Author Archives: Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker

About Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at, welcomes comments at He lives in Washington, D.C.

Why Crucify Haman?

According to Martin Luther‘s 1543 essay “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Jews demonstrate their “bloodthirsty” and “vengeful” character in their love of the Book of Esther. Luther, a priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation and a known opponent of Jews and Judaism, also said the Book of Esther should be ignored for being “too Jewish” and packed with “too much heathen corruption.” The 18th century German Bible scholar Johann David Michaelis took Luther’s attack on Mordecai and Esther one step further, by protesting Haman’s execution without a fair trial.

Luther and Michaelis were not the only ones to think that the Persian Jews in the Book of Esther should have turned the other cheek to Haman. 


michelangelo's the punish of haman
Michelangelo’s “The Punishment of Haman”

In Michelangelo’s depiction in the Sistine Chapel, “The Punishment of Haman” pays Haman the theological compliment of crucifying him. Though the Jewish (and literal) reading of the Book of Esther is that Haman is the evil antagonist, Michelangelo seems to imply the opposite: Haman’s attempt to kill the Jews was justified, and the fact that the Jews persecuted and killed Haman makes him like Jesus.

Haman’s Cross to Bear

Similarly, a miniature in the collection of The Hague, from around the year 1430, shows a bejeweled Esther kneeling before Ahasuerus begging for the lives of her fellow Jews. Ahasuerus, flanked by attendants and a bearded man, who might be Mordecai, extends his golden scepter to Esther. The story progresses from the left, where Esther kneels, to her right, where a near-naked Haman is crucified behind the seated scribe.

The artist or artists who created the work, referred to as the Azor master, would have been familiar with the fourth century Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which used the word crux to refer to the gallows which Haman created for Mordecai, and which Haman was later hanged upon.

The word the Hebrew Bible uses for the gallows, etz, more properly refers to a tree, though Hebrew versions of the Gospel of Matthew (controversial in their own right because there are no surviving versions from Matthew’s lifetime) also use the word etz in reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Joseph & the Technicolor Dreamcoat

In one of the most dramatic moments in the Bible, Judah boldly confronts the prince of Egypt, who has just accused Benjamin of grand larceny. Judah, still unaware the prince he is talking to is his brother Joseph, desperately begs him not to incarcerate Benjamin: “For how shall I go up to my father without the lad, lest I see the evil that will overtake my father?” (Genesis 44:34).
joseph and the technicolor dreamcoat
An artistic representation of the suspenseful scene in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat adds a multicultural and playful tone. “Oh no, not he. How can you accuse him is a mystery. Save him. Take me. Benjamin is straighter than the tall palm tree,” sings the chorus of brothers in the song “Benjamin Calypso.” The brothers, morphing into whimsical Caribbean dancers with accents to boot, claim that their younger brother is “honest as coconuts,” and try to convince the prince that they are to blame: “Sure as bananas need the sun, we are the criminal guilty ones.”

Not only does the technicolor Joseph script change the tone of the biblical narrative; it also invokes artistic license and modifies several important details. But the play, which was originally written for a primary school audience in the late 1960s, and has since been performed countless times in educational settings and on Broadway, mostly conveys the narrative thrust of one of the greatest stories of parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, and rags to riches. 

What is a Technicolor Dreamcoat?

According to Genesis 37:3, Jacob made Joseph a k’tonet pasim because he loved him more than any of his other sons. K’tonet is the same word used to depict the fur garments that Adam and Eve used to clothe themselves when they realized, post-sin, that they were naked, and it is the same root used to describe the High Priest’s robe. Coat is a valid translation, but pasim is a harder term to define.

According to the medieval French commentator Rashi, the word refers to the garment’s woolen material. Rashi cites references to karpas (wool) in Esther 1:6 and to a k’tonet pasim, a woolen coat, in Samuel 2, 13:18. A midrash that Rashi cites claims the word is an acronym for Joseph’s troubles: Being sold as a slave to Potiphar in Egypt by the Sokharim (merchants), Ishmaelites, and Midyanites (thus PSIM). Nowhere does Rashi suggest the coat was colorful.

