Last spring, The Jewish Museum’s Kaplan Gallery was bursting with color, with designer Isaac Mizrahi’s bold creations. Now, the space that was once the Warburg mansion’s dining room is filled with hundreds of plush teddy bears arranged by artist and musician Charlemagne Palestine.
First, the name: He was born Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine in Brooklyn in 1947 to Eastern European immigrants. In a conversation in the gallery last week, the artist said that his father’s family members came from Odessa, and they might have been part of that city’s Palestine Society, thus the name. As for Charlemagne, the name was given to him by a high school girlfriend — he had been called Charles Martin and his mother never liked Charlie, and somehow the name Charlemagne stuck.
“For many years, Jews were afraid of my last name,” he says. “My work didn’t touch on the subject of Palestine. I am partial to New York. I would like to see that we all live in peace.”
The artist, who now makes his home in Brussels, was here last week for the opening of “Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugaland.” He chatted, standing between the oldest bear in his collection, wearing a tallit and kipa and holding a plush Torah and a repurposed rowboat — found by the artist in Montauk, L.I., then shipped to Europe and now back in New York — overflowing with stuffed toys, arranged playfully albeit with a plan. Palestine wore several scarves in different plaids and a purple bandana over his red-and-white striped shirt. He is — happily — hard to categorize.
“Meshugga,” he says, defining his approach and aesthetic.
Palestine, an established avant-garde composer, musician and performer, also created the exhibition’s accompanying sound, which includes his own experimental recordings, cantorial and chasidic music, echoing through the room.
“People come in wanting to analyze; it’s important to experience this immersive installation first,” says Norman L. Kleeblatt, the chief curator at The Jewish Museum, who organized this first U.S. exhibition of the artists’ plush toy installations.
The exhibition, with teddy bears in rocking chairs, perched on moldings, spiling out of suitcases and parachuting from the ceiling, is an enchanting childlike universe. With twirling disco balls and mirrors, light bounces off the walls. “For children of all ages,” Palestine says.
He relates his interest to the fact that the teddy bear was invented in 1902 by an immigrant Jewish couple, Morris and Rose Michtom, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, near Brownsville, where he was born. The Michtoms hand-sewed the first bear as a tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt, inspired by his refusal to shoot a bear cub on a hunting trip.
Along with the teddy bears are stuffed lions, rag dolls, dinosaurs and more, with “shmattes,” as he describes the small colorful scraps of fabric, all around. An antique harpsichord is open, with a lineup of small bears inside the cover.
“He created a real dialogue with the rather formal historical architecture of this room — it’s the most traditional architecture he has ever worked with,” says Kleeblatt, who is stepping down at the end of this month after 35 years at the museum.
For Palestine, the plush toys are spiritual figures or soul companions.
In a new monograph about the artist, Marie Canet, a curator and art historian in Lyon, France, writes that in Palestine’s view, a stuffed animal is a child’s “first contact with something spiritual while still being inscribed in the real world.”
Since the 1970s, Palestine has been incorporating the stuffed animals into his performance work.
His musical experience dates back to his childhood too, when he sang for seven years with a great cantor, Chazkele Ritter, and a choir in “some of the hotsy-totsiest synagogues in New York.”
Through the father of a school friend, he became a bell ringer for St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, and the influence of liturgical music and the carillon bells pervade his compositions. For the Whitney Biennial in 2014, he had a sound piece on exhibit in the museum’s stairwell — using his voice, footsteps running up and down the steps and reverberations of sounds to create music, with the speakers covered in fabric and stuffed animals.