How Jewish is it?

Behind the Scenes at the Jewish Museum in New York

The five decades of Tom Freudenheim’s distinguished career as a curator and museum director
took him from Buffalo to Washington, Berlin and London. But it all began in New York city, where for a brief moment in the mid-1960s a dusty backwater institution known chiefly for its extensive collection of spice boxes and Torah crowns became the center of the contemporary art world. 


In the early 1960’s I was a young rabbinical school dropout, trying to stay out of the US Army. (There was this thing called the draft…) With no interest in any of the conventional professions that Jewish mothers dream about for their children, I’d been admitted to New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Already burdened by outstanding student loans (miniscule by today’s standards, but still onerous) I needed to find a part-time job.   

A friend from my days at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College had recently become administrator of the Jewish Museum in New York. Thanks to her I was initially hired to write and edit Jewish biographies for a book on medals of famous Jews, of which the museum possessed a notable collection. I had no idea that I was entering an institution in a state of confused, if exciting, flux – exactly where I was in my own life. 

The Jewish Museum occupies a 1908 French Renaissance chateau on Fifth Avenue. Originally the home of the banker Felix Warburg, in 1944 the mansion was given to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America by his widow, Frieda Schiff Warburg, and opened as a museum in 1947, housing a significant collection of Judaica, regularly supplemented by gifts from friends of the Seminary. The most generous was Harry G. Friedman, an investment banker and philanthropist who systematically scoured the rich post-World War II market for items of Jewish interest. By the time he died he had given the museum more than 6,000 objects. The Museum’s first curator (and subsequently director), Stephen Kayser, had engaged a fellow German-Jewish refugee, Guido Schoenberger), and with the skimpiest of resources the pair started to catalogue and display the growing collections, publishing an important book on Jewish ceremonial art. 

Kayser was also clearly guided by the model established by Karl Schwarz, who had been the first director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened in January 1933 – and was closed after Kristallnacht in 1938.  (Following his emigration to Palestine, Schwarz served as founding director of the Tel Aviv Museum.) Schwartz had been especially focused on bringing attention to the creativity of contemporary Jewish artists. During Kayser’s early years he mounted exhibitions of significant artists known to the “Jewish art” world, but not necessarily considered “mainstream” by the art world in general: e.g. Ben-Zion, Jankel Adler, Saul Raskin, Elbert Weinberg, Maurycy Gottlieb, Chaim Gross, and Arthur Szyk. There were also occasional exhibitions of American Jewish artists with wider reputations: Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, Adolph Gottlieb. A momentary, even radical, breakthrough came in 1957, to commemorate the museum’s tenth anniversary, when Kayser enlisted the young Leo Steinberg to develop Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, featuring works by 23 “emerging” artists, not necessarily Jewish, including Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and George Segal. That event signalled an opportunity that would soon turn into a tumultuous and exciting period in the Jewish Museum’s history. 

For New York art world nostalgists of a certain age, the 1960s were the glory days. The Cedar Street Tavern, which chronicler and critic Irving Sandler called “the bar of the New York school”, closed in 1963, having served as hangout for many artists, including Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. During the decade and a half following World War II, the artists who frequented that drinking hole, and who gathered on Friday nights at The Club – a kind of grubby Plato’s Symposium that met in a loft on East 8th street – to exchange ideas about art and the world weren’t driven by market forces. Those were in short supply. Only in the early 1960s did a fashionable new art world begin to develop, with a still-limited public following that broke through the earlier clubbiness of the artist insiders and began to include a wider range of collectors and hangers-on. Still, the New York “art world” of the time remained mostly focused inward, and its legendary “events” – e.g. Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 The Store, Allan Kaprow’s 1962 Courtyard Happening – were not widely publicised to a general public (many more people now claim to have attended than could ever have been accommodated at either). In 1957, when Leo Castelli opened his eponymous gallery on East 77th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, that was a prescient statement about how contemporary art was moving far north of Greenwich Village. 