Camille Pissarro

Most museum-goers identify Impressionism with Claude Monet’s haystacks, Vincent van Gogh’s starry sky, or Edgar Degas’s sculptures of young dancers. Camille Pissarro’s paintings are less iconic, but they ought to affect fans of Impressionism who are also interested in Jewish art

camille pissarro

Self portrait of Pissarro

Since the identification tags that hang beside his landscapes, cityscapes, and pointillist figures in museums do not usually include his full name–Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro–many people do not realize Pissarro was Jewish. His decision to use his French rather than Hebrew names reflects some of the struggles he and his family had with their faith.

Pissarro Family vs. St. Thomas Rabbinate

The Pissarro family came from a long line of Spanish and Portuguese conversos. Joseph Gabriel Pizzarro, Camille’s grandfather, moved from Portugal to Bordeaux, France toward the end of the 18th century, and his son Frederic (Camille’s father) relocated to the island of St. Thomas (which is now part of the Virgin Islands). As a port that was a major commercial center, St. Thomas was known as a place where people could practice their faith freely, and was home to a small Jewish community.

In 1826, Frederic married Rachel, his uncle’s widow. The announcement in the St. Thomas Times declared the union “by license from His Most Gracious Majesty King Frederick VI, and according to the Israelitish ritual.” But the editors had not checked their facts. The next day, the rabbis of St. Thomas sent a letter to the paper declaring that the wedding transpired “without the knowledge of the Rulers and Wardens of the synagogue, nor was the Ceremony performed according to the usual custom,” since the Book of Leviticus prohibits sexual relations between a man and his aunt.

In 1830, when Camille was born to this religiously-suspect union, he was officially registered at the town’s synagogue, but it took three years after Camille’s birth for the rabbis to accept his parents’ marriage. This might explain why Frederic and Rachel sent Camille to a school that was part of the Moravian Church. When Frederic died, his will granted large and equal parts of his fortune to the local synagogue and church, no doubt a slap in the face of the rabbis.

Simeon Solomon

Simeon Solomon represented dozens of subjects from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Kings, Ezekiel, Ruth, and Song of Songs. Though he created paintings and drawings with titles such as Eve of the Sabbath and Jewish Wedding Ceremony (both published in 1862) and Carrying the Scrolls of the Law (1867), Solomon is relatively unknown in the Jewish community. This is probably due to his disgrace after being accused of public sodomy and his subsequent bankruptcy. Yet trends in current scholarship are giving Solomon’s work a life after death.

Growing Up as an “Ugly Jew”

The eighth child of Michael Solomon and Catherine Levy, Simeon was born in London on October 9, 1840. His father, a merchant who sold Leghorn hats–and the first Jew to be named a Freeman of the City of London, a prerequisite to practicing business in London–died when Simeon was still a teenager. 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, 1863

After his father’s death, Solomon’s brother Abraham taught him studio drawing, while his sister Rebecca was responsible for his Jewish education. According to art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn, Solomon learned “at least some Hebrew,” and he gained “detailed knowledge” of scripture.

In his 20s, Solomon joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters and poets that formed in 1848 as a reaction against London’s top art establishment, the Royal Academy. The brotherhood’s name reflected its members’ desire to return to the morality and sincerity that characterized art before the Italian Renaissance, literally pre-Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelites often included religious symbols and figures in their art, so in this sense Solomon fit right in. 

As a Jew, though, Solomon remained an outsider. In her diary, Solomon’s friend Emily Ernestine Bell called him “very young, ugly, and Jewish looking.” Solomon was “certainly not good looking, rather the reverse,” the historian Oscar Browning, who knew Solomon, echoed. “He was very Jewish but not of the attractive type.”

Though negative stereotypes about Jews pervaded Victorian society, Solomon was painting at a time that Jews were slowly becoming more welcome. In 1858, Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jew to assume a seat in the House of Commons. The same year, Solomon showed his first work, Isaac Offered, at the Royal Academy, the same institution he would later reject as a pre-Raphaelite.

