It’s the 100th anniversary of the legendary 1913 Armory Show, which took place in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue and is widely credited for bringing Modern art to New York. A slew of shows are planned during 2013 in celebration.
I’m trolling for Jewish art at the first of these celebratory art events, The Armory Show, an annual fair that took place last week at the West Side Piers. Which brings us to that nagging and unanswerable question – what is Jewish art? I begin my quest by looking for Jewish names, and find plenty of those: Mel Bochner, Rochelle Feinstein, David Kramer, to cite just a few interesting artists, but there’s very little that is Jewish about their work except perhaps for a common interest in text-based painting.
One painting in brilliant color has a Jewish title. “Alior Itzhak III” (2013), is by the African-American artist, Kehinde Wiley. Widely known for his photo-realistic, classical portraits of young black men, Wiley did a series called “The World Stage: Israel,” featured at The Jewish Museum in 2012, depicting Ethiopian and native-born Jews and Arabs living in Israel. The decorative background in each painting is based on ceremonial Jewish papercuts and quotes in Hebrew and Stars of David surround the central figure. The hand-carved wooden frame is crowned with the Ten Commandments and protective lions, emblems found on many synagogue Torah Arks.
In a very different vein, Israeli photographer and video artist Ori Gersht examines the power of time and landscape to preserve and erase history. Many of his eerily beautiful photographs and videos, taken in Ukraine and Auschwitz, feature landscapes infused with the haunting power of their murderous past. In a dual-projection video work, “Will You Dance For Me” (2011), a Holocaust survivor recounts her history with Gersht’s signature landscapes as accompaniment. In another series, still lifes of flowers, fruits, and especially pomegranates (the Hebrew word for grenade is pomegranate) represent his childhood fear of impending violence growing up in Israel.
And then there’s Cary Leibowitz, aka Candyass — the art world’s answer to the Borsht Belt. A self-proclaimed, “fat, gay, nerdy Jew,” his works are a series of brightly-colored, punchy one-liners, focusing on his insecurities and neuroses. In his site-specific installation, “I NEED TO START SEEING A THERAPIST,” he exponentially expands on his publicly rueful neuroses, with wood and steel letters spread across the Hudson River Park, measuring 275 feet long and 12.5 feet high. Visible from the West Side Highway, and from the Hudson River, the sculpture might well define the New York sensibility in much the same way that the “HOLLYWOOD” sign does L.A.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.