Let My People Grow


Kehinde Wiley, Alios Itzhak (The World Stage: Israel), 2011, oil and gold enamel on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Gift of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum Family Foundation; Gift in honor of Joan Rosenbaum by the Contemporary Judaica, Fine Arts, Photography, and Traditional Judaica Acquisitions Committee Funds, 2011-31. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California

A mockup of the street corner at Houston and Mott in New York where Kehinde Wiley’s Alios Itzhak, a 2011 painting of an Israeli Ethiopian man, will be recreated on a 20’ x 35’ wall by three artists from the Brooklyn firm Overall Murals. The “wallscape” is a promo for “Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel,” the artist’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum, which features portraits,of youths—Ethiopian Jews, native-born Jews and Arab Israelis— whom the artist scouted discos, malls, bars, and sporting venues. Wiley, who adorned the portraits with motifs adapted from Jewish ceremonial objects, also selected textiles and papercuts from the museum’s permanent collection to showcase alongside his paintings.

The portraits of Israelis by a non-Jewish artist from South Central L.A., who maintains studios in New York, Beijing and Dakar, encapsulate the current moment: global (rather than multicultural), post-ethnic (rather than “too Jewish”). It’s an ideal project for an ethnically specific museum struggling to attract new audiences without abandoning its mission: it bears the hip-hop cachet sure to attracted the coveted youth demographic, even as it showcases Judaica that’s usually ghettoized, so to speak, in the permanent-collection galleries.

Related programming includes a concert on Thursday featuring Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop artist Kalkidan Mashasha (whose portrait is in the show) and composer, multimedia artist and writer Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky. Now that’s global warming.

Conceptual art a-head!

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,”  Sol LeWitt wrote in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” the genre-defining manifesto he published in Artforum in 1967.

In practice, the machine wasn’t always up to the task. That was the case when Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek, the Connecticut synagogue that LeWitt co-designed with architect Stephen Lloyd in 2001, tried repeatedly to translate the radiant, geometric design the artist made for the ark doors into the convex form of a yarmulke.  It was only last year that a Boro Park firm finally did the trick. The synagogue ordered 100 of the head-coverings, offering them for $36 in a 10th-anniversary fundraising initiative.

Stunning, symbolic, and one-size-fits-all (men, at least), the LeWitt Yarmulke is a wearable work of art, a bargain, and a mitzvah (a good deed).

LeWitt, who died at 78 in 2007, never saw the yarmulke. But the circumstances of its creation, and its accessible price, are entirely in keeping with the sensibility of the artist, a child of Russian immigrants who was a pivotal figure in the post-Ab-Ex avant-garde. As he explained in his Artforum piece—summoning baseball and miniskirts to make his case—the artist was fixated on concept, rather than execution. His “multiple modular method” involved a basic vocabulary of forms, whose iterations he dictated to future fabricators via precise sets of written instructions. This scenario, “usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman,” as LeWitt put it, might seem commonplace in this era of Damien Hirst spot paintings, but it was pretty radical at the time.

Read more in my story in Tablet.

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