Siona Benjamin

Jewish art tends to be associated with European painters like Chagall, Liebermann, Pissarro, and Soutine. But Bombay-born painter Siona Benjamin, whose art combines Jewish, Indian, and American elements, shatters the misconception that Jewish art is essentially Western.

A Shipwrecked Ancestry, a Rootless Identity

The history of Benjamin’s ancestors, the Bene Israel Jews of India, has been disputed. Legend has it that they were shipwrecked in India, either fleeing the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. or Antiochus IV Epiphanes 600 years later. According to one version of the story, most of the refugees drowned, but a few swam to safety, where the local non-Jewish population welcomed them. The survivors, who lost their holy books at sea, remembered just the Shema prayer. Cut off from extra-biblical writings and Jewish customs, this community borrowed traditions from the native culture.

Much like the stories about the Bene Israel, Benjamin’s life has featured a great deal of cross-cultural exchange. Born in 1961, she grew up in a largely Hindu and Islamic culture, and received her education as a child at Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She was trained in fine arts in Bombay and Illinois, and married a Connecticut native–a man who was raised Russian Orthodox, has Judaism as part of his “family mix,” became a Buddhist in the 1970s, and studied Indian classical music in California. She lives with him in New Jersey.

Given her past, it is not surprising that Benjamin has called the anxiety of finding home, both spiritually and physically, the perpetual preoccupation of her life and career. But she has also described her “rootless” heritage as “seductive,” and indeed her unique story has informed her large body of critically-acclaimed works.

Benjamin’s work has appeared in more than 30 solo shows and more than 60 group shows. She has been reviewed in major U.S. dailies and in Indian-American publications, and has been featured in scholarly articles and books by Jewish art historians Ori Soltes and Matthew Baigell.


The symbol of an eye embedded in the palm of an open hand has had several names throughout the ages, including the hamsa, the eye of Fatima, the hand of Fatima, and the hand of Miriam. The form is sometimes rendered naturally and other times symmetrically with a second thumb replacing the little finger.

The hamsa has been variously interpreted by scholars as a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic amulet, and as a pagan fertility symbol. Yet even as the magical form remains shrouded in mystery and scholars debate nearly every aspect of its emergence, it is recognized today as a kabbalistic amulet and as an important symbol in Jewish art.

hamsa painting


As the references to Fatima (Mohammed’s daughter) and to Miriam (Moses’ sister) suggest, the amulet carries significance to both Jews and Muslims. One of the most prominent early appearances of the hamsa is the image of a large open hand which appears on the Puerta Judiciaria (Gate of Judgment) of the Alhambra, a 14th century Islamic fortress in southern Spain.

The Alhambra hand of Fatima seems to draw upon the Arabic word “khamsa,” which means “five,” a number which itself is identified with fighting the Evil Eye. The Alhambra motif, as well as other Spanish and Moorish hand images, hints at the five pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, pilgrimage, prayer, and tax) in the five fingers of the hand.

According to Islamic folklore, Fatima’s hand became a symbol of faith after her husband Ali came home with a new wife one day. Fatima, who at the time had been cooking, dropped the soup ladle she had been using. Yet she was so preoccupied by the new arrival that she continued stirring using her bare hand, hardly noticing that she was burning herself.

It would not be unusual for an Islamic symbol to find its way into Sephardic Jewish culture, which flourished alongside Islam. However,amulets are somewhat problematic in Judaism. Still, the Talmud refers on several occasions to amulets, or kamiyot, which might come from the Hebrew meaning “to bind.” One law allows for carrying an approved amulet on the Sabbath, which suggests that amulets were common amongst Jews at some points in history. (Shabbat 53a, 61a)

American Jewish Theatre

“People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?'” Isaac Bashevis Singer told a crowd in 1978. Citing his love for ghost stories, he explained, “The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.”

Singer’s final response to the question touched upon the difficult question of identity that continues to plague Jewish theatre in America: “Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.”

jewish american theatreJewish theatre began in America as an attempt to preserve the culture of the shtetl, and as the old collided with the new, Jewish playwrights, actors and theatre owners resurrected it and helped it evolve into a distinctly American Jewish theatre.

