Women of the Book: Jewish Artists, Jewish Themes
Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998)
Copyright © 1998 by Judith Hoffberg, all rights reserved
[OV Editor's Note: The following is an introduction to the currently touring exhibition "Women of the Book: Jewish Artists/Jewish Themes" curated by Judith Hoffberg. The exhibition opened on 23 November, 1997 at the Finegood Art Gallery in West Hills, California and is slated to travel to Kuztown, Pennsylvania; Saginaw, Missouri; Philadelphia and tentative venues in Atlanta, Tuscon, Budapest, Israel, Atlanta, Prague, Warsaw and San Francisco. Additional images from the show are available on the Colophon gallery page. We hope you will take the time to browse them as well.]
I have been involved in the field of artist books for the past 30 years. Although marginalized in the art world, artist books have found a following and an ever-growing group of artists who have dedicated their practice to the production of these works of art. Likewise, we have been able to witness an important body of critical literature published in the past 10 years with many more books being written in the past five years. As a result, I will only premise my remarks by explaining that I am not speaking about livres d'artiste or about books about art. These are works of art in book form created for the most part by visual artists. Since the 1960s, artists have found the new technologies of offset and Xerox, of laser printing and now computer graphics a means to produce one-of-a-kind and editioned bookworks which are truly enticing a coterie of collectors, both institutional and private.
The How and the Why
A friend of mine in Philadelphia, noted curator and critic Judith Stein, mentioned to me that her sister had been making bookworks for quite a while and would I be interested in contacting her. I said, of course, and over a period of weeks, we e-mailed each other and finally I convinced her to send me her bookworks for examination and then I would return them. The package arrived, and I spent several hours moved deeply by the subjects covered: the loss of a child and the book as a healing instrument, the relationship with a family, especially her sister; the arrival of a chronological landmark and her reaction to it via the book; and a few more. Her story was unique, but her aesthetics and visual approach rang a bell for me. A clarion call that there was something in the air among Jewish women artists, that closeted or segregated as "the other", they had much to say via their bookworks, so much in fact that perhaps I would find enough Jewish artists throughout the world who would be willing to participate in an exhibition.
I returned the books to Linda Rubinstein, but did not forget her. In July 1996, I put out a call on the Internet, asking any Jewish women who are visual book artists to respond to my call by sending me e-mail. And then I went to New York for a week. Upon my return, there were forty-two answers, the first coming from Belfast, Ireland! As the weeks progressed, the answers increased from New Zealand, Canada, England, Israel, South Africa, Italy and of course around the United States. Women told other women, husbands told their wives, teachers told their artist friends, and by the end of 1996, I started accumulating resumes and slides and communicated with each and every one of the artists who had responded. I was deeply moved and touched by the response, and as a result, I wanted the artists to know that I was working to find venues for the exhibition, even though all the artists had not yet been selected. When they were selected, there were 90 women from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Italy, Israel and South Africa, besides the United States.
As an independent curator of artist bookshows, it has become much more difficult to find venues without institutional support. And with the narrow focus of "Jewish women artists", I first went to Jewish institutions, but found that the secular institutions responded much more readily. As the months progressed, by happenstance, we finally had an opening venue after eighteen months since the call for the exhibition, and I could call in the bookworks. They kept flowing in from late spring through the summer of 1997. And the books revealed so much about their ninety creators.
From personal narrative (including family relationships), ritual and liturgy, the Holocaust and history, literature and myth, the books in the exhibition demonstrate how Jewish women artists utilize the book form to equalize their position within Judaism, but also find the intimacy as well as the universality of the book within the Jewish tradition. The books ran the gamut from finely executed artist books by those who have been doing it for many decades (the oldest artist in the show, Miriam Beerman is eighty years young) to the humorous treatments of liturgy or Jewish daily life with zest and exquisite skill. But what really moved me most of all is that all the bookworks had content, something which had not been the case in the more than a dozen exhibitions I have curated throughout the past fifteen years. The books had something to say, not in and for themselves, but to educate and elucidate issues that are better expressed visually rather than literally. In fact, many of the books were made especially for the exhibition!
