History and art unpacked | The Jewish standard
Art is never just art.
It comes with the context – it was done in a particular place, at a specific time, by a person who grew up at a time and place, or by a group that, in the same way, was not. thrown to this earth from an unremarkable void.
Art can also often be history, sociology and ethnology; it can show dreams, aspirations and terrors.
Receive The Jewish Standard newsletter by email and never miss our best stories Sign up for free
There is a lot of history attached to the murals – originally there were six, now there are four – that hung on Elizabeth’s YM-YWHA.
There is the story they tell – of American Jews in the late 1930s; of their longing for what was then Palestine; the artist who created them, A. Raymond Katz; the man who commissioned them, Harry Lebau; from the city where they were hanged and then languished, Elizabeth; and the community that has moved away but has not dissolved.
This is their story.
Raymond Katz was an artist born in Hungary, raised in New York and trained at the Cooper Union – he added the Raymond later, his first name was really Alexander, and in real life he was known as Sandor – who has made his career in Chicago, first as a cartoonist, then as a poster designer who worked for President Roosevelt’s WPA – the Depression-era Works Project Administration, which was a lifeline for artists and a source of wonderful art. Mr. Katz found himself drawn to Jewish art
In 1938, he visited the Y in Elizabeth.
There is an undated article online about Katz – probably written in the 1940s – that is part of the Historic Illinois Art Project. It’s fascinating both in its details on him and in its decidedly odd period style. It focuses on the tension visible in Katz’s art between her American and Jewish identities. Confronted with the hypothesis that he could not paint human figures, Katz’s “work in the ten murals that adorned the Hebrew section of the Hall of Religions in A Century of Progress met with the approval of the stakes of his race from the four corners of the earth, ”we read.
It “has the incalculable advantage of having” become abstract “with intelligence, as Picasso did”, he continues. “Virtually all of his abstractionist colleagues in America and most in Europe have been imitators of the Parisians, hollow and empty. “
This optimistic view of his work did not hold up.
He “was not a major force in the art world at the height of his career or now,” sniffed the curator of collections at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, as reported in a letter sent in 1993. But his work is “culturally specific … an unusual fusion of regionalist style and Zionist iconography,” he continued.
Harry Lebau was, among other important things in the Jewish community, the executive director of the Y. Ruth Brewster of Hillside is his daughter.
Until the 1930s, Elizabeth’s Jews lived near the city’s harbor, but as they gained success they began to move to upscale neighborhoods, Ms Brewster said. It was then that the community decided to build a new Y on East Jersey Street. “There was a huge auditorium,” she said. “It was the way they designed buildings, with spaces where you could hang things. These had these huge empty spaces. According to a 1955 story in Commentary, titled “Synagogue Art Today,” there were four vaulted spaces 15 feet high and 8 feet wide; two smaller spaces were 6 feet by 4 feet.
“My dad was super bright and very responsive to the needs of people,” Ms. Brewster said. “He had a theory he called self-actualization. It was that people had jobs that weren’t fulfilling, had life experiences in general that weren’t fulfilling. He believed that the Y could offer a variety of activities so that everyone could come in and find something for themselves that could give them a sense of personal satisfaction.
“It was at the height of the Depression,” she added. “He felt that art was one of those areas.”
So when Sandor Katz came to the Y as a speaker, “Katz saw the blanks and Katz said, ‘I can do murals for you to fill in’, and my dad said, ‘How much would you charge? you by mural? Katz said $ 100. So my dad took $ 25 out of his pocket, ”- during the Depression it was real money -“ and he said, “We need it.
“And that’s how they were born.
“My dad collected the rest of the money,” she continued. “And I hope he got that $ 25 back. I wore pocket clothes.
Harry Lebau and his wife, Mary Nanes Lebau, were amazing people, who deserve their own story. “I have been so blessed with my family,” Ms. Brewster said. But the rest of the story of their accomplishments is not here.
The murals hung in the Y until 1965 when he moved to Union. “They rolled them up and put them in a closet in the basement,” Ms. Brewster said. The architecture was very different. “There was no place to hang them. For many years there has been a concerted effort to find them a new home. Despite the hard work that many people put into this effort, it failed. The murals continued to languish.
Now, however, they are out of the closet. The murals have been moved to the air-conditioned archives of the New Jersey Jewish Historical Society on the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. They will be on display there as soon as possible, said historical society executive director Linda Forgosh, and when they are, the society will also offer tours of its facilities and funds.
“Katz’s art sells for between a few hundred dollars and thousands of dollars,” Ms. Brewster said. “He was not a major figure. But this is an example of WPA art. (This was of course not actually WPA art, but made by a WPA artist during the days when WPA was working.)
“They are a snapshot of the past, and it should not be lost. This is our story.
Joel Silverstein of Mahwah is an artist and member of the Jewish Art Salon. He is well acquainted with 20th century American Jewish art.
“I have a fondness for this kind of art,” said Mr. Silverstein. “Now we’re looking at the WPA murals again. Throughout my art school years, they were seen as crap, fake, bad figurative art and a holdover from American regionalism, which was seen as right-wing. But now Thomas Hart Benson has been fully rehabilitated, and even Grant Wood is now considered a hero.
“The identity is suddenly celebrated. “
Katz’s style is “not stylistically unusual,” continued Mr. Silverstein. “Like many other American Jews of this period, it is a synthesis of the figurative and the abstract. It is a break between abstraction, futurism and cubism, but merged with classical composition. Many artists of the time “mixed cubist drawing and academic drawing”, as did Katz. “Its design comes from cubism, but the content is figurative art,” he said. It also reminds him of the work of Ben Shahn and Diego Rivera, he added.
The most interesting part of the murals is how Katz’s work “could be American and still pay homage to the Greco-Roman tradition. It’s a double whammy, but for Jews like Katz, it’s a double whammy.
Although Katz worked well in the Jewish tradition, often for Jewish institutions like Elizabeth Y, much of his work was for synagogues and he painted human figures. This is because the ban on showing the human figure was not introduced until the Enlightenment, in the 17th century. “The idea that Jews are against imagery is really a European idea that arose because Jews died along with German Protestants,” Mr. Silverstein said. In other words, the ban is derived from the Second Commandment, but its genesis was in anti-Catholicism. “In Jewish visual circles, this is the most important thing. All Jewish children grew up with the idea that the visual arts are not kosher, but they are somehow disrespectful. This is not the case.
“Katz follows in the tradition of the first and second generation Jews who were not born here or who were just born here and who were exposed to art.” It is traditional Western art; Not only did the poor, talented and very lucky Jewish children get Ivy League scholarships, they were all able to go to settlement houses, where art lessons were offered for free.
Mr. Silverstein was struck by how Zionist Katz’s work was. One of the murals features a figure that appears to be the prophet Elijah, riding his donkey to Jerusalem. There is a dinner that appears to be a Passover seder; the implication is “next year in Jerusalem”. There are images of people working the land as well as the Sabbath Queen. There is a Jewish wedding in a Jewish star. “It seems to be about Jewish achievement,” Mr. Silverstein said.
Alexander Raymond Sandor Katz “was not at the forefront of American Jewish artists,” he summed up. “He wasn’t as good as Ben Shahn. But something was really going on in his art. He knows how to design. He knows how to use space.
“I think people should know that. I think Jewish artists should know him.
And now, thanks to the efforts of many people over many decades, and most notably thanks to Ruth Brewster and then Linda Forgosh, people, including Jewish artists, will have the chance to learn more about Sandor Katz.