A collection of great names, but not great works
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Art review'The fact that he was Jewish was irrelevant to me -- even though it informs the whole meaning of the show'

A collection of great names, but not great works

Despite its mission, Chicago’s ‘Voices & Visions’ exhibit is more about its Jewish artists’ visions than their Jewish voices

A view of Spertus's 'Voices & Visions' exhibition. (photo credit: Menachem Wecker/Times of Israel)
A view of Spertus's 'Voices & Visions' exhibition. (photo credit: Menachem Wecker/Times of Israel)

CHICAGO — Before 2012, Rabbi Nachman of Breslau’s Hasidic flock and the sexually excited shared in common only playful references to “Breastlover Hasidim” on message boards on the blog Failed Messiah, as well as on the dark nether region of the Internet, where people search for “hasidic girls.” But thanks to a traveling exhibit of Jewish graphic design — which has become a national phenomenon — the original Breslov Hasid is now inextricably tied to Playboy magazine.

Renowned Jewish designer and artist Art Paul, who created the Playboy logo and served as the magazine’s art director for its first three decades, designed a poster bearing a quote from Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) as part of the exhibit, “Voices & Visions.” Appended in light blue ink beneath a deconstructed face — reminiscent, in a way, of Mr. Potato Head — is the Rabbi Nachman quote: “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

During an hour-long interview in his Chicago apartment, Paul waved off questions about whether it was ironic for a longtime Playboy designer to exhibit work in Jewish museums.

“You don’t want to ask any questions about that, because almost anybody who questions me about my past makes a big deal of that… I’m not ashamed,” said Paul of Playboy. “I know [to] the Orthodox, that that’s not the right thing to do… In Israel, there’s a strong division; correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve never been to Israel, but I’ve read about it.”

Paul, who was born in 1925, prefaced the conversation by saying that he has had health problems and has difficulty remembering names and certain events. But while reflecting on why he chose to be involved in a Jewish art exhibit, he said he still remembers, and is a bit traumatized by, his bar mitzvah.

Art Paul's poster in the Spertus exhibition (photo credit: courtesy)
Art Paul’s poster in the Spertus exhibition (photo credit: courtesy)

“It wasn’t very much fun,” he said, remembering the rabbi who taught him and his peers Hebrew as “an ancient man, strict, and what strictness causes.” In a grade school play, Paul had been embarrassed to be unable to belt out his single line due to stage fright, so he was determined to make good at his bar mitzvah by memorizing, rather than reading, his speech. He successfully delivered his speech without notes but still worries about press interviews today.

The poster Paul designed for Voices & Visions derives from a series of heads he exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center. Although it wasn’t originally created as a reflection on Rabbi Nachman, Paul said the connection “just seemed the right thing to do,” and he likes how it fits. “I’m usually trying to say something, even if I don’t know what it is at the time. Often, the thing just shows itself,” he said, perhaps channeling the Breslau mystic. “Mistakes can be a real pleasure.”

Milton Glaser, best known for his I ♥ NY logo among other much celebrated work, created his Voices & Visions poster specifically for the exhibit. But despite the piece’s reference to Benjamin Cardozo, Glaser (b. 1929) wasn’t thinking about the Jewish former Supreme Court justice.

“I think in this particular case, I’m really at arm’s length to the subject,” he said. “The fact that he was Jewish was irrelevant to me — even though it informs the whole meaning of the show. The fact that he was thoughtful, and significant, and a wise man, is significant to me.”

Inspired by the Container Corporation of America’s “Great Ideas” series of the 1950s, which invited artists to create graphic works with text, the 18 works in Voices & Visions were funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Mass. The exhibit is supposed to be, in part, “about starting conversations [and] about continuing the Jewish journey,” according to its website. “The power of art to communicate great Jewish ideas” is one of the mottos on the site.

Milton Glaser created his Voices & Visions poster specifically for the exhibit with a reference to Benjamin Cardozo. (photo credit: courtesy)
Milton Glaser created his Voices & Visions poster specifically for the exhibit with a reference to Benjamin Cardozo. (photo credit: courtesy)

But though he has designed a Holocaust poster in the past, Glaser is “not particularly identified with Jewish causes,” he admits. “I don’t like ideology in general; I don’t like certainty in general,” he adds, although he allows that he finds himself doing a lot of work for organizations that celebrate metaphysical, religious, or spiritual values — “one might say the best part of human nature.”

Despite the star power that Art Paul and Milton Glaser bring to the show, Voices & Visions seems to emphasize its voices mandate over the visions, and there appears to be a gap between the Jewish messages that the Grinspoon Foundation trumpets in its promotional materials and the ways the artists envision their own works, or the way they come off to the public.

“I was not impressed with the ‘Jewish nature’ of the art. A collection of great names, but not great works,” said one Jewish painter, who was asked about the exhibit, and who requested to remain nameless.

But Arnold Schwartzman, the artistic director of Voices & Visions, and a Los Angeles-based Academy Award-winning filmmaker, feels strongly about the exhibit he organized by inviting colleagues from the exclusive Alliance Graphique International. “Each of them are good friends of mine,” he said.

“I’m certainly not an Orthodox Jew. I just love the rich symbolism of Judaism,” says Schwartzman, who won an Oscar in 1982 for best documentary film for “Genocide.” His own contribution to Voices & Visions is a response to Susan Sontag’s quote, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” which he illustrated with artist’s mannequin hands spelling out the word “silence” in sign language.

One of several times that Schwartzman received push-back from the committee that selected the quotes and judged the posters came with his own design.

Arnold Schwartzman, the artistic director of Voices & Visions, chose a Susan Sontag quote to illustrate with sign language. (photo credit: courtesy)
Arnold Schwartzman, the artistic director of Voices & Visions, chose a Susan Sontag quote to illustrate with sign language. (photo credit: courtesy)

“For a number of reasons, it was initially rejected, because one of the people making the judgment said it might offend the hearing impaired,” he said. Rather than backing down, he whipped off an email to the National Association of the Deaf, and he sent the response he received — that his poster was certainly not offensive — to the person judging the work.

There were other hiccups in the process of putting the exhibit together. Grinspoon had hoped the exhibit would take four months to throw together, but it turned into an 18-month fiasco — held up largely, Schwartzman said, because the committee dragged its feet selecting which quotes would be used. Several designs besides his own were also initially rejected, which led him to regret being involved and bringing in his eminent colleagues. He talked to Grinspoon, who understood and fast-tracked the designs.

“Sometimes, I find Jewish people tough to work with,” he said later on in the conversation.

Voices & Visions is on view at the Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership through August 11; at Houston’s Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center Deutser Art Gallery through July 18; and was exhibited at Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center from December 4, 2012 through March 17, 2013.

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