In the course of giving orientation tours of the exhibition at least six times a week, I found how I, as curator, became bound with the books, and in turn with the Jewish women who created the works of art. I, a Jew, also lived my life through these bookworks and questioned cultural identity in art that dealt with the difficulties of Jewish life in America, the lingering and haunting pain of the Holocaust, and then the cherished aspects of Jewish tradition. My new Jewish "sisters" never hesitated to wrench every emotion out of the pages of these books, making the reader/viewer an active participant in every aspect of Jewish life portrayed in these memories.
From the humorous to the literal, many of the women commented about the treatment of women in the Bible. For instance, Miriam Schaer of Brooklyn in her Eve's Meditation ponders the snake and the apple by creating a very flexible snake book in deep purple, which extends and stretches like a "slinky" toy to create a long structure that twists into a snakelike book, with the front and the back adorned with a head of a snake at one end adorned with glittery jewels and beads, and the tale as menacing as any snake jeweled and beaded. Each page in this purple snake is in the shape of an apple, die-cut through the pages.
While the above took a humorous path, Gloria Helfgott took the Torah form and created a modern scroll form called Origins, which simulates a beautifully boxed Torah with scroll-like pages emanating from the circular forms. Stephanie Later illuminated her own manuscript, Solomon's Song of Songs, which beladen with jewels and a gold cord, becomes a treasure with sexual demonstrations taken from the original text portrayed. Jenni Lukac uses the prophetic Book of Isaiah to imbed found objects she discovered in Portugal while researching the Jewish colonies there who had escaped Spain during the Diaspora. The book is treated as a container of objects with layers of memories almost as thin as the Bible paper which is used for printing it.
Relating the notion of Jews as being the "People of the Book", this exhibition expands that notion to embrace the Jewish woman as a creative being who is also part of that People. George Steiner, the British critical theorist, notes that following the destruction of the Temple, the reading of Torah became the instrument of exilic survival for the Jews -- the literal, spiritual locus of identification. He maintains that the text became the "homeland, rooted in wanderers and nomads, that cannot be destroyed." So it is not unusual to find a seminal piece in the exhibition by the youngest artist in the show, Robyn Sassen of South Africa, whose Identity Text, an altered South African identification document is coated in wax, including the phrase, "I am going home" rubber-stamped in English and in Hebrew across the center spread in a passport to nowhere (the subjugation of the "others" in South Africa with identification but not identity), so that the bearer of this particular "passport" has never forgotten her identity. She calls herself in this "passport to nowhere" a "diasporist", which perhaps is the theme of the exhibition. Possibly the smallest piece in the exhibition, but the most powerful, the document screams out for freedom so that the artist could assume her true cultural identity, when her country was liberated by Nelson Mandela.
So too Barbara Magnus has taken her grandfather's German-English dictionary used as a key to open the door of these immigrants to a new society in the United States. She has folded the individual pages of that dictionary to the inside center of each page to create what she describes as "the ultimate dog-eared book." Her Bible for a New World honors the book, much used by her grandparents who left one language behind in order to assimilate in a new land.
Additionally, the exhibition itself allowed several of the women to do research, to find their "cultural identity" which had been lost in the shuffle of generations of assimilation. Take, for instance, Elena Siff whose Rootless: On the Road with my Jewish Half was a catalyst for a personal journey to trace her father's lineage. She took a toy truck and embellished it with Jewish stars, stamps and letterheads from the many hotels her traveling father stayed in when he was "on the road". Described as a man who "ignored his Jewish identity for all of my life with him", her father sent glowing letters back from his many trips to China and to Europe. The flatbed of the truck holds the story of the family which has 306 known descendants from the arrival of the family in 1820 to the United States. Thanks to an uncle, Siff could flesh out the history of her family, half of which is Jewish (her father) and the other half Italian (her mother). Since her father was so nomadic, she really never knew him well, and with this exhibition, she has traced her family history, learned of the many anecdotes and stories, found the photos and the artifacts that have created a document of a family's life. Her Jewish identity on wheels is the symbol of hope that allows her and her children to know their roots, carrying the family into the future.