Jewish theatre thrived in America first as a primarily Yiddish enterprise, and later in a more distinctly American variety. Ellen Schiff observed in her book Awake and Singing that the term “Jewish Theatre” is so ambiguous that some theatregoers still call into the box office to inquire if a show billed as Jewish theatre will be performed in English or Yiddish. Surely this number is quickly dwindling, but it attests to an ambiguity that is sharply felt by theatre patrons.

While many question just what is Jewish about Jewish theatre, what is clear is that the nostalgia of the Yiddish theatre in America in the late 19th century, pining for the lost shtetl life, gave way over the next century to a new thriving Jewish theatre world. This new realm was and is more forward-thinking and postmodern in its identity.

The Early Years

Nearly three and a half million Jews immigrated to America between 1881 and 1925, primarily from Eastern Europe to the Northeast coast. Yiddish theatre appealed to these Yiddish speaking immigrants, and many have argued that the theatre was a unique place of Jewish community gathering, where classes and religious denominations would mingle. Early theatres such as the People’s, Thalia, and Windsor hosted performances of Yiddish plays just on weekends and Jewish holidays.

Mordecai Ardon

Images reprinted with permission from the Ardon Estate.

Mordecai Ardon’s painting Sarah (1947) depicts the biblical matriarch in a blazing red dress, amidst a sea of blue-purple cloudy forms. Sarah’s arms reach for her face, but they more closely resemble animals’ claws readying themselves to tear her face apart. The anguish is appropriate. Sarah is standing over her son Isaac, who is bound and ready for slaughter.

Richard McBee has suggested that Ardon’s Sarah “is an early Israeli reaction to the Holocaust that harnesses the biblical metaphor of the tragic outcome of the story of the Binding of Isaac (The Jewish Press, June 6, 2006).” McBee cites a rabbinic text which, altering the Bible’s account, tells of Abraham actually sacrificing his son, a perfect fit for Ardon’s reference to the Holocaust. “The shock kills Sarah, just as the horrible reality of the millions slain in the Shoah extinguished the faith of untold thousands.”

Ardon (1896-1992) has been called “Israel’s greatest painter,” and whether this is true (Israel has produced many phenomenal artists, including E. M. Lilien and Hermann Struck), he mixed a modern mode of paint application (bold and heavy) with a love of the European Old Masters, such as da Vinci and Rembrandt. This aesthetic marriage of the old and the new resonated in post-Holocaust Palestine.

Racing Against Time

Ardon, born Mordecai Eliezer Bronstein in Tuchow, Poland, was not supposed to be an artist but a watchmaker like his father. His first experience with art came when he observed a Jewish painter named Roth (his last name is lost) painting a lion, tiger, deer, and eagle in his synagogue. (The animals are Jewish symbols for ideal attributes of the diligent worshiper’s efforts to rise in the morning for prayer: for example, the lion’s strength and the deer’s speed.) Seeing the young Ardon copying his forms on a pad of paper, Roth descended his ladder and admired the drawings so much he pressured Ardon’s father to enroll the young boy in an art class.

Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson is best known as a renaissance woman who blurred the boundaries between sculpture and assemblage, collage and woodworking.

At first glance, her art looks like discarded junk. Nevelson, who died in 1988, collected wood from the street corners of Manhattan and placed them in boxes she’d built, painting the entire business with a monochromatic coat (first black, then white and gold). The heaps of boxes filled with assorted shapes (with a variety of textures from splintered to smooth wood, often with errant nails sticking out) could be confused with an abandoned factory, with alien machines that long ago ceased to function.

“When you put together things that other people have thrown out,” she maintained, “you’re really bringing them to life–spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created.” Indeed, Nevelson’s sculptures-paintings-collages appear far too orderly to be trash.

Uncomfortable Memories

Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1899. Eventually, the Berliawskys left for America, settling in Rockland, Maine in 1905. As an Orthodox Jew she faced discrimination from her peers. Yet, with the help of a friendly local Roman Catholic priest and funds from the New York-based Abraham and Straus department store the Berliawskys helped found Adas Yeshuron, Congregation of the People of Israel in Rockland.

