Women Artists and the Transformation of American Art (2005).

Resources. Traditional Art ; Modern Art ; Art in Israel ; Art and the Holocaust (Art, Jewish Virtual Library, 2008-2013).

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