In discussing Jewish identity, there are few of these artists who have not been affected by the Holocaust, most personally and sometimes through empathy. The most powerful of these in the exhibition are by Tatana Kellner, who was born in Prague in 1945. It is hard to believe that anyone Jewish was born in Prague in 1945, but her parents who had been sent to the camps were released and their joy in surviving culminated in the birth of a daughter, Tatana, who later became a bookmaker and a catalyst for women to make artist books, co-founding the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. Kellner has created two stunning bookworks, titled B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence and 71125: Fifty Years of Silence. Growing up, Kellner always saw the arms of her father and her mother, with the numbers burned into their skin. She always asked, but they remained silent. Close to the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust, she finally convinced her parents to tell her the story of their internment, but her father insisted that he would do so on his terms, namely in Czech. Tatana Kellner is bilingual and using her father's handwritten text, as well as her mother's, she created the most profound works of art, with each of her parent's arms as the focal point of each of the books, molded in paper with the number incised in the skin of the paper. Around those arms, the pages unfold, so that the reader can never avoid the presence of the arms with its tattoo. Each book is housed in a wooden box with the number burned into the cover of the box. Printed in English and in Czech, these monumental bookworks certainly stand as symbols of the phrase "lest we forget."
So, too, Deborah Davidson whose family harks back to the 14th century. Forced out of Spain in 1492, and settling in Italy the artist remembers and discourses with the history of her immediate ancestors. Her grandmother living in Italy was sent to a camp in that country and wrote letters to the family. Deborah, haunted by those words, discourses with her ancestor by taking fragments from the letters her grandmother wrote in the internment camp and responds in her own voice in a beautifully printed volume called Voce. It is a tortured and haunting volume, where the grandmother's voice is heard in the letters requesting mundane things which were lacking in the camps.
Beth Bachenheimer, whose whole family was decimated in the ovens of the Holocaust, is fortunate to have been the offspring of the only member of the family designated to be saved. Being a maskmaker as well as a bookmaker, she has accumulated the records of her family for a devastating family history. Using screening and black paint, the experience of turning these loose pages in a black box lets you know about a family that designated Beth's father to be saved via a passport which cost the family hundreds of dollars, so that via Barcelona he arrived in New York to meet the one member of the family waiting for him. Thirty-three members of her family were victims of the Holocaust with her grandmother and grandfather. The exhibition gave Bachenheimer permission to re-do a book of her family which she had done a few years ago, but this time the book had a reason for being read by others, a need to be strengthened and made user-friendly, strong enough to withstand the perusal of hundreds of people. She not only succeeded, she has also moved viewers to tears. Yet there is hope.
Witness Miriam Beerman, the oldest artist in the exhibition, who was brought up largely with no religion, except the knowledge that she was Jewish. Only with the birth of her sons and their movement toward religious affiliation did she start questioning the reasons for the Holocaust and doing research. The book she submitted to the exhibit, Survival, is probably the most energetic and the most vivid, blending the testimonies of such writers as Celan, Primo Levi, Akhmatova with drawings that have a flamboyant graffiti-like expressionism. Her questioning and then finding some resolutions in the writings of survivors of the Holocaust such as Paul Celan, Primo Levi and other poets which leads younger artists to ask the same questions as well, but Beerman has become the symbol of the "young spirit" in the work of an artist who has served as witness and scribe.
c.j. grossman explores the life of Frieda Dicker-Brandeis, who had studied at the Bauhaus, launched an exciting career as an artist, married Paul Brandeis and began a life when Hitler rose to power. As a result, she and her husband were sent to Terezin, a camp which became the showplace for the Nazi regime, a camp of musicians and artists where concerts were held, art was taught, and the facade of a village atmosphere was merely a movie set for the imprisonment of thousands held in captivity as in other camps. The only difference was the stage sets. At any rate, Frieda Dicker-Brandeis when captured by the Nazis grabbed her art supplies and used them and countless inventive other supplies to teach the children of Terezin how to draw and paint, oftentimes how to document their everyday life in the camps. Hiding the drawings and paintings from the officers at hand, those four thousand drawings and paintings became the nucleus of a collection found after the liberation so that these works of art now housed in museums in Prague and elsewhere stand witness to the Holocaust with all its ramifications. She has been revered by the artist in a book which has been created for the children who come to any exhibition in which it is shown -- placed on a pedestal-altar, hanging above which is a child's "uniform" consisting of a striped dress with a yellow star on the heart side of the bodice. It is a moving installation and yet one that is educational to children of all denominations. This book installation is a tribute to a woman who never forgot that even art can be communicated to young people and have lasting value, although sometimes under dire circumstances.
