I Am This: Jewish artists in Oregon

A new exhibit traces the history and variety of Jewish art in the state. A second show tells the tale of a painting that saved lives.

It’s both easy and hard to wrap your head around I Am This: Art by Oregon Jewish Artists, the elegant small new exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Easy because the choices of artists are mostly familiar to Portland art followers, and because they share curator Bruce Guenther’s taste for modern and contemporary works that deal, whatever else might be going on in them, with the notion of beauty.

Hard because the questions the exhibit asks – What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be a Jewish artist? What does it mean to be a Jewish artist from Oregon? – are so elusive, with so many different answers, and ultimately with so many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question marks. “Here we are, looking inward,” museum director Judith Margles remarked at a press preview last week, and maybe that’s at least a large part of what being Jewish means.

Frederick Littman's sculpture "Torso" (1968. Bronze, 46 x 22 x 12 inches, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, Portland) and Mark Rothko's 1928 painting "Beach Scene" (oil on canvas mounted on board, Reed College, Kaufman Memorial Art Collection, gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman in memory of Isaac and Pauline Kaufman). Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Frederick Littman’s sculpture “Torso” (1968. Bronze, 46 x 22 x 12 inches, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, Portland) and Mark Rothko’s 1928 painting “Beach Scene” (oil on canvas mounted on board, Reed College, Kaufman Memorial Art Collection, gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman in memory of Isaac and Pauline Kaufman). Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Guenther, the former longtime chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the first year of shows at the Jewish Museum since it moved into the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space in the Pearl District, spoke of the sometimes uneasy relationship between group and individual identity: “We live in an age of individualization, identity as core, as shield, as conflict.”

Jewish artists, he noted, represent a group “as divergent as any in the art community,” and that diversity is part of what he wanted. He was not looking for pieces representing what he called clichés of Jewish art. Instead he wanted to show work by artists engaged in the issues and movements of the greater art world: The exhibit “is deliberately focused on artists who are looking beyond this place but are anchored by this place.” The same, for some at least, might be said about their relationship with Judaism.

The thirteen artists Guenther chose break down into four generations: the immigrants, displaced from Europe, including Mark Rothko and Frederick Littman; first generation born in the United States, including Hilda Morris and Mel Katz, who as a group “became estranged from their parents’ cultural framework” and entered into the melting pot of American culture; and second and third generation, “the children of the children of immigrants,” who were raised in largely assimilated, secularized families and have found their own ways of coming to terms with the Jewish diaspora and their longer cultural roots.

Wilder Schmaltz, "The Folks," 2003. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Wilder Schmaltz, “The Folks,” 2003. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Rothko, who was born in 1903 in what is now Latvia but was then part of the Russian Empire, immigrated to Portland when he was 10 and graduated from Lincoln High School before moving briefly to Yale (an atmosphere he didn’t like) and then New York, where he transformed himself into one of the signal artists of the twentieth century. His relationship with religion was tense, and yet it remained: like many American Jews of the time, he was deeply sympathetic with radical political and social movements.

Hilda Morris, "Early Voyagers #2," 1954-56. Cement and pigment over metal with Lacquer, 33 x 37 x 22 inches. Private Collection, Portland; Paul Foster, Photographer

Hilda Morris, “Early Voyagers #2,” 1954-56. Cement and pigment over metal with Lacquer, 33 x 37 x 22 inches. Private Collection, Portland; Paul Foster, Photographer

I Am This includes three early Rothko paintings, all from roughly 1928 and all far from the abstract work of his mature years but interesting in terms of his development – and, in the case of his rustic Landscape (View of Portland), of the city’s development, too. A bucolic-looking view toward Mt. Hood from the West Hills, it’s a painting that would fit snugly into a history of Pacific Northwest regionalism. Beach Scene, from the Reed College collection donated by Rothko’s Portland and New York friends Louis and Annette Kaufman, seems to come from a next step forward, and is reminiscent of his older artist friend Milton Avery’s 1934 Bathers, Coney Island, at the Portland Art Museum, which shows a large tank-topped Rothko in the foreground. (PAM also has a pair of fine Avery portraits of the Kaufmans.)

