Monday, March 1, 2010

The Jewish Museum

2/6/2010, Saturday continued 

MUSEUM: The Jewish Museum 
TIME: 2 hr
COST: Free on saturdays 

Pauline’s note: Paul’s favorite piece of art that we own is a photography print by Man Ray.  I hate it and have exiled it to his office.  (It was going to be in the bathroom, but Paul argued that it might get water damaged.)  The Jewish Museum has a large exhibit devoted to Man Ray this year, so Paul was the logical choice to blog about this museum and his favorite artist.  (Our controversial artwork in question is “Larmes” (Tears) 1930 by Man Ray, see picture.  Feel free to weigh in on the argument in the comments.) 

Paul here: Our second museum of the day was a trip back to Museum Mile and the wonderful mansion/museums.  There are actually quite a few Jewish museums in NYC, which befits the huge impact the Jewish community has had on this city. This is the biggest and most celebrated. The Jewish Museum is located in a renovated Gothic Mansion that used to be the home of Frieda Schiff Warburg, a trustee of the Jewish seminary where the original museum was housed.  It moved to the current site in 1944, and has four floors of exhibition space and a café in the basement.  While some of the building has been preserved inside (particularly the 2nd floor), the bulk has been changed to a clean, modern museum aesthetic.

The museum was high on my list because the subject of one of the current exhibits is one of my absolute favorite artists, Man Ray. We went on a Saturday, which is always free. Saturday is the Sabbath, so the store and café were closed. Also, there are no audio tours available on the Sabbath.  Most people took the stairs, but there is a “Sabbath elevator” that runs automatically from floor to floor, with no button pushing necessary.  For those who don’t know, the Sabbath is a day of rest and reflection; all work is forbidden.  It’s an important observation to many Jews, and it inspired Pauline and I to think about our workaholic ways.

The first floor housed the retrospective of Man Ray, a Jewish-American artist who was a major force in the Modernist, Dada and Surrealist movements.  Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in New Jersey, Man Ray experimented with all different art media, including poetry, painting, printed arts, sculpture, photography, performance art, and just about any other art form you could imagine.  He prided himself in not being pigeonholed into any single artistic trend or technique.  He often felt penned in by his critics, who defined him and thus confined him.  One of the first works you see is a testimonial to that: a life mask of Man Ray stuffed in a box and confined by newspapers on all sides, creating a disturbing, claustrophobic piece.  Man Ray’s work is ever changing and challenging, but the exhibition was a pretty complete representation of it. 

Pauline does not like Man Ray.  At best, she “doesn’t see the genius of it all”; at worst she finds it offensive.  However, I think he is one the more overlooked American artists of the 20th century.  His maverick and mercurial nature made him hard to categorize, and I don’t like all of his works, but really, it’s his spirit that I love.  He never seemed to settle in to a normal life and artistically he alternated between popularity and obscurity, but he always refused to be anything but true to his own quirky, absurdist views. 

The top floors of the Jewish Museum are one huge exhibit on the long history of the Jewish people: how they started, where they went, and how they exist today.  It is truly expansive, covering thousands of years.  The over 800 artifacts were impressive, and included primitive ancient artifacts, a replica of an early temple, and one of the most amazing collections of menorahs I've ever seen, ranging from intricate silver antique menorahs from eastern Europe to ultra -modern ones made out of copper drain pipe with a plastic pro-wrestler figurine as a figurehead.  One very impressive collection was the “Danzig” collection consisting of almost every important piece from the city of Danzig (now Gadansk) in Poland/Germany.  Its one of the few intact collections remaining from Eastern Europe, shipped to the US just before the start of WWII, before the Nazis destroyed most evidence of Jewish existence in that region.

