Arlene Shechet’s “Travel Light” was inspired by her grandmother’s candlesticks, brought with her from Belarus in 1920. In this sculpture recently commissioned by The Jewish Museum, white candlesticks jut out of the white suitcase, holding a pair of tall, blue, partially burned candles. While doing research, Shechet discovered unknown layers of her family’s story and embedded an image from her grandmother’s passport in the piece.
The bulging and battered satchel, held together with straps, is an invocation of past and present, immigrants and refugees, and the things we save. A work of beauty and imagination that has very Jewish as well as universal resonance, “Travel Light” strikes many of the underlying chords of “Scenes from the Collection,” the museum’s newly reinstalled exhibition highlighting the permanent collection.
The new core exhibition is a break from the older edition it replaces, and reflects the more expansive and contemporary outlook of Claudia Gould, who has led the nation’s premier Jewish museum as the Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director since early 2012. Along the way, her approach — which has reinvigorated a debate about universalism vs. particularism and about how “Jewish” The Jewish Museum should be — has won praise and criticism from visitors, artists, art critics and colleagues in the museum world.
Over its more than 100-year history, the museum — housed in the stately former Warburg Mansion on Fifth Avenue for the last 70 years and now operating with an annual budget of $21.5 million — has shifted its identity several times, with differing emphases on fine art, Jewish ceremonial work and Jewish cultural history. The very title of its 2006 exhibit “Too Jewish?” hinted at the challenges faced in exploring Jewish identity in the multicultural public arena.
“Scenes from the Collection” covers the museum’s entire third floor and is a complete redo of the 1993 exhibition “Culture and Continuity,” which unfolded a historical narrative referencing Jewish texts.
“Having an exhibit up for 25 years no longer provided the most relevant or quality educational experience for our public. When I got here, updating it was one of my first goals,” Gould says in an interview conducted in her art-filled office on an upper floor of the museum.
As the curators write in the wall text that opens “Scenes from the Collection,” “a museum’s collection is its heart and soul.” Here, they exhibit about 600 items from the museum’s more than 30,000 works — paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, photographs, antiquities, ritual objects and other pieces of historical significance — and in a break from museum tradition, plan to keep it continually evolving. With its use of seven interpretative approaches — and sections of the exhibit — rather than a single narrative, a design that’s very open and full of light, digital media, minimal explanatory material and a distinctive selection of art and objects, the exhibition is bold and striking in appearance, provocative in its juxtapositions.
“The exhibition tells many stories,” Gould says. “We’re just doing it in a different way — telling the story in a wider way,” she says, referring to the inclusion of many Jewish cultures. She emphasizes, “This is a first round.”
In an informal tour of the exhibition, Susan Braunstein, the Henry J. Leir curator, who has been at the museum for 37 years and is one of the lead curators of the exhibition, says the museum came to understand that visitors these days expect to access information in different ways. (Another lead curator, Jens Hoffmann, former deputy director, was asked to leave the museum in December, after a review of allegations of sexual harassment).
The gallery with the most prominent pieces in the collection, “Constellations,” features a mix of fine art and ritual objects, with connections and potential conversations between them. Adjacent to Shechet’s “Travel Light” are Nicole Eisenman’s brightly colored oil painting “Seder” and a glass case with ceremonial objects including an aquamanile (a late-12th-century cooper hand-washing vessel in the form of a lion; Amy Klein Reichert’s silver “Miriam’s Cup” (with its rim of tiny tambourine-like discs); and Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert’s elegant three-tiered silver-and-glass seder plate in Bauhaus style, originally made in Frankfurt in 1930 and then reproduced here in 1978.
The exhibit emphasizes language as a link between some of the paintings, which feature letters, which create words, which create worlds. Lee Krasner’s markings in an untitled painting resemble Hebrew characters, and in another untitled work, poet and sculptor Wallace Berman assembles stones with Hebrew letters printed on them. Mel Bochner’s painted words are drawn from Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish,” the title of his work. Hanging above is Claire Fontaine’s “Untitled (Tears),” featuring nine neon signs inspired by recorded memories of Ellis Island.
A large golem figure, dressed in a papier-mache coat made of Chinese and Japanese newspapers, is a sculpture and costume, the latter of which was worn on stage in playwright Robert Wilson’s 1987 production “Death, Destruction, and Detroit II.”
Each piece has a text label with brief but relevant background, but it’s up to the viewer to tease out the connections. That’s also the case in a gallery called “Taxonomies,” modeled after the idea of a “Cabinet of Wonders,” with about 350 eclectic items including an 1813 model of the Second Temple in a glass bottle, shofars from around the world and a wooden grogger, or Purim noisemaker, in the form of a hand-cranked stomping foot.
“Accumulations” refers to a category of items with many multiples stored in the collection. In an interactive exhibit, several sets of stereographic photographs taken in the early part of the last century in the Holy Land are on view, both on the wall and through stereographs. Next up in this gallery will be Chanukah menorahs; a sampling of them are showcased in “Constellations.”
In this newly revamped space, windows are again visible, and on a recent afternoon a visitor could see a snow-covered Central Park. Gould’s view is outward-looking, as she wants to “open the doors to everybody, not just to Jewish people. That’s our public.” The first wall text makes clear that the art and objects “express aspects of Jewish culture, history or values, while they also reflect universal issues of art and its relationships to society.”