Cover exhibition catalogue for Jasper Johns: Retrospective 1964, The Jewish Museum, New York


Although a number of important artists – and most of the art critics and dealers – were Jewish, there’s no obvious link between art world events and American Jewish sociology. Yet the optimism that suffused American life at the time, generating a burgeoning museum and art world, also led to the construction of many new synagogues and Jewish community centres in the 1950s and ‘60s. No longer in the traditional faux Byzantine/Moorish or classical styles, these contemporary buildings were occasionally designed by high profile architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. It was precisely at this point that New York’s Jewish Museum seized the leading role in showing contemporary art. Although that period lasted for less than a decade, it left a lasting influence on both the art world and on other museums. 

Upper Fifth Avenue had long been home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the Guggenheim, Cooper-Hewitt, and other museums had not yet staked their claim to what is now called “Museum Mile” and the neighborhood of exclusive – in some cases downright “restricted” (meaning “No Jews Allowed”) – apartment buildings wasn’t an obvious venue for a Jewish institution. Yet this was also an especially interesting time in the development of American Jewish culture. If in the 1950s one focus of American Jewish life was the State of Israel – accompanied by an emerging, if still nascent, interest in the Holocaust – for many Jews, these interests were competing with more integrationist trends, best exemplified by Commentary, the seminal publication sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.   

As historian John Ehrman wrote, the AJC “wanted to use Commentary as a vehicle to reconnect assimilated Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and its concerns…. [Its editor, Elliott] Cohen also wanted to use the magazine to bring the ideas of the New York intellectuals to a wider audience, especially among upwardly mobile Jews.” This model was often cited in defense of the Jewish Museum’s move away from strictly Jewish art interests. If Jews were at the forefront of new ideas in the intellectual realm, that would obviously include the world of art and culture. The Jew as cosmopolitan was now to be celebrated by forward-looking Jewish institutions; Commentary was leading its readers in that direction. This was not the “rootless cosmopolitan Jew” of Nazi and Soviet propaganda; instead, there was an assertive association of Jews with the developing fabric of mainstream American cultural expression. 

But there were other factors involving Jews and museums – matters not so openly discussed. The boards of New York’s cultural institutions had long been known for their social exclusivity. Despite the presence of a few Jews on most of the prestigious boards, they were quite evidently selectively antisemitic: only the “right” kind of Jews were invited. The Metropolitan Museum of Art trustees included a few Jews in the 1940s and ‘50s: banker Robert Lehman, publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and attorney (and art collector) Irwin Untermyer – all of them part of the city’s German-Jewish elite. The Museum of Modern Art was thought to be more “inclusive” in having a larger number of Jews as trustees, including Sam Lewisohn, Mrs. David M. Levy, William S. Paley, and Edward M.M. Warburg. But they, too, were the “right kind” of Jews. The same was true of the other major museum boards. The 1907 Galveston Movement, funded in part by Jacob Schiff (1847-1920), Frieda Schiff Warburg’s father, had been initiated to make sure that there was some limitation on the number of Eastern European Jewish immigrants coming to New York which, Schiff wrote, “is already too overcrowded and the making of further larger additions to its Jewish population should obviously be sought to be avoided”. As a result, over 10,000 Jews entered the country via Galveston, Texas. A museum world reflection of this was the unproven, if widely assumed, belief that “upper class” Jews such as Robert Lehman (at the Met) and Leigh Block (at Chicago’s Art Institute) exerted their own influence in making certain that “other” kinds of Jews were not invited to join them as trustees. 

Yet by the 1950s there was already considerable wealth in the hands of Jews who could trace their roots to the vast Jewish populations of Eastern Europe. Some portion of these people were collecting art – and they were often more interested in the avant-garde. After all, engagement with new art provided access to a whole world of collectors less snobbish than those in the field of old master paintings. In addition, the price of admission was significantly lower: it cost less to make a splash, and it came with the added thrill of engagement with living artists and their increasingly exciting art scene. 

In the late 1960s Thomas Hess, then editor of Art News, published an editorial in which he articulated the well-known, if unspoken, dirty secret of the art world: antisemitism on museum boards and the dearth of Jews as directors of large public art museums (in contrast with university or college ping for a director, it goes without saying that no Jew need apply (unless, naturally, he has changed his name and religion).” Indeed, some considered it notable when I was appointed director of the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1971.  