Still, Nevelson’s memories were primarily uncomfortable ones: “We were an immigrant family, foreigners in a Daughters of the Revolution town … they needed foreigners like I need ten holes in my head.”

Budding Artist

Nevelson studied full time at the Art Students League in New York from 1929 to 1930. Forever racing against the grain, in 1931 Nevelson traveled to Munich at a time when Jews were trying to flee to study with renowned German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. Through Hoffman, Nevelson fell in love with Cubism, an encounter she described as “like when some people find God, and I have never left it.”

And yet, Nevelson would leave cubism and lay the groundwork for the later craze for installation art. After a second trip to Europe (this time, Paris), Nevelson enrolled in the Art Students League again in 1932, studying with Hoffman, who had managed to immigrate to New York. Over the next two years, she worked in Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s studio (1932), studied sculpture with Jewish sculptor Chaim Gross at the Educational Alliance (1933), and explored life drawing and painting with George Grosz at the Art Students League (1934).

Her first exhibit came in 1934, when she showed several paintings at Gallery Secession in New York. Her first museum show came the next year, when she exhibited terra-cotta sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1941, the Nierendorf Gallery (NY) exhibited the first solo show of Nevelson’s work, which received complimentary reviews from the New York World-Telegram and the New York Herald Tribune. Nevelson showed her work at that gallery for the next seven years.

Reaching Success

After another solo show in 1942, Nevelson was included in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture, Watercolors, and Drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1946, and would show in that exhibit 13 times over the next 27 years.

In 1952, she was featured in the National Association of Women Artists annual exhibit, and she showed in several one person shows in the following years at the Lotte Jacobi Gallery and at Grand Central Moderns.

In 1958, renowned critic Hilton Kramer published “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson” in Art Magazine, and the next year, Nevelson’s Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959), a room-sized installation, appeared at the Museum of Modern Arts’ show Sixteen Americans.

In 1978, many exhibitions later, New York City mayor Abraham Beame named the downtown triangle surrounded by Maiden Lane, William Street, and Liberty Street the Louise Nevelson Plaza. The plaza is being redesigned to be completed in the fall of 2007.

Memories of Her Past

Nevelson considered her father—a woodcutter and junk collector—an influence on her wooden sculpture scavenger hunting. Yet, she maintained a complicated connection to her father and his steadfast shtetl ways of life. Biographers have suggested she exhibited "surprisingly little curiosity about her homeland," falling prey to "selective amnesia often found among this generation of immigrants."

Laurie Lisle’s 1990 biography notes that Nevelson deliberately signed some works "Louise Neverlands" and never revealed her original name after changing it upon arriving in America. "She discarded her past for a number of reasons, notably the pain of growing up a poor Jewish girl in an insular Yankee town, and later the difficulty of being a rebellious woman in a patriarchal society," Lisle wrote.

At age 35, Nevelson reflected, "I often hear the remark ‘Oh! if I could be a child again,’ but somehow, for myself, I am always so busy living in the present that I never look back to relive my childhood but more to search the ‘why and wherefore’ of things of the present."

Yet despite her cultural and ancestral ambivalence, Nevelson chose to infuse her work with deep Jewish content, becoming one of the most significant modern artists and female artists of the 20th century.

Holocaust Memorials?

Nevelson gave no indication why she devoted several pieces to memorializing the Holocaust. As an artist who had experienced anti-Semitism both in Ukraine and in the United States, one can speculate that the subject matter must have affected her deeply. But such inquiry remains speculation, and Nevelson called her works abstract and insisted they “transcended” religion.

