In the 1960s, the New York Jewish Museum became the unlikely leading venue for contemporary avant-garde art in America. It was there, in the former Warburg mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, that enthusiasts for innovative art were able to study, in some depth, the second generation of the New York School, as well as those artists who had already gone well beyond it–Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, George Segal, Philip Guston, Ad Reinhardt and others. In 1963 Alan Solomon put together the exhibition “Toward a New Abstraction,” with work by, among others, Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith, marked by the hard-edged clarity of its forms and colors, and the use of canvases shaped in nontraditional ways. The following year the museum gave most New Yorkers their first understanding of Minimalist painting and sculpture when Kynaston McShine organized the epochal exhibition “Primary Structures.” It would have been difficult to tell from what was on view in the other museums in the city that New York was the most exciting center of artistic innovation in the world, and there can be little question that the extraordinary popularity and prestige of the Jewish Museum’s shows put pressure on its peers to rethink their responsibilities to contemporary art.
At the same time, however, the success of those shows created considerable tensions between the museum and its parent institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, not to mention the more conservative elements in New York’s Jewish community. The museum was originally intended to house and study ritual and ceremonial objects the seminary had acquired. It had never been intended as a hot spot for non-Jewish artists to display their work for a cosmopolitan audience. My own view was that nothing could be more Jewish than supporting advanced art, and that a European tradition of Jewish patronage, disrupted by fascism, had been taken up by American collectors like Vera List, who had become powers on the museum’s board of directors. In the end, conservatism triumphed, and the Jewish Museum disappeared from the “What’s Going on in New York” pages of magazines. Unless you had a passion for Jewish artifacts and their historical significance, there was no reason to set foot in what for a decade had been the improbable site of radical artistic exploration.
In recent years the Jewish Museum has been pursuing a program that again appeals to a wider and more urbane audience, while remaining faithful to the mission of promoting an awareness of Jewish culture. It has mounted shows of Jewish artists whose work is of compelling interest to anyone concerned with art, whether or not they take a further interest in the ethnic or religious identity of those who made it. As one part of this agenda, it has paid particular attention to Jewish artists drawn to Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century, when it was the beacon for those with advanced artistic ambitions–Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Sonia Delaunay, Chaim Soutine and now Amedeo Modigliani, figures that any museum anywhere would take pride in presenting. As a Jewish venue, however, the museum feels bound by responsibilities other museums need not share. It cannot rest satisfied with letting the work stand on its artistic merits alone. It must make an effort to explain in what special ways the Jewishness of the artists contributes to the significance of the art. It is thus under the kind of obligation that museums with dedicated constituencies generally feel bound by–to explain, for example, how a peculiarly feminine sensibility inflects the art in a museum devoted to work made by women, or how the blackness of the artists in museums restricted to black artists contributes to the interest and importance of their art.
There are many sound reasons–political, moral, educational and psychological–for the existence of what we might call identity art museums: museums whose visitors are, in a sense, split between those whose identity is an important reason for going to see an exhibit, and those who go primarily for the art irrespective of the artists’ race, nationality or gender. As a rule the artists don’t need such museums. It is, rather, the other way around. There is currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum a superb painting of chess players by Sofonisba Anguissola, in a show of artists from Lombardy. Anguissola was one of the wonders of her age: Vasari visited Cremona to see her work, and Michelangelo held her in highest esteem. The Chess Players, almost certainly her masterpiece, is difficult for most of us to see, since it is located in Poznan, Poland. I went down to Washington especially to write about the wonderful show of her work a few years ago, which, for reasons of museum politics, was shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. But it would have been no less at home in the National Gallery or, for that matter, the Metropolitan Museum. The Jewish Museum had an incentive to put together the superb and very moving show of Modigliani–a Sephardic Jew born in Livorno in 1884–now on view in its second-floor galleries (until September 19, after which it travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Phillips Collection in Washington). But because of Modigliani’s stature, and his nearly unparalleled popularity, lines at least as long as those at the Jewish Museum would form wherever such a show were held today.