“Art can represent certain values. A work can directly relate to the Jewish experience or be part of a group exhibition illuminating an underlying humanist or Jewish concept, or a key historical moment.”
“We collect and exhibit works of art that may or may not contain any obvious Jewish content. Art can represent certain values. A work can directly relate to the Jewish experience or be part of a group exhibition illuminating an underlying humanist or Jewish concept, or a key historical moment,” Gould says.
While there’s much that’s intriguing to look at, there’s little sense of the sweep of Jewish history, religion and meaning in the exhibition. In an online conversation with The Jewish Week, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett agrees that that’s not the intent here. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is chief curator of the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
She writes in a post after seeing the exhibit for a second time last week, “While the curatorial and installation approach of the new core exhibition foregrounds the individual object, whether shown alone, in a series, aggregated, or in other configurations, it leaves some visitors yearning for something more than art historical concepts and categories, something more than attention to form and style — something, dare I say, Jewish.”
She continues, “Of course, everything in the exhibition is ‘Jewish’ in some way … but this aspect is mostly incidental, almost a pretext for showing the object, rather than essential to understanding what the object is, what it means, why it matters in Jewish terms.”
Tom Freudenheim, an art historian and retired museum director, comments, “I don’t think it’s a permanent exhibit; it’s more like a temporary exhibition, or an interesting series of special exhibitions. If it were temporary it would be evocative and interesting, but it underlines everybody’s unexpressed feelings that the one thing The Jewish Museum doesn’t [seem to] want to be is Jewish. This has been mumbled about for decades.”
He laments the playing down of Judaica and material culture. “Look, The Jewish Museum wants to be an art museum. It does a lot of extraordinarily interesting exhibitions, but the thing that makes them Jewish is often a very slim thread.”
With a couch and a large screen “Television and Beyond” features a loop of Jewish family scenes, including “Transparent” and Tovah Feldshuh singing in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
“Signs and Symbols” centers on an iconographic image, here the star of David, featuring a mix of tapestries, a stained-glass window from an American sukkah c.1900, the Nancy Spero painting “Victims, Holocaust” made in protest against the Vietnam War, a tallit bag from Persia, a photograph by Gary Raz of a lifeguard tower on a Tel Aviv beach and a belt buckle designed by Isaac Mizrahi.
The “Theresienstadt Bracelet,” which is the centerpiece of “Masterpieces and Curiosities” — a section focusing on a single object and its layers of meaning, with related objects and art around it — had been part of the previous core exhibition, displayed in a showcase with other Holocaust-related material.
Claudia Nahson, the Morris and Eva Feld curator who has been at the museum for 27 years, extensively researched the piece, bequeathed to the museum in 1975 by Greta Perlman, who had been interned in Theresienstadt. Perlman was unknown to the curators at the time. The dangling “charms” are small objects made in a workshop at the camp — including a locket, a tiny comb, a soup ladle, animal figures, a wooden clog — and she may have obtained them in exchange for food, as Nahson discovered that she had worked in the kitchen. Perlman was deported to Auschwitz in October 1944 and liberated from Bergen-Belsen and came to the U.S. after the war. Consulting an iPad, visitors can learn about each item and its possible meaning. How Perlman was able to hold onto the charms and get them out of the camp remains a mystery.
Vivian Mann, curator emerita of The Jewish Museum, says that she was pleasantly surprised to see that “they exhibited some things I had never seen, and I was there for 29 years. Another thing that comes through is how many paintings have been acquired in the last 10 or 15 years, significant additions to the collection.” She’s pleased to see a Rothko in the collection, even if it’s not, she feels, among his most important works.
Jewish art and artifacts are specific to the Jewish experience, but also shed light on the contemporary moment — what is universally shared. These are important times for Jewish museums to try to do both.”
Mann, who specializes in Judaica, also says that the museum might have “done more to emphasize the strength of the Judaica collection, one of the two best in the world” (the other is the Israel Museum).
The “Personas” gallery features self-portraits by artists Louise Nevelson, Theresa Bernstein, Man Ray and others. A text panel asks, “On reflection, might one not consider the entire cultural and artistic range of ‘Scenes from the Collection’ as a kind of self-portrait of the Jewish Museum?”
“In terms of the universal and the particular,” she says, “Jewish art and artifacts are specific to the Jewish experience, but also shed light on the contemporary moment — what is universally shared. These are important times for Jewish museums to try to do both.”Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, says, “Every Jewish museum has the responsibility to tell a story, and a major tool for advancing that story is a collection.” She finds The Jewish Museum’s approach “very clever, allowing for rotation possibilities, flexibility and the opportunity to create new encounters.”
Looking at her tenure, Gould speaks of an evolving vision. “It’s about having to figure out what contributions you can make and what the institution needs at that time, and you have to look outward at what others are doing. We needed to figure out how to move the needle forward without moving the mission.
“I don’t think we could have done any better, given the space,” she says of “Scenes from the Collection.”
Has her own Jewish identity been influenced by her work? “In every possible way you can imagine.” (The fact that Gould is Jewish on her father’s side engendered some discussion when she was hired.)
“People ask, ‘Would you ever change the name of the museum?’ No, we just need to live up to it.”