However one views Nevelson’s connection to her religious heritage, Arnold B. Glimcher’s charge in his 1976 book that Nevelson’s Homage to 6,000,000 (1964) was not a Holocaust reference is nothing short of absurd. "The title, like all of Nevelson’s titles, is a designation for purposes of identification," Glimcher wrote, as if Nevelson’s could have just as well titled her work "Untitled #237." Nevelson created two versions of the Homage, one of which resides at the Israel Museum. Nevelson hoped the works would create "a living presence of a people who have triumphed. They rose far and above the greatest that was inflicted upon them. I hear all over this earth a livingness and a presence of these peoples … They have given us a livingness."

In the Jewish Museum catalog, Brooke Kamin Rapaport suggests that Nevelson’s “black walls—already doleful tombs of objects once relating to an individual’s life—were well suited to themes of memory, decay, and death. It was therefore appropriate that Nevelson created two memorials to the Holocaust.” In “Homage,” a triangular arrangement that evokes Ziggurat, contains two central circular forms (embedded inside square boxes) with rectangular forms inside that suggest crosses, or for the very creative viewer, perhaps swastikas.

Nevelson’s The White Flame of the Six Million (1970-1), which is part of the Temple Beth-El sanctuary in Great Neck, clearly references the Holocaust, and was intended "to stimulate the imagination without disturbing meditation." This installation is a long, narrow white rectangular form, with such delicate forms (the “flames,” or perhaps better, vertical waves) that they could pass as cut paper.

Perhaps Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, writing on Sky Covenant (1973) created for Temple Israel in Boston, described the Jewish significance of Nevelson’s work best, noting that her boxes seem unrelated at first. "But as one pushed beyond the separate boxes to encompass the whole, almost imperceptibly an over-all design emerges, a plan, a purposeful blending," he wrote. "It is virtually impossible to focus for long only on the bottom rungs; irresistibly the eye is drawn upward, as our earthly oneness reaches up in aspiration toward the Divine Oneness. The Creation myth is a Jewish view of the universe in words. ‘Sky Covenant’ portrays a Jewish view of the universe in steel."

Perhaps critic John Haber, who sees “a lost library” in the wall units of Homage to 6,000,000, summed the current Jewish Museum show up best. “Her retrospective … shows her on a more intimate scale, until her sense of time feels almost natural. It also explains why a woman born in 1899 had so much to do with art after 1960.”

Jules Olitski

Jules Olitski’s painting Dance of David from his series With Love and Disregard (2002) is aptly titled. The work consists of lush swirling forms of blue, white, black, yellow, and brown set on a red background, but the non-representative painting seems to disregard King David’s actual dance (from 2 Samuel, Chapter 6).

Indeed, many of Olitski’s titles tackled large narrative topics, often biblical–like his paintings Belshazzar’s Feast, Play of Daniel, Susy and the Elders, Rapture of Angels–but he never allowed himself to become a slave to those literal stories.

Instead, like a child finger painting or smearing icing on a cake, Olitski–who died on February 4, 2007–redefined painting as an act of mark making. He boldly abandoned the traditional mode of painting (an action done to a canvas with a brush) and used a spray gun to stain his canvases, in search of “a spray of color that hangs like a cloud, but does not lose its shape.”

Like few painters before him, Olitski attached himself to biblical themes and narratives. In 1959, he painted Bathsheba II, and his most recent body of work contains many references to the Bible. But one critic argues that the most Jewish aspect of Olitski the painter was his “stylistic joie de vivre” with a “characteristically Jewish” blend.

The Young Dyer

If Olitski’s painting career was an effort in cloud making, he was born into a tragic storm. Jules Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in Snovsk (now Ukraine) on March 27, 1922, just months after the Bolsheviks executed his father. In 1923, he immigrated with his mother and grandmother to New York. His mother remarried, and young Jevel took his stepfather, Hyman Olitsky’s name in 1926 (the name was later misspelled on a document, which yielded “Olitski”).

Growing up in New York, Olitski sold papers at age 11 and was shocked that people ignored the news trickling out from Europe about the Holocaust. “I was living in this community of decent people, but most of them had never seen a Jew. My teachers thought I was Irish,” he told one reporter at age 68 at the dedication of his seven-paneled Star of David sculpture commissioned by the Beth Tzedec (Toronto) congregation’s Holocaust Memorial Committee.

