NEW YORK (Aug. 3)
Max Ferguson spent the first 30 years of his life as what he calls “the world’s worst self-hating, self-denying Jew.” Now, nine years after he embarked on a personal journey to rediscover his roots, he considers himself a Jewish artist.
The transformation happened during trips abroad, when he realized what exactly it means to be a minority.
“In Europe, I would meet people who said to me, `You are the only Jew I ever met,'” Ferguson said. When he decided to attend a synagogue service in Copenhagen, he was “frisked and interrogated” by synagogue guards and had to present his passport before he was allowed to go inside. The synagogue got numerous threats every day.
In the summer of 1991, when Ferguson was living in Munich, he watched a German news report about the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, in which African Americans rioted and killed a Chasidic Torah student after a Lubavitch-driven car struck and killed an African-American boy.
It was then, he says, that he “realized that we are a tiny minority.”
It was also then that he decided to study Hebrew and Yiddish, join an Orthodox synagogue and reflect his newfound Jewish identity in his paintings.
He began by simply writing the Hebrew year next to his signature on his artwork, even if the painting was not on a specifically Jewish theme.
“I didn’t want people not to know that I was Jewish,” said Ferguson, who said his family name does not sound typically Jewish because it was changed when his ancestors immigrated to the United States.
Many of Ferguson’s photo-realistic paintings capture the old Lower East Side, once the heart of New York’s immigrant Jewish community. He has painted such well-known New York Jewish haunts as Ratner’s and Katz’s restaurants on the Lower East Side, as well as a Chasidic Torah scribe.
Ferguson’s work receives praise from inside and outside the Jewish community. Art and Antiquities magazine describes him as an artist whose “realistic paintings are painstakingly achieved and vividly capture a vanishing urban scene in and around New York.”
His paintings have been featured in the Forward newspaper, Hadassah Magazine and other Jewish publications, as well as in the 1997 documentary film, “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.”
Most of his work presents Judaism and Jewish culture in the context of the modern world.
Ferguson’s “Schindler’s List” depicts a movie marquee advertising Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film. Around the theater, life goes on as usual on a rainy day in New York City — parked cars flank the theater, a lone woman in the distance is walking down the street, a red “don’t walk” sign displays its businesslike message. Yet the Jewish content in the midst of the imagery of the modern world is unmistakably the focus of the piece.
Ferguson’s journey is depicted in work that also draws attention to assimilation of Jews in the United States.
His painting, “Ralph Lauren’s Worst Nightmare (Self-Portraits)” is two self- portraits of Ferguson side by side: In one, he is dressed like a Chasid, wearing a black hat and prayer shawl and sporting the thick beard he grew for the painting; in the other, he is clean-shaven and wearing a modern sport coat.
An anecdote is written under the secular self-portrait: “A Jew and a hunchback are walking down the street. They go by a synagogue. The Jew says to the hunchback, `I used to be a Jew.’ And the hunchback says, `I used to be a hunchback.'” Underneath the religious self-portrait, the same story is written in Hebrew.
Ferguson said this piece is a comment on clothing designer Ralph Lauren, whom he describes as “the quintessential WASP-wannabe.” Lauren, who has Jewish roots, changed his last name from Livshitz.
“I have turned around 180 degrees,” said Ferguson, of his Jewish identity and of his work. “I am very proud of my Jewishness. It’s similar to George Gershwin — every note oozes Jewishness, even if it’s not always on a specifically Jewish theme. It has a Jewish soul.
“If my obituary is limited to one word, it would be `Jew.’ It’s me, c’est moi.”
Ferguson’s paintings are currently featured in a realism group exhibit at the Jenkins-Johnson Gallery in San Francisco. Another group show featuring his work recently opened at the Wally Findlay Galleries in East Hampton, N.J. Ferguson is currently painting an art deco series of Miami Beach, focusing on its “Jewish flavor.”