Robert Rauschenberg Dirt Painting (for John Cage), ca. 1953 Dirt and mold in wood box


I wasn’t privy to the discussions at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1950s, but there is little question that among the goals of JTS’s power structure was deepening the engagement of the List family. Albert A. (Abe) List was an entrepreneur who’d made a fortune and retired by the time he was 36. His Romanian immigrant background would have surely barred him from the German-Jewish social world whose ancestors had come to the United States much earlier. Among List’s many benefactions was the Jewish Theological Seminary, which he served as a trustee. His wife, Vera G. List, also of Eastern European (Latvian) Jewish background, had become an active collector of contemporary art, and was very engaged in what was happening in New York’s art world. It would have been useful for the Seminary to keep the Lists close at hand by engaging Vera with the Jewish Museum.   

Brice Marden, Thira, 1979-1980. Marden worked as a guard at the museum.


The List family funded a new wing, designed by Vera List’s architect brother, Samuel Glaser, and opened in 1963. (It was subsequently torn down and replaced by a larger addition.) Vera List led a board that was expanded to include many significant figures in the contemporary art world. Among them was Ben Heller, a young textile magnate, and one of the most important collectors of the New York School, whose artists became his personal friends. The most famous work in Heller’s collection was Jackson Pollock’s magisterial canvas, Blue Poles (1952), which he had purchased in 1957, and which was sold in 1973 for $1.3 million to the National Gallery in Canberra, almost causing an Australian national crisis.   

My favorite memory of the painting comes from a visit to Heller’s home, after he had become chair of the JM’s board of trustees. I believe he summoned me there because I had complained about my measly salary. I don’t recall much about the conversation (and I know that it didn’t result in a higher salary). But I vividly recall my discovery that Blue Poles was not just a painting – it was a wall! That encounter forever altered my understanding of the immense color field paintings of the time. In addition, as a young museum worker deeply concerned about conservation issues, I remember my horror at watching Heller’s large dog (a Labrador retriever?) brush its tail against the painting, knowing that I didn’t have the nerve to tell Ben Heller that this wasn’t appropriate stewardship for his personal museum piece. 

By the time I arrived at the museum, Alan Solomon had been appointed director. He arrived with his Harvard degrees, and appropriate scholarly credentials, along with a vision that presumably matched the ambitions of at least some of the museum’s trustees. Solomon was a slight, balding man with a goatee and a gentle demeanor which masked a steely determination. He looked like the scholar he was, rather than someone who spent his days palling around with the avant-garde and hanging out in artists’ studios – which he did as well. 

Solomon was also close to the most important dealers such as Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, and friendly with many of the younger artists who were aggressively confronting the successes of their celebrated elders – perhaps best exemplified by Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Obliterating the work of your predecessors was one way of asserting that you had arrived. The self-conscious heroics of the postwar New York School – characterized by the title of Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting (1977) – were just waiting to be challenged.   

So there I was, a young draft-dodger in graduate school, with a part-time editing job to help pay my rent. Working in cramped offices, in what had been the servants’ quarters of the Warburg Mansion – the collection storage was in the War-burgs’ squash court – I shared desk space with the loveliest of mentors, Siegfried Rosenberg, yet another German immigrant and the man in charge of the vast Judaica collections. Rosenberg was a pious Jew with evident love for the collections under his care, so he served as a kind of counterbalance to the museum’s increasing interest in contemporary art. But my youthful agility and truncated rabbinical training gave me a clear advantage. Gradually promoted to assistant and then full curator, I found myself managing a series of small exhibitions and trying to make sense of the permanent collections.  

I was also informally tasked with almost daily visits to Harry G. Friedman in his nearby West 86th Street apartment, to reassure the museum’s major steady donor (of both objects and money) that all of this mushrooming interest in contemporary art at the Jewish Museum wasn’t really the cataclysmic change that it appeared to be. While Dr. Friedman seemed grateful for the attentions of a young visitor, he was obviously too sophisticated to believe me. Meanwhile I benefited from being part of a small museum staff, where everyone was enlisted in the primary projects: major exhibitions of the most important movements in contemporary art. That would turn out to be fortuitous both for my education and for my subsequent career. 