Throughout the exhibit are examples of the striped uniforms of those held in concentration camps during World War II. Bachenheimer uses striped material as a backing for some of the documents and photographs in her history of her family's demise; Rochelle Rubinstein, a calligrapher from Canada, created a handwritten Hebrew and English version of the Book of Lamentations, which begins with the striped dress of an inmate in the concentration camps and reverts to the clothes as icons, without any reference to the human body, as if the Emperor Has No Clothes, or rather that the bodies have been eliminated, but the haunting costumes are still there on exhibit, empty of meaning, but there. Read right to left (in Hebrew calligraphy) or left to right (in English), the book is made of felt cover and has a texture and a feeling of skin. The pages that divide the prints pick up the light as if they were bathed with salty tears. The power of the elements of this book can not be exaggerated!
The yellow star worn by Jews and enforced by the Nazi regime as cultural/religious identification is a theme and variation throughout the exhibition. Its power becomes more manifest with each contribution. Channa Horwitz has created a Subliminal Star of David in glass. Marilyn Rosenberg's Remember Babi Yar is an evocation of the thousands of Jews and Russians annihilated at Babi Yar, with the stack of bones and yellow stars emanating from the pages as separate entities and the headlines of newspapers and archives demonstrating the devastating tragedy of that event. Yellow stars everywhere, and these are also repeated in Beth Grossman's Mary of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is housed in a suitcase turned book in which Grossman has painted a very Jewish-looking Madonna and baby Jesus on the suitcase divider. Inside on the left are yellow cloth stars with all the derogatory words one can imagine that Jews were called in their persecution, while the stars on the right side of the suitcase book are those of reverence and praise to the Jewish Mary. The division between Christianity and Judaism are eloquently portrayed by Grossman in referring to the difficult history between Christians and Jews. Yet the suitcase as well explains the nomadic fate of the Jews, as well as Christians, until they have found a "home". And the persecution of belief in all realms.
And speaking of persecution, Barbara Milman, a lawyer for twenty-five years, has been pursued by the memory of survival. This personal history and memorial is now a public demonstration of her own childhood experience of survival in Warsaw, an accordion-book consisting of linocuts in stark black and white with text depicting her as a child in the Warsaw ghetto, then being hidden in the home of Polish friends and finally her miraculous escape from a cattle car one stop before Auschwitz. Milman has become a bookmaker, no longer a working lawyer, and has done a series of accordion books on Prague and Berlin and other cities, with stories about survival.
Gaza Bowen, on the contrary, presents a different perspective of the Holocaust. Born in the South, she and her sister grew up with a Catholic neighbor, who lived in the largest house on the block. Kitty and Gaza became fast friends, spending everyday playing as well as going to school. Kitty had a large bedroom at the top of the house. With access to the attic through Kitty's bedroom closet, the girls used to play out Anne Frank's story. The fantasy was broken only by Kitty's father calling them down to supper. The bookwork, housed in old worn velvet diary covers, is an accordion-fold structure with a die-cut opening in the page depicting the closet with access to the attic, which instead of depicting Kitty's home, now depicts Anne Frank's room in Amsterdam where her whole family was holed up for several years. It is memory that does not erase the past, but in the face of the horror of the Holocaust, creates real and present experience, even to children who have only read about it, not suffered it.
Gayle Wimmer, whose father was a "benign tyrant" obviously disappointed her father, for she became an artist. Now a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, she documented her father's demise by watching him die over two years. This "diary" was created on her father's handkerchiefs after his death, in which she screened her own MRI on each handkerchief and then included comments by her father upon her visits with the appropriate dates. One can see the slow deterioration of her father's anger and his almost sincere acceptance of his daughter as an artist and a creative human being. The "pages" of this bookwork are the handkerchiefs heavily starched and certainly recognizable by most viewers. It is a moving document, an evocative work of art.