“Why was nothing said or done about the Holocaust? This terrible silence has haunted me all my life.” Olitski called the sculpture Elyon (heavenly) to evoke “all the lights that God created.” He said the project represented the first time “I could speak through my art as a Jew” and told the reporter, “I hope my work is imbued with this light. As an artist, I feel for a work of art to be any good it must be alive. It must be a work that lifts the spirits.”

Olitski studied at the National Academy of Design and Beaux-Arts Institute in New York between 1939 and 1942. He served in World War II and subsequently traveled to Paris on the G.I. bill in 1949, studying with Ossip Zadkine in the Zadkine School of Sculpture (1949) and in the Academia de la Grande Chaumiere (1949-1950). He returned to New York in 1951, where he earned his bachelor’s (1952) and master’s (1954) in art education from New York University.

In 1956, Olitski began teaching at C. W. Post College of Long Island University, where he taught and served as chairman of the fine arts division until 1963. In 1963, he began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for four years. In between, Olitski met art critic Clement Greenberg, who helped launch him to stardom and would later call him “the best living painter.” Olitski eventually showed his work in more than 150 one-man exhibits, and he was only the third living artist to earn a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A New Kind of Paint Surface

Olitski did not always paint with the thick surfaces of With Love and Disregard. In the early 1960s, he began staining his canvases with dyes of thinned paints. But it was not until 1965 that Olitski used a spray gun, which he rented from a hardware store in Bennington. He credited the discovery to a dream, “lying in bed, imagining a painting.”

In a catalog essay for Olitski’s work at the 1966 Venice Biennale, Greenberg called Olitski’s “grainy,” sprayed surface “a new kind of paint surface,” which “offers tactile associations hitherto foreign, more or less, to picture-making; and it does new things with color.” Greenberg noted the sprayed paint became flat, yet managed “not to violate flatness.”

Flatness was a hobbyhorse of the second generation of American abstract artists, like Olitski, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. Where the Old Masters had banished the flat from their works and replaced it with illusive “tricks” that created depth, Greenberg and company embraced flatness, which they held as intrinsic and inextricable from the canvas.

Olitski’s Chinese Dinner Girl (1965) is a vertical canvas (just more than three times as tall as it is wide) with a misty temperament, composed of reds, blues, and purples. Although the paint in Chinese Dinner Girl fills the entire canvas, in other works from this period like #9 Green (1966) and Steamed (1968), Olitski painted opaque, thick lines in a corner of the painting, almost acting like a frame. At first glance, the brush strokes seem like errors, as if Olitski had forgotten to paint up to the edges of the canvas, but the strokes ultimately served to ground the cloudy colors and to introduce tension between the two elements.

Like Chagall’s kissing couples and Rothko’s rectangles, Olitski’s clouds appear to soar out of the picture, and yet they convey weight which grounds them. One writer referred to Olitski’s colors as seeming to “float in a spatial vacuum.”

Judging the Monoprints

Although his work diverges greatly from Picasso’s cubist works, Olitski’s evolution of styles and constant redefinition of his artistic vision recalls Picasso’s career, which is best described as fashion art. Perhaps like no other artist before him, Picasso kept his finger on the market’s pulse, and gave the buying public just what it wanted. Often, Picasso proved quite adept at predicting trends before they began.

Olitski certainly did not sell as well as Picasso, but following his staining and dying phase, he began creating thicker, textured works like Noble Regard (1989), which looks like a bronzed intestine cropped to look like a maze. The textured works gave way to Olitski’s final body of monotypes, mostly of landscapes depicted in soft pastel colors. A monotype is a painter’s print, or a print that yields a one-of-a-kind image. Olitski scraped into the paint with his fingers and other tools before printing them.

The 2004 monotypes include Amid Sailboats an Angel, a “sea” of orange, pink, yellow, and blue with triangular boats and a wading figure. A circular form which surrounds the boats could either represent a whirlpool that will swallow them up or an upward, spiral motion that could launch the boats into the clouds. Moon Ravished is framed by four pink strokes, with an orange ground and green sky containing a white moon.