Alan Solomon: His death in 1970 at the age of 49 cut short a brilliant and provocative career


Along with the rise of a newly confident generation of American Jews, and the legacy of museum world antisemitism, there was another factor behind the Jewish Museum’s increasing influence on the New York art world. The three institutions most likely to present mid-career single artist retrospectives – the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim – were not yet prepared to make that kind of commitment to the newest art. Indeed, Dorothy Miller’s historic 16 Americans exhibition at MoMA took place in 1959, two years after the Jewish Museum had presented many of the same artists. Here, then, was an opportunity waiting to be seized, and Alan Solomon took hold of it with great panache, mounting a series of important exhibitions that have become part of the mythos of 20th-century art. organised a retrospective of Jasper Johns, solidifying the museum’s place at the centre of the contemporary art world. A year earlier, in Towards a New Abstraction (celebrating “post-gestural” art), Solomon invited important critical voices – Leo Steinberg, Irving Sandler, Robert Rosenblum, Dore Ashton, Michael Fried (all of them Jewish!) – to write essays for the catalogue. Solomon also organised the American entry in the 1964 Venice Biennale, at which Robert Rauschenberg was (controversially) awarded the top prize.   

Solomon invited graphic artist Elaine Lustig Cohen to design exhibition catalogues, setting a new standard in that field as well. Invited by Solomon to create a “design-based” Seder table for Passover 1964, Lustig Cohen selected designer furniture (by Mies van der Rohe and Hans Eichenberger), porcelain from Arzberg, and Lobmyer goblets designed in 1917 by Josef Hoffman, as well as a Seder plate by the museum’s resident artist, Ludwig Wolpert. 

Too shy to befriend most of the now-storied artists who were around the museum in those days – e.g., Rauschenberg and Johns, Stella and Kelly – I nevertheless spent many hours hanging out in the galleries with a few of the upcoming artists who served as guards, including Harvey Quaytman, Mel Bochner, and Brice Marden. Indeed, my interest in 17th-century Spanish painting, especially Zurbaran, was ignited by Marden, who urged me to spend more time with those painters; his own encaustic layered paintings of the late 1960s reflect Zurbaran’s strong influence. 

Torah crown: Andrea Zambelli “L’Honnesta,” Venetian, 1740-50. Metropolitan Museum, NY


It’s remarkable how much Solomon managed to achieve. Especially since the splash he made in the art world didn’t always sit well with his bosses at the Jewish Theological Seminary. They had to balance the complaints of their Jewish constituents with the accolades from the art world – a conflict which itself was subjected to private and public debate, including a 1966 symposium at the museum, at which critic Harold Rosenberg stated:  

Is there a Jewish art? First they build a Jewish Museum, then they ask, Is there a Jewish art? Jews! As to the question itself, there is a Gentile answer and a Jewish answer. The Gentile answer is: Yes, there is a Jewish art, and No, there is no Jewish art. The Jewish answer is: What do you mean by Jewish art? 

His remarks were subsequently published in Commentary, reflecting that publication’s continuing interest in this controversy. I vividly recall that later in the discussion Rosenberg said that his grandmother’s noodle kugel constituted Jewish art. 

If Solomon remains one of the early champions of the art of the 1960s, the paucity of his writings, and his relatively short life – he died in 1970 at the age of 49 – has relegated him to a less significant historical position than he deserves. His critical eye was indispensable to the success of his close friend, Leo Castelli, who served as executor of Solomon’s estate. Solomon wasn’t one to compromise his principles, and in the end that probably didn’t sit well with his trustees, either. I was only a peon, so whatever I knew about his departure was via office rumors. But despite his triumph at the Venice Biennale – where besides Rauschenberg, Solomon also featured the work of Jim Dine, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenberg and Frank Stella – he left the museum a month later, in July 1964, after serving as director for just two years.  