Liliane Lijn's evocation of her mother in Her Mother's Voice is a combination of feelings, facts and impressions including documentation of a mother whose strength and exceptional personality have been explored by her artist daughter in a very distinctive manner. This is a prolonged examination of the artist and her origins. From her parents' fleeing their beloved Europe and arriving in New York, she has gleaned emotional richness, complexity of thought and an intense sense of loss. The book is an extraordinary combination of high and low technology, using her computer yet printing with a low-end printer on handmade Japanese paper, of oral history presented on the fragile and tactile medium of rice paper thus mirroring the fragility of human life in general and in particular the fragility of a Jewish woman who lived through the panic years preceding World War II.
With regard to the liturgy, calligraphers have a joyful way of using paper structures to create glorious interpretations of prayers, such as the Sh'ma (Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One) by Eva-Lynn Ratoff in a star form, or a miniature book by Roseann Chasman in illuminated calligraphy of the song sung at the end of the Passover Seder, called Chad Gadya (One Only Kid). It has papercuts and gilded lettering.
Visual artists who know their prayers have also reacted to the one prayer orthodox men say each morning: Blessed art thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman. In retort to that statement, both Carol Hamoy and Robbin Ami Silverberg have developed feminist approaches to that prayer. Hamoy's family comes from the garment district of New York, so she has created a bejeweled volume (done with decorations found in the garment district in gilt) with the double spread subverted statement: "Thank you Lord for making me a woman who is an artist!"
Alisa Golden is known for her Never the Mind Press and created Gateway, which is a reaction to the Sabbath candlesticks which appeared to be pillars to the artist, marking the entrance to a world separate from the work-week. The poem which is printed on this tunnel book is about lighting the candles, celebrating the connection with her ancestors and Jews around the world. The print is a shaped text, in the shape of the candlesticks themselves.
Alyssa Salomon in her Diaspora Menorah develops the theme for Chanukah, the Feast of Lights, by creating a bookwork that is copper-coated, folds up like a book, and is incised with the prayer for lighting the candles during the eight days of Chanukah. When you open the book, there are holders for the eight candles and the Shamus, or the candle with which you light the others night after night. It is a book that is functional and provides a memory of a hasty escape during the Diaspora, when performing the ritual was even more meaningful but clandestine.
Myth and Reality
Sophia Rosenberg's Lilith Scroll brings us full circle to the investigation of the Biblical first woman Lilith, who seems to the artist to embody all the things that had been exiled or edited out of religious Judaism: the feminine, the sexual, the psychic, the mystical, the dark. An aura of fear surrounded her and a wealth of amulets designed to keep her away. But who was she? Biblically, she was the woman created with Adam-the two together being made in the image of G-d. She refused to lie beneath him and fled the garden to take residence beside the Red Sea where she is said to give birth to demons. She is blamed for infant death and wet dreams.
As a performance artist, Rosenberg began to explore Lilith in herself, costuming herself and letting her dance. On one of these occasions, a photographer friend took the photographs for the scroll. The artist wrote poems as well, which are the written remnants of the exploration. Incorporating the photographs, poems and handmade papers, Rosenberg discovered that the form of the scroll, sacred to the Jews and alluding to the Torah, was a perfect situation to create a space for Lilith and in turn for the dark, female, sexual, mystic part of herself. Reclaiming some of the power behind the taboos regarding women, blood, sexuality, and death, the Lilith Scroll is a dramatic exploration and collaboration of the feminist approach to an interpretation of a Biblical tract. It is one of the most dramatic interactive pieces in the exhibition, allowing the reader/viewer to lift the veils over each of the poems and discover who Lilith really is to the artist. It is performative on the part of the creator of the piece, as well as the reader/viewer.
It has been a remarkable journey for this exhibit and for me. The women I have learned to know through the electronic and postal media have been "the other" for so long they do not even realize it. They first of all are women, secondly they are Jewish, and thirdly they are artists. That would be a triple negative in this culture. But, their art has sustained them and allowed them to express themselves in many ways. Always creative, always breaking the mold, these women have found a way to tell about themselves and their ethnic and spiritual culture in very specific ways. Taunted by prejudice and separateness, these women have courageously surpassed any hurdles set up in front of them and have created remarkable works of art in a medium known so well to their "people", the book. That familiar form of book has been expanded to incorporate not only new technology but also the old structures. As a result, these women have created their own bridge, their own windows to their souls and to their spirits. I salute them as a catalyst for allowing a much larger audience to know and participate in their creativity.