Ah, summer — the great outdoors! For some, warm weather means the cool, watery rush of rafting, the adrenaline of climbing a summit, or the verdant adventures to be had in the wilderness.
Personally, I adore the climate-controlled galleries of a good museum. You might not think of Picasso and Monet as having a season, but they absolutely do, and that season is summer, when institutions worldwide unveil their most ambitious shows.
Ambition, by the way, is back — after a stretch of years when austerity-era budgets left museums without the resources to borrow on a grand scale.
This summer brings a crop of exhibitions that showcase singular, vivid Jewish aesthetic perspectives, from well-known names to talents ripe for rediscovery. In my experience, a well-organized exhibition — one that illuminates art and artists in a broader cultural context — can offer as rich an experience of Jewish heritage as any historical site.
Here is a curated list of Jewish highlights on view this summer — no bug spray or sunblock required.
Philadelphia: “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” National Museum of American Jewish History, through Sept. 2. This one’s the easiest: You can hop an Amtrak and be in Philly in just over an hour to see the first large-scale museum exhibition dedicated to the music, personal life and social activism of the “West Side Story” composer, who was born 100 years ago this year.
It’s sobering to realize that nearly 30 years have passed since we lost this icon of the New York Philharmonic, a larger-than-life cultural presence known affectionately and simply as Lenny. Bernstein’s own piano is on view in Philly, alongside video that brings his career to life, including a documentary of the maestro conducting an ensemble of Holocaust survivors in Germany.
Chicago: “Helen Frankenthaler Prints: The Romance of a New Medium,” Art Institute of Chicago, through Sept. 3. Frankenthaler is one of my favorite painters, persevering in a macho era of abstract artists (she was married to Robert Motherwell, and romantically linked to the influential critic Clement Greenberg) to achieve renown for her vibrant, monumental works. This Chicago show reveals a quieter side of the artist: more than 50 smaller-scale prints she produced over two decades at Universal Limited Art Editions.
New Orleans: “Lee Friedlander in Louisiana,” The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), through Aug. 12. Friedlander, one of the most significant of contemporary American photographers, is the son of a German-Jewish immigrant father and a Finnish-Lutheran mother. Born in Washington State, Friedlander looked South to capture the soul of New Orleans from its most natural perspective, the city streets; his images of jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane are part of an urban narrative that helped define America’s 20th century.
Detroit: “Star Wars and The Power of Costume,” Detroit Institute of Arts, through Sept. 30.
Galleries will stay open late two nights a week at the Detroit Art Institute to the accommodate star-struck crowds who have flocked to see Darth Vader’s mask and Queen Amidala’s robes at this traveling show, which was organized by the Smithsonian in partnership with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and Lucasfilm. The blockbuster franchise has numerous Jewish connections, from its actors (Natalie Portman, Carrie Fisher) to directors (J.J. Abrams) and writers (Lawrence Kasdan).
Frankfurt, Germany: “Frank Auerbach & Lucian Freud,” Städel Museum, through Aug. 12. These Berlin-born giants of German Expressionist painting shared both a long friendship and a Jewish childhood shaped by flight from Nazi Germany. Evacuated to England by Kindertransport, both Auerbach and Freud — grandson of Sigmund — launched art careers in their adopted country, creating intense, intimate portraits of people they knew. On view are little-seen prints and drawings from the artists, who are better known for their paintings.
Wuppertal, Germany: “Jankel Adler and the Avant-Garde,” Von der Heydt Museum, through Aug. 12. Midway between Dortmund and Cologne, the Von de Heydt Museum is worth a stop for a look at a groundbreaking European-Jewish art figure: Jankel Adler, who co-founded a “Young Yiddish” artists’ group in the 1920s and influenced his colleagues Chagall, Otto Dix, Picasso, Modigliani and Paul Klee. The Polish-born Adler fled to Paris and London, saw his art branded by the Nazis as “Bolshevik” and “degenerate,” flouted that label in exhibitions he organized, and founded a cosmopolitan style on view here with 200 works from Israel, Europe and the Americas.
A few more ideas: In San Francisco, the Jewish sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ monumental spiders are on view all summer at the SF Museum of Modern Art. And right here in Manhattan, the Jewish Museum has a spectacular show of Chaim Soutine’s luscious, very rare (ahem) still lifes in “Flesh” (through Sept. 16) — splayed foul, cow carcasses, and shimmering rayfish that push the boundaries of this decorous genre.