Littman, born just four years after Rothko in Hungary, spent much longer in Europe, moving to Paris as a young man and then fleeing the Holocaust to New York in 1940. He moved to Portland in 1941 and remained until his death in 1979, becoming in many ways, as an artist and teacher, the father of the state’s contemporary sculptural scene. Littman’s 1968 bronze Torso, from the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, is a free-flowing female nude, romantic and figurative but not too figurative, all curvatures in search of an ideal form.

Shirley Gittelsohn, "Geraniums - Snow - Night," 1981. Oil on Canvas, 48½ X 48½ inches. Courtesy of Reed College

Shirley Gittelsohn, “Geraniums – Snow – Night,” 1981. Oil on Canvas, 48½ X 48½ inches. Courtesy of Reed College

The Littman and the Rothkos (the third Rothko is a watercolor, Wharfside) nestle comfortably in this snug exhibition’s opening section with a 1965 Florence Saltzman oil (in an early 2016 show the Jewish Museum featured several of her distinctive woodcuts from Long Beach, California, during World War II) and a couple of more recent paintings. Shirley Gittelsohn’s 1981 Geraniums – Snow – Night is a big, luscious, deceptively simple work in three layers suggesting death and regeneration: in the back, the bare winter branches of a large tree; in the center, a snow-topped wall seen outside large windows; in the foreground, the green and red brilliance of the blooming geraniums. And Wilder Schmaltz’s The Folks, a 2003 double portrait of an elderly couple at table, is striking and loving in its captured intimacy.

From left: Paul Georges, "Muse Comes to Consult, Sagaponack," 1982-83. Oil on canvas, 39.75 x 67.5 inches. Courtesy of Paul Georges Studio, NY, Yvette Georges Deeton, Director; Hilda Morris's "Early Voyagers #2"; Mel Katz's "Marmoleum," 1991. Marmoleum and plastic laminate over wood, 77 x 74 x 39 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Russo Lee Gallery, Portland. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

From left: Paul Georges, “Muse Comes to Consult, Sagaponack,” 1982-83. Oil on canvas, 39.75 x 67.5 inches. Courtesy of Paul Georges Studio, NY, Yvette Georges Deeton, Director; Hilda Morris’s “Early Voyagers #2”; Mel Katz’s “Marmoleum,” 1991. Marmoleum and plastic laminate over wood, 77 x 74 x 39 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Russo Lee Gallery, Portland. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Things get more contemporary, and more varied, around the corner, with works ranging from the familiarly colorful and bulky curvatures of Katz’s 1991 Marmoleum (imagine his sculptures as cheerful environments for Fernando Botero’s trademark stocky people), to a very nice and airy Hilda Morris sculpture from 1954-56, to the delicate cascades of Dana Lynn Louis’s Gift from this year – a lighter-than-air construction of mica, glass beads, and wire whose floating shapes and tendrils flow down into a coarsely fashioned basin. The classically contemporary spirits are further honored with David Curt Morris’s blade-like and blackened 2002 cast bronze Hamblin; Michael Lazarus’s symbolic and vaguely anthropomorphic 2016 found-object assemblage dominated by a pair of keys and three fat inward-pointing arrows; and Deborah Horrell’s complex, delicately formed 2017 series of six linked glass/ink/gouache pieces collectively titled Wrapped in Fear, Looking for Light, which hovers in a strange territory somewhere between crystalline and human form.

