Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America

Overview

Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj have long been considered central artists in the canon of twentieth-century American art: Levine for his biting paintings and prints of social conscience, Segal for his quiet plaster figures evoking the alienation inherent in modern life, Flack for her feminist photorealist canvases, Rivers for his outrageous pop art statements, and Kitaj for his commitment to figuration. Much less known is the fact that at times, all five artists devoted ...

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Overview

Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj have long been considered central artists in the canon of twentieth-century American art: Levine for his biting paintings and prints of social conscience, Segal for his quiet plaster figures evoking the alienation inherent in modern life, Flack for her feminist photorealist canvases, Rivers for his outrageous pop art statements, and Kitaj for his commitment to figuration. Much less known is the fact that at times, all five artists devoted their attention to biblical imagery, in part because of a shared Jewish heritage to which they were inexorably tied.

Taking each artist as an extensive case study, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America uncovers how these artists and a host of their Jewish contemporaries adopted the Bible in innovative ways. Indeed, as Samantha Baskind demonstrates, by linking the past to the present, Jewish American artists customized the biblical narrative in extraordinary ways to address modern issues such as genocide and the Holocaust, gender inequality, assimilation and the immigrant experience, and the establishment and fate of the modern State of Israel, among many other pertinent concerns.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/24/2014
Baskind (Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists) presents an illuminating analysis of the largely ignored biblically-themed work of five Jewish artists, well-known on the 20th century American art scene for their oeuvre: Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R.B. Kitaj. The use of biblical themes was likely to be seen as devotional, or outside "American art's master narrative," and therefore incompatible with traditional avant-garde and a risk to a modern artist's reputation. Baskin therefore explores why each Jewish artist profiled nevertheless chose to portray biblical subject matter, touching on cultural or political factors and the working-out of personal conflicts, among other motivations. Given that Judaism is a religio-cultural heritage, even the self-conscious "Jewishness" of it does not render biblical imagery conventionally religious in the way that devotional art is conceived of in Christianity, by contrast. Baskind convincingly argues, however, that what makes modern biblical art relevant, rich, and authentic in the context of 20th century art is something essential it shares with the Jewish literary genre of midrash: the use of ancient texts to seek and convey contemporary meaning. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"Baskind's careful and detailed analysis and art historical background . . . make this a treasure for art historians and students; biblical, Jewish studies, and feminist scholars; and others."

—Marcia G. Welsh, Library Journal

"Baskind presents an illuminating analysis of the largely ignored biblically-themed work of five Jewish artists, well-known on the twentieth century American art scene for their oeuvre."

—Publishers Weekly

"In our secular age, the idea that the Bible could shape a modern artist, never mind a modern Jewish and American artist, seems odd. Yet in her brilliant new book, Samantha Baskind shows how the Bible—not necessarily only a Jewish Bible (Tanach) but also the American Bible of the Puritans—echoes in Jewish American art. Looking at Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj, Baskind provides a sophisticated and critical reading of how religious imagery survives and flourishes in our secular world."

—Sander L. Gilman, Emory University

"Samantha Baskind admirably undermines the strong tendency among art critics and art historians to ignore the relevance of religion for modern fine art. Her investigation of several important Jewish artists demonstrates irrevocably that biblical religion remains vitally pertinent to the critical understanding of a great deal of art in the modern era. In this beautifully illustrated book, Baskind writes authoritatively about artists whose achievements she carefully scrutinizes for their complex treatment of biblical themes."

—David Morgan, Duke University

"A fascinating and beautifully written examination of the role of biblical art in twentieth-century America."

—Gary Shteyngart

"In a 'modernist' century, known chiefly for its increasing emphases both on pictorial abstraction and on secularism, surely a book on this topic, American biblical subjects, comes as a surprise. That all the artists in question were Jewish Americans, many of them recent immigrants and first generation in their profession, arrives with the force of a revelation. Presenting these discoveries, Samantha Baskind remains fully the master of her material, a mature scholar well known for her specialization in Jewish modern artists of twentieth-century America. She judiciously chooses case studies that span issues of medium, gender, generation, and—ultimately—complex, often multiple, identity. Like these individuals, Baskind manages to hold in creative tension all the disparate components of the designation 'Jewish American artist.'"

—Larry Silver, University of Pennsylvania

"In Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, Samantha Baskind reimages the careers of five well-known modern American artists by training a focus on their mostly little-known, but more than occasional, adaptation of biblical narrative and imagery, both Old- and New Testament-based. Articulating a profound Jewish connection between painters and sculptors not necessarily considered in tandem under any other rubric, Baskind delineates connective paradoxes underscored by the purposeful adaptation of biblical interpretation (midrash) in the career trajectory of each. She argues, in these five case studies, that the freedom of America's secular society enabled re-presentation of ancient archetypes and that these, in turn, provided different but equally important cues for 'navigating modernity.' Baskind's new book opens a number of avenues to a wider interpretation of visual art's role in ongoing debates on ethnicity, gender, and multiculturalism—topics increasingly relevant today. Art historians, Judaic studies scholars, and anyone interested in investigating the American Jewish experience through a twentieth-century lens will profit from reading it."

—Ellen G. Landau, Case Western Reserve University

Library Journal
05/15/2014
Here Baskind (art history, Cleveland State Univ.; coauthor, Jewish Art) takes a scholarly look at five 20th-century American Jewish artists: painters Jack Levine, Larry Rivers, and R.B. Kitaj; sculptor George Segal; and photorealist artist Audrey Flack—all children of immigrants. The author's thesis is that for American Jews, "their native land, their homeland, was the Hebrew Bible," a text that served as "the only Jewish soil they knew." Baskind also cites the Bible as "portable identity in the diaspora," calling the content therein American Jews' connection to Jewish life. Although these artists, as well as some of their Jewish contemporaries in the art world, did not necessarily even think of themselves as Jewish—and certainly not as observant Jews—all seemed to find inspiration (even quite unconsciously) and depth of meaning in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, some of their most profound and compelling works drew from biblical sources. VERDICT Baskind's careful and detailed analysis and art historical background, which looks back to depictions of Jews and Hebrew biblical scenes and figures by artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Hieronymus Bosch, make this a treasure for art historians and students; biblical, Jewish studies, and feminist scholars; and others.—Marcia G. Welsh, Dartmouth Coll. Lib., Hanover, NH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271059839
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/29/2014
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 705,389
  • Product dimensions: 13.70 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University.

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Table of Contents

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1 Catastrophe and the Biblical Archetype in Jack Levine’s Art

2 George Segal and the Book of Genesis

3 Audrey Agonistes: Anguish, Stereotype, and Audrey Flack

4 Biblical Parody: Larry Rivers’s History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews as Counterhistory

5 R. B. Kitaj: Village Explainer of Jewish Art

Epilogue: Jewish Artists and the Formation of the American Art Canon

Notes

Bibliography

Index

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