At most museums, the bulk of the collection is not on the walls or in display cases, but carefully catalogued and stored, out of sight. At The Jewish Museum, artist Barbara Bloom was extended a dream invitation: to peruse their collection of 25,000 works of ceremonial and fine art, and to configure an altogether new display.
For “As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom,” she selected 276 pieces, ranging from a limestone game piece from the eighth century BCE to a silver cigar box given to Sigmund Freud by a patient in 1903, and has assembled them in a series of provocative tableaux. Teasing out the objects’ meanings, she places them in juxtaposition with other objects and texts from a variety of sources, playing against the historical background of rooms once used by the Warburg family when the stately museum building was their home.
“Barbara Bloom has devoted her career to questioning the ways we perceive and value objects,” says Susan L. Braunstein, Henry J. Leir Curator at The Jewish Museum, who worked closely with Bloom. “In choosing works, she passed over familiar masterpieces and instead discovered value and beauty in those that are peculiar in shape, historically resonant, or marked with traces of past lives.” In Bloom’s words, the objects are “placeholders for thoughts” or messengers.
The exhibition title combines two phrases that hint at other meanings, as though what was said is somehow not entirely accurate or not what it appears to be.
While Bloom doesn’t read Hebrew or Aramaic, she was drawn to the idea and physical design of the Talmud, with its central text and layers of commentary and interpretation, composed over centuries. In the exhibit, she parallels the notion of bringing together different, sometimes dissenting voices, on the same page, as if conversing (so to speak). Here, Bloom is something of an anthropologist, set designer and host of an imagined talk show.
The exhibit opens with recordings of lively conversations that turn to debate and argument, from Woody Allen films, episodes from “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and unrehearsed moments in a yeshiva and at the Knesset. At the entrance to each gallery, eyes peer out — from 18th- and 19th-century oil paintings by unknown artists — as though guests, encouraging viewers to observe and question. And perhaps those eyes are meant to wink across the generations, across the rooms, at Bloom’s more playful pairings.
Texts at the entranceway relate to memory. Psychologist Gabriel Radvansky writes about how walking through doorways causes memory to lapse. And Jonathan Spence describeshow, in 1596, an Italian Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese to build memory palaces (in their heads), as a way to store and then easily retrieve concepts and images from their assigned “rooms.”
Throughout, the display cases are made to look like furniture that belongs in each “room.” The shell of a piano case holds yads, or Torah pointers, from all over the world and dating from the 17th to 20th centuries, of different shapes and sizes, and made of silver, diamond, garnet or glass, as though they were the strings of the piano. Scores to “Summertime” by George Gershwin and “Drei Kalvierstucke” by Arnold Schoenberg are open on the piano’s music stand, and the texts include accounts of tennis games between the two (who played weekly at Gershwin’s home in Beverly Hills in the late 1930s).
Nearby, a closet houses an arrangement of hats, including a woman’s velvet marriage hat from 19th-century Algeria, a special cap for Yom Kippur, probably from Germany in the early 20th century, and a wool concentration camp hat from Auschwitz. The latter inspired Bloom’s inclusion of a statement from Claude Lanzmann, director of the film “Shoah,” addressing Steven Speilberg’s “Schindler’s List” and the problem of depicting the Unspeakable. (She notes that there’s no public record of Spielberg’s response.)
Even as they are filled with themed assemblages, the rooms have airiness, leaving space for reflection. I overhear an educator commenting that the exhibit feels like being in someone else’s brain.
In a library area, books are set inside cut-outs of other books, including a hollowed-out “Speak Memory” by Vladimir Nabokov, with an 18th-century leather-bound miniature prayer book inside. A seating area features couches that are used to display old watches and other time pieces with “Six People Conversing In and Over Time” — texts by and about Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Julian Barnes, David Eagleman, the Aymara people of the Andes (who “think of time differently than everyone else in the world,” seeing the future as behind them and the past ahead) and Ben Lerner.
A bed is covered with a striking patchwork of colorfully illuminated antique Jewish marriage contracts and austere bills of divorcement. Here, the texts refer to love, imagining the Song of Songs sung by Leonard Cohen and psychologist Lou Andreas-Salome.
The dining room is full of double takes. A 1920 painting from the permanent collection, “Friday Evening” by Austrian painter Isidor Kaufmann, hangs on the wall — it’s a portrait of a woman at a table at the onset of Shabbat, sitting alone with the candles lit. Above her fireplace is a mirror, reflecting the room and the chandelier hanging above her table. Here, Bloom has created a painting above the actual fireplace in the room that shows what’s reflected in the mirror in the older painting. So there’s a back-and-forth between Kaufmann’s painting and the room.
That conversation continues: The museum commissioned a chandelier inspired by the painting. This stunning new chandelier hanging from the room’s high ceiling features reproductions of 12 glasses from different eras from the Museum’s collection. Below the chandelier, the original 12 glasses — Kiddush, havdalah and other cups, from a third-century Eastern Mediterranean cup to a new glass from the museum cafe — are set in a circle on a wooden table with glass legs, as though a dozen guests were invited to dinner. The wall text offers several explanations as to why glasses are clinked, along with 12 toasts, from Eskimos, humorist Dorothy Parker, Yiddish proverbs and other sources.
Bloom, who was born in 1951, is a photographer, designer and installation artist who is most often associated with artists like Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Laurie Simmons and Robert Longo. She lives in New York City. She has said that she’s attracted to the important matters of life that take place on a small, everyday scale.
In connection with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum and the New School for Public Engagement are presenting a series of dialogues, with paired speakers addressing theory and practice. On Thursday, May 2, Avital Ronell, professor of literature at New York University and poet and criminal appellate attorney Vanessa Place will discuss “Dialogue and metaphor.” On May 16, Michael Taurrig, professor of anthropology at Columbia University and composer and pianist Anthony Coleman will participate in “Dialogue between strangers and the past.”
“As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom” is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (92nd St.), Manhattan, through Aug. 4. (212) 423-3200.