Left: David Curt Morris, "Hamblin," 2002. Cast bronze with blue-black patina, edition 1/4. 29 x 34 x 14 inches. Collection of Ivan Gold. Right: Amy Bernstein, "Moving Mountains," 2016. Oil on canvas, 50 X 46 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Nationale, Portland. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Left: David Curt Morris, “Hamblin,” 2002. Cast bronze with blue-black patina, edition 1/4. 29 x 34 x 14 inches. Collection of Ivan Gold. Right: Amy Bernstein, “Moving Mountains,” 2016. Oil on canvas, 50 X 46 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Nationale, Portland. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Amy Bernstein’s spare, quietly dynamic 2016 oil Moving Mountains, an elegant abstract painting of colored streaks and blots on a white field that looks as if it knows the territory of the more mature and renowned Rothko, completes this cultivated garden of contemporary pieces, and Paul Georges’ sly 1982-83 oil Muse Comes To Consult, Sagaponack – all five and a half feet wide of it – brings the conversation back into urbane figurative territory. Georges is Shirley Gittelsohn’s brother, and it’s interesting to see their similarly lush approach to applying paint. But their sensibility, at least in these two works, is different. Georges’ painting is (one hesitates to use this word in rarefied artistic conversation) funny: the subject is in shorts, hat, and polo shirt on a stretch of lawn, looking as if he’s about to go golfing but in actuality working on what appears to be a self-portrait on an easel at the edge of the frame. He commands your eye’s attention – until it slides down and away to the squatting naked muse figure peering from behind a bush, going about the act of inspiring in the most furtive and elusive of ways. The story’s clear, and yet uncertain: What exactly is going on here?

Dana Lynn Louis, "Gift," 2017; mica, glass beads, and wire. Courtesy of the artist and the Russo Lee Gallery, Portland. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Dana Lynn Louis, “Gift,” 2017; mica, glass beads, and wire. Courtesy of the artist and the Russo Lee Gallery, Portland. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

How do the works in this exhibit tie together as being Jewish, other than that all thirteen artists are Jewish? Maybe that’s precisely it. Guenther quotes the midcentury critic Clement Greenberg: “I believe that a quality of Jewishness is present in every word I write, as it is in almost every word of every other contemporary American Jewish writer.” Certainly the works in I Am This illustrate the very broad umbrella under which the idea of Jewish art resides. And this show is a sampling, not an encyclopedia. Yet it also underscores neatly the idea of how important Jewish artists have been to shaping our concept of what art in Oregon – and in America – is.

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A second, much smaller, exhibition at the Jewish Museum has also just opened. Munich to Portland: A Painting Saves a Family’s Life includes just two paintings, both modest portraits of a young woman by the German artist Otto Stein. The paintings are competent but unremarkable: nice portraits for the family wall. But the story that goes with them – and which is neatly alluded to in painted wall text in the small room where they hang – is quite remarkable, and is the reason to show them in the first place.
The family in question is the Engelbergs, who on November 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht, the day that Nazis ordered the destruction of all synagogues and Jewish businesses across the Reich and rounded up 30,000 Jews to send to concentration camps – found themselves desperate to leave the country. The father, Jakob, had been sent to Dachau, where his brutal treatment eventually led to an early death, although in the United States. Two weeks after Kristallnacht Jakob’s wife, Paula, disappeared from the family’s Munich flat with one of the Stein paintings under her arm. Hours later, as her 9-year-old son Edward sat frightened and waiting, she returned. She no longer had the painting. But she had enough money to buy Jakob’s freedom and obtain visas for all four family members to leave Germany, first for Zurich and later for New Jersey. The second painting accompanied them.

Otto Stein, "Untitled II," oil on canvas, c. 1925. One of the two untitled portraits in the Engelberg family saga.

Otto Stein, “Untitled II,” oil on canvas, c. 1925. One of the two untitled portraits in the Engelberg family saga.

There is more to the story. But eventually the frightened 9-year-old, Edward, came to live in Portland, where his son, Stephen, was a managing editor at The Oregonian. (He is now executive editor of the national investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica; I knew and worked with him at The Oregonian.) And Steve began to wonder if it might be possible to find the painting that ransomed his family’s lives. After a long search, it showed up, and the two sit side by side – except that there’s no way to be sure the “found” painting is actually the one Paula Engelberg sold in 1938.

It might be. It might not. And that, really, is a crucial part of the story, because it was the searching, not the finding, that was the important thing. Part of Jewish history is loss and missing pieces, and part of continuing the tradition is filling in the empty places with conjectures and possibilities. Maybe that’s as good a definition of a Jewish artist as any: one who thinks, and feels, and tries to reclaim the missing pieces and carry the conversation forward. Against the odds, one does what one can.

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  • I Am This: Art by Oregon Jewish Artists continues through February 4, 2018 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, 724 N.W. Davis St., Portland. Information here.
  • Munich to Portland: A Painting Saves a Family also continues at the museum through February 4. Information here.

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