In search of a Jewish audience: New York's Guild Art Gallery, 1935-1937.

Author:Pappas, Andrea
Position:Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

How did Jewishness affect the relationships among artists, galleries, artists' groups and collectors?" Scholars have scrutinized the Jewish presence in American art in the twentieth century over the last fifteen years or so in essays, monographs and surveys. Studies of Jewish artists and their works continue to proliferate, and scholars have even examined the connections between art history as a discipline and Jewishness, contributing to both the history and the sociology of art history and to the range of Jewish studies. (1) The re-evaluation of the work of artists such as Raphael Soyer, Theresa Bernstein, Jack Levine, Mark Rothko, Audrey Flack and many others in relationship to their Jewishness reveals a religious and cultural identification with Judaism as an enduring component of American modernism--both before and after WWII--in New York. This, in turn, has enriched our understanding of the interplay between modernism and ethnic and religious identity. (2) Yet scant attention has been paid to the institutional frames in which these artists expressed their connection to Judaism. (3) One such institution was the Guild Art Gallery (1935-1937). While it may not have explicitly set out to be a "Jewish" gallery, most of the artists on its roster were Jewish, as were its founders, and it mounted at least one major, extended campaign to recruit Jewish patrons. Further, the gallery made concerted efforts to market a modern Jewish masterwork by an artist associated with the School of Paris--Sigmund Menkes' enormous painting, The Torah--to an elite Jewish audience. Although the gallery closed its doors after only two years, the act of closely tracking its activities in relation to its Jewish-themed work and its campaign to shape a Jewish clientele can tell us something about the intersection of Jewishness, modernity and the art market in New York in the mid-i930s. (4)

The Gallery

Artists Margaret Lefranc (1907-1998) and Anna Walinska (1906-1997) founded and ran the Guild Art Gallery, (Figures 1, 2). Their self-portraits register their identity as modern artists in their loose handling of paint and their departures from traditional renderings of space and form---the latter style one that was featured in the art of avant-garde cubist painter Andre Lhote, with whom they both studied. Lefranc, who was born Margaret Frankel in New York, lived in Europe from the age of 13, since her father had moved the family to Germany, where she studied art, both traditional and expressionist. The family moved to Paris in 1923, where she spent a decade before returning to New York. (5) Walinska, the daughter of labor leader and Zionist Ossip Walinsky and sculptor Rosa Newman, also lived in Paris as an art student between 1926 and 1930. (6) Lefranc, whose family resources afforded her a small amount of capital and a very modest income, later recalled that although she planned to start a gallery, she lacked the social connections in the New York art world to do so because of her European upbringing. Similarly, Walinska also recounted that during her stay in Paris, she wished to launch a gallery to bring the modern art she saw there to New York. (7) Walinska's mother, who was Lefranc's neighbor, introduced the two women. When Walinska heard of Lefranc's plan, she announced that she knew "practically every working artist in New York" and could provide the contacts Lefranc needed. (8) The two young women formed a partnership in which Lefranc handled the finances and Walinska provided social connections to artists. In the late summer of 1935, they signed the lease on their fifth-floor Guild Art Gallery at 37 West 57th Street. (9)

The bare walls, sparse furniture, and generous wall space between works of art proclaimed the gallery's modernity in visual and spatial terms (Figures 3,4). The near emptiness of the gallery extended the example that had been set twenty-five years earlier by Alfred Stieglitz's Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue--known simply as "291"--and that was currently on view at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. (10) The hard-surfaced floor, undecorated walls, and plain curtains served to direct the viewer's attention to the works one at a time and to mark the gallery's difference from those that sold paintings by the old masters. (11) In the setting of their new gallery, Walinska and Lefranc worked to build a stable roster of artists, and they assiduously pursued many avenues to garner publicity--and, therefore, an audience--for their exhibitions. Their efforts included, at least initially, sponsoring lectures on modern art and regularly sending out letters and announcements to prominent art world figures such as museum curators and newspaper and magazine art critics. Examination of the Guild Art Gallery's records reveals that the gallery dedicated a significant portion of its marketing to searching for a Jewish audience, an effort that places the gallery at the intersection of modernity and Jewishness.