Those who know me know I am a bit of a history buff, and I went into this hoping to get a good introduction to Jewish history, something I really don’t know much about.  There were a lot of history exhibits and discussion of the Judaic Faith and some of the branches- primarily the European Ashkenazi and Sephardic Judaism, but I wish they spent more time on Jewish Mysticism and the Cabbala and the text on the displays is very limited.  Both Pauline and I found ourselves wishing we came on a day we could have gotten the audio tour.  There were guides giving tours, and we found ourselves attempting to trail them so we could overhear.  Otherwise, we would have been lost.
The second floor felt like it was right out of the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. The exhibit, called Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life surveys the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects that’s occurred since the mid-1990s.  Contemporary artists and designers transformed the acts of Jewish ritual into new forms and reinterpreted ritual items, such as spice holders, Yamakas, wedding dresses and menorahs.  The projects included industrial design, metalwork, ceramics, video, drawing, comics, sculpture, and textiles from all over the world. The alterations of the spaces, designs and situations in which ritual is performed made this a fascinating and compelling exhibit and made me think about the how and why of the rituals we perform by rote. 

All in all, the Jewish Museum was a good mix of history and art, but we enjoyed the temporary art exhibits the most.  We felt that the history exhibits were largely for people who already knew a lot about Jewish history. 

Pictures in this post, from the top:  
A collage of Hanukkah lamps from the Jewish Museum: Hanukkah Lamp, Josef Kohn, Vienna (Austria), 1872-1921, silver: repoussé, traced, punched, and cast.  (A three-dimensional figure of a peacock set within a frame, as if on stage.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Eastern Europe (?), 18th-early 19th century, Copper alloy: cast and gildedHanukkah Lamp, ZK, Brody, Galicia (Ukraine), 1787, silver: repoussé, pierced, appliqué, parcel-gilt, and cast; copper alloy.  (The form and decoration of this lamp is derived from Torah arks of Polish synagogues of the 18th century. A "balcony" under the ark doors supports the oil containers in the form of leaping lions. Below, the double-headed eagle of Austria proudly spreads its wings.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Possibly Fez (Morocco), 19th centuryHanukkah Lamp, Eastern Europe, early 19th century (?), copper alloy: cast.  (Depicts the Garden of Eden surrounded by a fence and palm trees. In the center is the Tree of Knowledge, filled with fruit, a snake wound around its trunk.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Italy, late 19th-early 20th century, copper alloyHanukkah Lamp, Paris, France after 1917, copper alloy (The body of this lamp is made of two shell casings, while the candleholders consist of bullet cartridges.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Marek Szwarc (French, b. Poland), Paris, France, 1920sHanukkah Lamp, Central Anti-Atlas Mountains (Morocco), 19th century, copper alloy: cast and enameled.  Hanukkah Lamp, India, end of 19th century, copper alloy.  (Lamps in the form of the Star of David are characteristic of the Bene Israel community near Bombay.)  

Larmes” (Tears) 1930, by Man Ray; “Cadeau” (Gift) 1921 by Man Ray, “Black and White” 1936 by Man Ray, “Le violin de Ingres” (Ingres's Violin) 1924 by Man Ray; "Hevruta-Mituta" 2007 by Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein (Plastic chess board and thirty-two knitted skullcaps). 

A collage of modern Hanukkah lamps: Hanukkah Lamp, Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (American, b. Germany), Jerusalem, Israel, 1950-55, Copper alloy: repoussé.   Maquette for a Hanukkah Lamp, David Weinrib (American), Stony Point, New York, United States, 1989, Copper; steel; wood; wax. (This piece was created as a maquette for a Hanukkah lamp for Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, New York. It is made of "found" industrial materials.) Menorahmorph, Karim Rashid (American, b. Egypt), New York, United States, 2004, Silicone and stainless steel.  Hanukkah Lamp, United States, c. 1926-1940, Copper alloy: cast and gilded.  (The letters comprising the candleholders spell out the name of a Jewish woman's organization, Ivriah.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Silver: pierced glass, by Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (American, b. Germany), Jerusalem, Israel, 1953 (Inscription: "To you, praise is fitting" from "Ma'oz Tzur").  Hanukkah Lamp, Manufacturer: Orivit-Aktiengesellschaft, Germany, 1900-1905, white metal: cast and silver-plated; glass: mold formed.

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