His successor was Sam Hunter. Hunter had been an art critic for the New York Times and founding director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis. During his leadership the JM presented single-artist exhibitions of Ad Reinhardt and Philip Guston, as well as a landmark survey of minimalist art, “Primary Structures.” Irving Sandler cites artist Mark di Suvero as having called that 

The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective exhibition of 1963 may have the most stories surrounding it. Although an important historical figure, whose work feels remarkably fresh even now, Rauschenberg worked with ideas that were especially challenging at that time. My novice’s test on new art came about one morning when I was charged with routine inspection of the galleries. On the floor beneath Rauschenberg’s Dirt Painting (for John Cage), was a pile of dirt. The work appeared to be shedding its material, so I did what curators are taught to do: I carefully brushed the bits of dirt into an envelope for future conservation. When I reported this to the artist, Rauschenberg was clearly amused, since the work’s inherent destructibility was intentional. I don’t believe that my little envelope was ever used for restoration purposes, although I suspect that famous mud pie, now held by New York’s Rauschenberg Foundation, is carefully preserved in a climate-controlled container. The sense of incongruity that such an exhibition would be on display in a Jewish museum is best described by a celebrated exchange overheard at the exhibition’s opening. Adele Ginzberg, feisty widow of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s great Talmudic scholar, Louis Ginzberg, asked whether Rauschenberg was Jewish. When told that he wasn’t, she exclaimed “Thank God!” 

In 1964 Alan Solomon exhibition “the keystone show of the 1960s [that] had introduced a new generation of sculptors”. But Hunter also fell victim to disagreements about how Jewish the Jewish Museum ought to be and lasted only two years. I left for California at the end of 1965, to assist with the development and building of the new University Art Museum on the Berkeley campus. 

Passover Set, Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, 1930 Frankfurt, produced New York 1978, silver, ebony and glass. The Jewish Museum, NY


The American Jewish community has changed radically since the 1960s. Commentary, then under legendary editor Norman Podhoretz and now edited by his son, John, has become a vehicle for neo-conservative ideology. Many Jews are now members of museum boards, and all of New York’s major art museums have had Jews as chairs of their boards of trustees. What passed for astute art buying in the days of Vera List and Ben Heller has turned into high-roller gambling as the art market has shifted from an emphasis on art to the pre-eminence of market.   

And the Jewish Museum has once again moved from its post-Sam Hunter era of emphasising Jewish subject matter to its current role as one of many mid-sized New York museums showing interesting, sometimes very impressive, exhibitions in an institution whose vast Jewish collections seem increasingly marginalised. No longer in a position to stake out wholly unique territory for itself, the Jewish Museum nevertheless continues to develop fascinating exhibitions, generally with what I think of as a “Jewish thread”, however slim. That has recently included shows of well-known artists who were Jews, like Modigliani, Chagall, Soutine, Florine Stettheimer, as well as more esoteric ones, introducing viewers to artists such as Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx and architect/designer Pierre Chareau. With far more expansive facilities, the Museum of Modern Art has long presented extensive mid-career exhibitions of contemporary artists – as do most other museums. But in the 1960s it took extraordinary vision for the Jewish Museum to do so. Rauschenberg and Johns were only 36 and 34 respectively at the time of their retrospectives! 

Perhaps inevitably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ten blocks south on Fifth Avenue, now hosts more thoughtful Jewish-themed exhibitions than most of America’s many Jewish museums. A splendid Torah crown sits in the center of the Met’s gallery of Italian Baroque decorative arts; major medieval illuminated Haggadot have been displayed at the Met during Passover. In 2015 the Morgan Museum and Library presented a dazzling exhibition, Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff, which showed a newly commissioned Haggadah. In 2007-8 the American Folk Art Museum had an exhibition, Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel, which showed that some New York synagogue decorations were carved by the same people who had carved carousel animals. Instead of wishing that such exhibitions were shown in the Jewish Museum, we ought to take comfort in the “integration” of Jewish-themed exhibitions in most museums. Mainstreaming ideas that were once restricted to Jewish museums presents special challenges – especially for New York’s Jewish Museum. I’ll leave it to the next generation of museum historians to decide whether or not that’s been “good for the Jews”.    


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