A gallery's roster and the kind of work it exhibited largely shaped the public perception of that gallery. Just as exhibitions of modern works rather than works by the eighteenth-century "old masters" marked a gallery as "modern," so, too, could a steady stream of works by Jewish artists mark a gallery, at least in part, as "Jewish." (12) Jewish artists in the 1930s experienced the art market somewhat differently, shrunken as it was, than did their gentile colleagues. Even a cursory glance at exhibition records demonstrates that some galleries gave many more solo shows to Jewish artists than to others. For example, the ACA (American Contemporary Artists) Galleries, run by Herman Baron, had close ties to the Artists' Union--which represented artists working on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other government-sponsored projects--and devoted more than half of its solo shows to Jewish artists between 1935 and 1940. Similarly, the Downtown Gallery supported Jewish artists, whose solo exhibitions comprised nearly one third of its shows of individual artists (nine out of thirty-one). This strongly contrasts with other galleries. For example, the Kraushaar Galleries presented the works of Jewish artists in just one of its twenty-one solo exhibitions during the same period. (13) The Guild Art Gallery embraced Jewishness. Fully three-quarters of the gallery's inaugural exhibition season was given over to Jewish artists. Moreover, it showcased a major Jewish work, Sigmund Menkes' The Torah, and it developed a concerted campaign to place that work with a Jewish patron or organization. Although Jewishness rarely surfaced as an explicit topic in the art criticism published in non-Jewish publications, it was a topic in daily life; the 1930s saw a swiftly rising tide of antisemitism in the United States, putting pressure on the question of Jewish identity for Jews and gentiles alike. (14) In that climate, in a city with a large Jewish population, the Guild Art Gallery's activities had the potential to mark it as "Jewish."

The gallery's introductory exhibition, a group show, illustrates this. The exhibition opened on October 5, 1935 and featured (in addition to works by Fefranc and Walinska), the works of Boris Aronson, Ahron Ben-Shmuel, Donald Forbes, Henry Major, Rosa Newman, Philip Reisman, Ary Stillman, and Arshile Gorky. Critics received the show favorably: Edward Alden Jewell praised Gorky's "handsome abstract decoration," adding that it "may be said to dominate the show." (15) A writer at the New York Herald Tribune singled out Ben-Shmuel and Stillman for special mention and noted, "[B]oth realism and abstraction are encountered in [this] opening show." (16) Seven of the ten artists exhibiting were Jewish; marking the gallery as, at the very least, Jewishly oriented, while well-known modernists such as Aronson, Ben-Shmuel and Gorky contributed to its modern identity. As we shall see, the subsequent solo exhibitions--featuring the works of Aronson, followed by the works of Ben-Shmuel and Chaim Gross--reinforced this combination of modernity and Jewishness.

Aronson's paintings and gouaches depicting the New England coastal artist colonies of Rockport, Gloucester, and Provincetown in Massachusetts comprised the second show, which ran from the end of October to the end of November in 1935. Aronson had worked as a stage designer in Yiddish theaters after his arrival in the United States in 1923 and, in 1932, he began working on English-language productions. (17) However, he continued to work as a painter, apart from his work in theater, and these are the works that he exhibited in the gallery. Aronson's subject matter in 1935--as reflected in the titles singled out in reviews of his work--included Factories, Warehouses, The Junkyard, Unemployed and Town Hall, Provincetown. (18) This suggests that although Aronson was in Provincetown for at least part of one summer, his attention was directed to the social and physical results of the Depression more than to picturesque scenes of streets and summer beaches. Contemporary life, as depicted in the subject matter, placed his works in the broad spectrum of social realism in the 1930s. This, along with streamlined forms and the somewhat loose handling of the medium, registered their modernity and contemporaneity.

After the Aronson solo exhibition, the gallery featured a two-man show of the watercolors and wood sculpture of Gross and the stone sculptures of Ben-Shmuel; both sculptors worked with the figure as subject matter. Gross, whose later work centered on Jewish subjects, at this time exhibited a number of figural sculptures alongside Ben-Shmuel's three portrait heads, one torso, one reclining figure and a work entitled Wrestlers. Aside from the portraits, present-day life did not figure prominently in the objects made by either artist. Rather, subject matter served mostly as a vehicle for exploring the relationship between form and...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP