Tradition Weaving: Visiting the Jewish Museum and the Met Breur

Tradition Weaving: Visiting the Jewish Museum and the Met Breur

This week’s Art Semester trip was rather contemplative and quieter than other trips. But in that quiet was a beautiful inter-generational dialogue that we were able to witness up close.

We first met with Stephen Brown, curator for the Jewish museum, as well as Douglas Caulk, a Drew alumnus who has built up his own art installation company and worked with many notable artists. One of the most notable was the sculptor George Segal, whom we focused on for most of our discussion.

Segal’s work was incredible. The focal point of his exhibition, as well as the majority of our discussion, was his sculpture “Abraham and Isaac.” Transcending far beyond simply reinterpreting a biblical tale, Segal’s take on the sacrifice of Isaac enacts an intergenerational dialogue which I found absolutely stunning to witness. Already having biblical context from a story crucial to the Hebrew faith, Segal’s “Abraham and Isaac” connects to the modern era in its evocation of the 1970 Kent State shootings. The posing of ‘Isaac’ on his knees with ‘Abraham’ looming darkly over him immediately brings to mind the story from Genesis, yet the modern styling of the figures pulls them into the present. The work seems to exist outside of time, simultaneously grounded in the future yet calling back to the past. And the work is made to be interacted with, in a powerful manner. Every step taken around the sculpture presents another facet of the narrative, offering glimpses of ‘Isaac’s’ pleading eyes, the heavy jaw of the Abraham figure, and the tightened muscles of the younger figure’s back, preparing for slaughter. One feels forced to spectate this ritual, to bear witness to this violent insertion of ancient suffering into the modern world, made all the more severe by the rocky outcropping jutting from the smooth granite floor. The last thing one sees as they finishing circumambulating around the sculpture is ‘Abraham’ preparing to strike the figure before him.

The arrangement of the exhibition space that houses the sculpture further creates an intergenerational environment. Integrating video, photography, and other media sources, the design of the exhibition serves to blend tradition with modern mass media. Original publications and footage from the shooting line the walls that surround the sculpture, further weaving this intergenerational tapestry. Segal effectively projected the suffering of the Kent State students onto an antiquated tale, making martyrs of young people who lost their lives during a turbulent time in American history. What struck me most as I observed the sculpture was how the narrative head been altered for me. In the original biblical story, Isaac lives. Staring at this life-size scene of grey plaster, hearing news bulletins wail behind me, it became apparent that the modern Isaac was not as fortunate.

Like Segal’s sculpture, the bulk of the Jewish Museum’s collection is curated in a way that perpetuates that intergenerational tapestry. The new mixes with the aged, and there is no exact timeline set. Artists from the early 20’s are presented alongside those of the 21st century, and their works speak to each other in a multitude of ways, from subtle agreement to bold confrontation. It was a gorgeous trove of diverse art, all united under the aegis of Jewish heritage, a legacy made apparent the moment one walked through the door.

In exploring this trove, we were able to learn about the woman who made it all possible, Edith Halpert. The exhibition, “Edith and the Rise of American Art” gave us extensive background regarding the monolith figure that was Halpert, and how her persistence and skill helped build the markets for American art.

After exploring the Jewish Museum, we headed over to the Met Breuer to see their recent retrospective on Vija Clemens, To Fix the Image in Memory. I felt absolutely taken with Clemens work the moment I encountered it. As the wall text ensured, this truly was “an alive experience,” because no work displayed seemed stagnant. Like the Jewish Museum’s collection, Clemens’ exhibition wove together a tapestry of memories and past events. Yet her tapestry was interesting in the fact that it was comprised of memory composites, that contained both real and crafted memories, built from both her personal recollections and later observations. One work in particular that caught my attention was Gun with Hand #1. The scene displayed before me of a hand shooting off a pistol, was not so much a scene that actually occurred, but a compiled memory. Clemens had added several sources in her creation of the scene, using magazines for reference for the gun smoke, and her boyfriend steadily holding the gun without firing it. It read as a ‘tailored memory,’ so to speak.

Much of Clemens worked followed this method, of crafting memories from separate sources, like her drawings made in response to the Vietnam war that referenced her early memories of war-torn Germany. Clemens also had this incredible talent of getting things to appear as something completely different, like her balsawood Pearl erasers. She seems almost like a visual alchemist, taking unassuming materials and transforming them before our eyes.

It was an insightful trip into the city, and it is always enjoyable to make thematic connections between the places we visit. Seeing the power of intergenerational narratives and the crafting of memories left me feeling as though I had gained some sort of antiquated knowledge, and left me just a little bit sentimental.

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