Painter and poet Alan Kaufman has long worn his Zionism on his sleeve. And the 15 paintings of his that San Francisco gallery owner David Himmelberger hung this summer were imbued with it.
But last week, the artist and Himmelberger’s tony Union Square gallery fell out angrily over the dealer’s refusal to publish a catalog to accompany Kaufman’s paintings entitled, “Visionary Expressionism: A Zionist Art.”
When Kaufman showed up at a production meeting with five essays to accompany his paintings, the prominent art dealer “pointed at the title — at the word ‘Zionism.’ He pointed at that word and said, ‘I can’t do that,’” related Kaufman. According to Kaufman, the balky art dealer said, “It represents a platform I can’t support.”
The five catalog essays expounded on Zionist themes manifest in the paintings themselves. But in the Bay Area, said Kaufman, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment run deep among the cultural elite, and that word in bold title text — not to mention the essays themselves — were a red flag for Himmelberger in a way the visual medium was not.
Confronted with the term, the dealer reneged on an “absolute” verbal commitment to produce the catalog for his gallery, said Kaufman. Tentative plans for an additional showing cosponsored by the artist, the dealer and the East Bay Jewish Federation next year have also been scrapped.
But wait: Himmelberger — or his attorney, at least — says it was nothing like that. “From the get-go, Mr. Himmelberger told [Kaufman] he was not going to be able to publish any kind of work to go along with the paintings,” insisted Edward Sarti, the lawyer to whom the Himmelberger Gallery referred a reporter. And Kaufman acknowledged the catalog was not part of their written contract.
Sarti said the essays in Kaufman’s proposed catalog constituted a “political agenda” while “the gallery is in the business of art.” He said Himmelberger remained supportive of the Zionist-themed paintings themselves. They include depictions such as one of Sderot, a town now besieged by regular Palestinian rocket attacks launched from nearby Gaza. As per their contract, Kaufman’s paintings remain at the gallery available for sale, said Sarti.
An e-mail Himmelberger sent to the director of the East Bay Jewish Federation’s Israel program last Friday told a different story. As of Sept. 13, the e-mail said, “Himmelberger Gallery no longer represents Mr. Alan Kaufman.” Himmelberger now “understands he made a mistake,” Sarti said, referring to that e-mail. “The contract is not canceled.”
Kaufman, a post-beat comrade of bohemian literary icons such as Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, termed Himmelberger’s refusal to move ahead with the catalog emblematic of a “pervasive anti-Zionist prejudice” in the world of intellectuals, artists and academics on both coasts.
Now, he and the other essayists are hitting the media, self-dubbed as the “Zionist 5.” Kaufman; David Twersky, a longtime editor and publicist for Jewish groups; David Rosenberg, co-author with Harold Bloom of “The Book of J”; Israeli writer Etgar Keret; and Polly Zavadivker, a Judaic studies scholar, hope to turn the episode into a cause celebre that will redeem Zionism as a concept and as a term.
“Zionism is the Civil Rights Movement of the Jewish People,” the five proclaim in a statement. “It is the answered prayer to two thousand years of ceaseless persecution at the hands of unpredictable host nations.”