What is the connection between Judaism, feminism and art?
Though it’s on the view at The Jewish Museum, “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism” is not a survey of Jewish feminist art. Rather, through a concise presentation of just 33 works — most of them paintings — as well as through a searchable website accompaniment, it is a brief look at the museum’s sometimes complicated relationship with women artists.
Divided into six sections ranging in theme from self-expression to politics, the art draws heavily from the museum’s own collection. These divisions allow for a far-reaching perusal of Judaism’s role (or lack thereof) in the feminist and activist awareness of the artists represented.
A Jewish background has been credited as the influence for everything from anti-war sympathies (see Leon Golub’s “Napalm Man,” 1972) to the use of humor and satire (skip ahead to Deborah Kass’ “Double Red Yentl, Split from My Elvis,” 1993). As artist and writer Joyce Kozloff wrote in an e-mail interview with The Jewish Week, “This upcoming show at The Jewish Museum demonstrates that a lot of the ‘70s feminists were Jewish. (Others were not, of course.) Many of us grew up in liberal, progressive, if not radical homes. Left politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s led inevitably to feminism if you were a woman! We had cut our teeth in the anti-war and civil rights movement, and it was natural to seek justice for women.”
Kozloff’s piece in this exhibit, “Naming II (or Who’s Jewish?)” from 1996, is an old map of New York, its streets renamed for Jewish women prominent in the arts.
Jewish identity and feminism are both nebulous terms when it comes to art and it’s difficult to pin either label to many artists. As Lisa Bloom notes in “Jewish Identities in American Feminist Art,” a book she wrote in 2006, “until the 1990s, public discussions of Jewishness in the New York art world were very rare.”
This sentiment is evident in the exhibit; work made more recently is on the whole more outwardly Jewish. While Bloom and art historian Gail Levin have each published on the topic of Jewish feminist art, relying on artist interviews and research into family histories, the approach is more light-handed here.
The curator here instead to demonstrate through the paintings themselves just how little can be seen as purely feminist or Jewish art.
This would be the case with the inclusion of a recent untitled oil painting by Amy Sillman while on the other hand, Ida Applebroog’s 1987 painting, “Crimson Gardens,” visibly references the Holocaust. Elaine Reichek, an artist represented in the “Painting Decoration” section, quotes her brother-in-law when asked how Judaism might influence her practice saying, “I never think about being Jewish until I leave New York.”
Downtown at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, an exhibit focusing solely on textile art and its relationship with Judaism is on view. “A Stitch in Jewish Time: Provocative Textiles” features a number of artists represented in “Shifting the Gaze,” and while the exhibit touches on feminism, its real emphasis is the link between Jewish heritage and art, some of which is ritualistic; each show provides a compelling context for the other.
“Shifting the Gaze” was organized by associate curator Daniel Belasco, a former Jewish Week staff writer, who is currently writing a book about feminist thought from just before the emergence of the feminist art movement. Given his own interests, and in light of current budgetary limitations, Belasco knew he wanted to do a feminist show generated from within the museum’s own holdings.
“I wanted to see if I could come up with a great collections-based exhibition and was delighted to learn that one of the true, underappreciated strengths of the museum’s collection is painting by women aligned with the feminist movement,” Belasco wrote in an e-mail. “In doing so, I also wanted to shed light on the museum’s past support of the work of many of these artists, through exhibitions and collections. This makes the perhaps subtle point about the centrality of feminism to Jewish culture since the 1980s.”
The Jewish Museum only began in earnest to collect and display art made by women in the 1980s — just a few women in this exhibit such as Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago (then Judy Gerowitz) were included in earlier exhibitions. Belasco is successful in having culled diverse works that shift the gaze to a feminist perspective.
However, what is unfortunately lacking is his scholarly gaze. There is neither a catalogue nor a focused curatorial essay; only a small timeline with period ephemera offers some historical context. Given Belasco’s background, it would have been interesting to read about the topic from his relatively young, male perspective. By offering a number of high-profile lunchtime artist talks, the museum is in part making up for this deficiency.
“Shifting the Gaze” presents a body of artists who range widely — in age, style, affiliation with feminism and Judaism, as well their departure from male-dominated formalist painting. According to Belasco, “The show addresses a number of key trends in contemporary culture. First is the institutionalization of feminist art in the last half-decade throughout the art world. I look at it through a new lens: painting, but over a long span of time. The second is the return of painting to the center of art today. The third is an acknowledgement that feminism has transformed our world, Jewish and otherwise, and that it needs to be studied, celebrated and questioned.”
“Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism,” through Jan. 30 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd Street, (212) 423-3200, www.jewishmuseum.org.; “A Stitch in Jewish Time: Provocative Textiles,” through June 30 at Hebrew Union College, One W. Fourth St., (212) 674-5300, www.huc.edu.