Enlarging Jewish Comprehension Through The Visual Arts
The Memorial Foundation's mandate has historically been most often expressed by our support for the creation, intensification and dissemination of Jewish culture around the world through our fellowship and scholarship grants to scholars, academics and researchers working in the traditional disciplines of Jewish studies, (e.g. Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy and Thought, Bible, Hebrew Language, Rabbinic Literature, etc.).
Because the visual arts have emerged as a major cultural and educational force in the contemporary world, the Foundation has in the past supported within our fellowship program a limited number of selected visual artists who are on the cutting edge of Jewish contemporary art, intrinsic to the Jewish experience. We have successfully identified a number of such artists and awarded them with fellowships to pursue their innovative approaches and projects.
In this Board Briefing I am reporting on three of those artists, living in different Diaspora communities - the United States, Argentina, and Australia - who are engaged in artistic endeavors in ways that we believe have meaning for the generation of Jews raised within Western societies who have been greatly influenced by the visual culture so dominant in their cultural experience.
Jill Nathanson, a New York based painter, received a Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2007 for a series of collages, "New Translations." Already recognized as a gifted painter for her work, she developed in the early 1990s a strong interest in Jewish texts and Jewish thought. As a result of her religious studies, she began to feel that midrashic and kabbalistic interpretations of the Torah were strikingly similar to her own notions of the dynamic unity in abstract painting. As a result of her growing interest in Jewish texts, she sought to integrate her art with a growing interest in Torah studies.
Nathanson began serious religious study with Prof. Arnold Eisen, then Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Stanford University and now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. Prof. Eisen became a collaborator in her work, creating a remarkable union of artistic creativity.
In the "New Translations" collages, Nathanson, who thinks of painting as a visual process rather than an image, explores the six days of creation in a series of art works, accompanied by midrashic commentaries by Prof. Eisen, based on a reading of Genesis 1— 6, the story of creation and the opening of the eyes of Adam and Eve. In her mixed media color assemblages, she uses color and material to order the tohu v'vohu described in the Bible, "the welter and waste," in Robert Alter's translation, into six panels without actual representation. Hers is an abstract genesis in which she attempts to somehow make visible the specific events of each day, the beginnings of light, matter, separation, and life by focusing on the elemental relationships in the abstract painting, thereby echoing these acts of creation.
Prof. Matthew Baigell, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Rutgers University, believes that Nathanson "encourages each individual to visualize, in the combinations of colors and forms, intimation of the Divine, and to link one's own being to the Divine, uninhibited by the bound structures of language and prior thought."
"Seeing Sinai," an earlier work by Nathanson, is also a combination of art with traditional midrashic commentary. The work attempts to enable the readers of the Torah text to imagine themselves as they stood at Sinai, re-experiencing G-d's revelation, not by hearing G-d's voice, but through silent seeing.
The collaboration between Jill Nathanson and Prof. Eisen presents a most novel way of integrating the visual arts and the traditional mode of Jewish commentary in a manner that demonstrates that Judaism and the arts need not be diametrically opposed.
Rodney Glick, a resident of Perth, Australia, is one of his country's most prominent artists, working in a wide variety of media, including painting, sculpture, video, photography, architecture, and public art. He has exhibited widely and successfully in Australia and internationally. His work, classified as fictional realism, crosses borders which otherwise allow subjects and spheres to remain discreet, and challenges established norms with subtle humor and irony that compel the viewer to think about unfamiliar contexts.
He received a fellowship from the Memorial Foundation in 2007-08 for his work, "Master of Prayer". Like Nathanson, the project was done in collaboration, in this case with David Solomon from Australia, a scholar of Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism. The project deals with the traditional mode of Jewish prayer. Glick arranges a minyan of computers, nine as lay readers and a tenth serving as a chazzan. The computers are linked, utilizing the most advanced computer technology, including text vocalization software. Each of the computers responds differently with unique computer voices at the appropriate moments, as if they are congregational members participating in a religious service. The intended affect is somewhat surreal - computers in communion with the Divine.
On the surface, this bold installation causes us to revisit the meaning of prayer, especially the importance of kavana — intentionality, and how formalized aspects of Jewish liturgy can become mechanical and lifeless. On another level, it prompts us to review the relationship between spirituality and artificial intelligence, and whether, and the degree to which, the modern technology we have created can become a valid extension of the human quest for spirituality.
Mirta Kupferminc, the child of survivors born after the Holocaust and a leading Argentinean artist, is part of a growing international phenomenon of trying to chronicle the destruction of European Jewry through art and film.
She received a Memorial Foundation fellowship in 2008 for her project, "The Name and The Number", a comparison between the numbered tattoos made in Auschwitz and contemporary ornamental tattoos; so popular nowadays among young people. Her work compares the two, presenting the difference between those inscribed voluntarily and the others done in Auschwitz, intended to degrade and profane the body and identity of Jews and their religious precepts. She explores the tattoos of her parents as the ultimate dehumanizing act, and honors their defiance in retaining them as testimony against historical forgetting. In the words of Jean Bloch-Rosensaft, her project is a challenge "to reflect on this form of degradation in a contemporary culture where body markings, freely chosen connote aesthetic display".
On a deeper level, based on our Jewish biblical and kabalistic legacies, she works to re-imagine the Holocaust for the next generation. She successfully builds links between her family history and the wider history of the Jewish people to touch on the history of our contemporary civilization, emphasizing the human capacity to survive and heal the world.
Mirta Kumpferminc has exhibited in more than 45 individual shows in ten countries around the world. She has also received many international and national art awards in Argentina where she is well known. Her most recent exhibits include "The Latin American Jewish Experience Through Plural Lenses, at Tel Aviv University in July 2009, and her first major show in New York, organized this past October at the museum of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
The common denominator of these artists, all recognized as successful in the countries in which they reside, is that they have, with our support and by the creative use of visual culture enlarged the comprehension and parameters of our Jewish cultural experience.
With warm regards.
Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President