Jewish Modern Art

From Abstract Expressionism to Feminism.

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The beauty of Rosenberg's argument is that the authentic American individual, creating genuine American art, turns out to be none other than the Jew. Without saying as much, Rosenberg is fulfilling a great American-Jewish dream: not complete assimilation but total acceptance as universal individuals.

"To be engaged with the aesthetics of self has liberated the Jew as artist by eliminating his need to ask himself whether a Jewish art exists or can exist."

Mark Rothko (American, born Russia, 1903–1970)
No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow), 1958
Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation Inc., 1985 (1985.63.5)

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the Universal to the Particular

Rosenberg's universal individual is also his model Jew, and this insight helped shape the world of art for an entire generation. But already, as Rosenberg declaimed these words, the universal individual was slipping away. In its place rose an individual deeply tied to his or her roots, individuals whose unique identities trumped a universal one. In place of the melting pot, we got the salad bowl. And instead of the universal American, we were bequeathed a litany of hyphenated identities: African-, female-, homosexual-, Jewish-, etc.

Post-modern art was born, in part, when the universal dreams of modernism came crashing down. Once again, the Jew was at the vanguard of this new conception of identity, culture, and art. As the world of art shifted from the universal to the particular, so too did Jewish conceptions of the self. Indeed, it was at this time that the Jewish Museum where Rosenberg had lectured took on its current form with its emphasis on the particular history of the Jewish people.

The museum's shift toward a particularly Jewish story coincided with the end of its reign as a leading venue for contemporary art.  The museum had mounted the first major exhibition of Ad Reinhardt's work in 1966 and was among the first museums to display the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (none of them Jews). Now Reinhardt, Johns, and Rauschenberg were out, and Camille Pissarro, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani were in. But aside from their Jewish birth, what makes these latter artists Jewish? Surely Jewish art must be more than art created by Jews.

Toward a Post-Modern Jewish Art

Rosenberg seemed to offer a compelling account of modern Jewish art: a genuine American art created through a universal individuality to which Jews, in particular, had access.  

So is there a postmodern Jewish art?

Truth be told, postmodern art, like postmodernism generally, has fought too stringently against definitions  to concede a simple answer to this question. There is no single postmodern Jewish art just as there is no single postmodern art. Pluralism is the order of the day.

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