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Modernism's Jewish Connection

The role of Jews in creating and popularizing post-war modernism has largely escaped attention, but it is now the subject of a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco.


By Fred A. Bernstein
July 2, 2014
Photo courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library, Orange, CA.
Eichler model home advertisement, c. 1960.

Are Jews particularly likely to embrace new forms of artistic expression? The ongoing coverage of collections looted by the Nazis strongly suggests that, when it came to avant-garde painting, Jewish collectors were essential. So too for architecture: Can it be coincidence that Mies’s greatest clients, the Tugendahts, and le Corbusier’s, the Savoyes, were Jewish?  

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In America, the Kaufmann family commissioned houses by both Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, himself a Jewish emigre. Other Jewish architects of the time included Marcel Breuer, Rudolf Schindler, and of course Louis Kahn, born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky. Those who couldn’t afford houses by the greats might have bought furniture by George Nelson, known for his marshmallow sofa, or appliances by prolific industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. They would have been induced to embrace the modernist aesthetic directly by Jewish developers, including Joseph Eichler in California and William Levitt in New York, and indirectly through the work of two great architectural photographers: Julius Shulman on the west coast and Ezra Stoller on the east. Both photographers were Jewish, as were many of the editors who showed their work.

But the role of Jews in creating and popularizing post-war modernism has largely escaped attention. One reason is that some of the key players, including Anni Albers, the textile artist, and designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, didn’t have recognizably Jewish names; another is that well-intentioned efforts to de-link modernism (once portrayed as a Bolshevik style) from political or religious views largely succeeded. More recently, there has been the barrier of political correctness—why point to ethnicity or religion at all, unless doing so will reveal an important truth?

Now the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco has taken on this somewhat tricky subject with an exhibition (through October 6) that, perhaps in an attempt to avoid over-claiming, barely makes any claim at all. The curator is Donald Albrecht, who named the show Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism. But Albrecht went beyond the home, devoting sections of the gallery to the design of record jackets (by Alex Steinweiss) and corporate logos (by Paul Rand, born Peretz Rosenbaum in Brooklyn). Further confusing the topic, there is a selection of Judaica (mezuzahs, menorahs, and the like), not surprisingly designed by Jews. The meat of the show is a selection of furniture by Nelson, Schindler, and Paul Frankl, handsomely displayed alongside Albers textiles and two familiar Dreyfuss products: his Princess phone, in pink, and his bagel-shaped thermostat for Honeywell.

Furniture by the Bauhaus architect Harry Rosenthal, brought over from Germany by William and Ilise Schiff in the 1930s and displayed in their Neutra house in San Francisco’s Marina District, suggests that in the pre-war years, modernism was a luxury item. (Though owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Rosenthal pieces have never before been shown publicly.) It was in the post-War years that modernism went mass-market.

Along with its carefully selected objects, the exhibition includes diagrams showing how Jewish artists, curators and collectors—both foreign- and American-born—networked at institutions like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. The research into the role of these institutions in furthering careers is intriguing. But none of it suggests that Jews had more of a hand than any other group in popularizing modernism. In an interview, Albrecht notes that Jews did seem to have a disproportionate influence, perhaps because, unlike other immigrant groups, they had no longing for the old country and thus were all too ready to embrace the new.

The show, under Albrecht’s able direction, is worth seeing. But it also makes clear that a larger, more far-reaching show would be worth organizing—one that brings in not just Kahn, but also Gordon Bunshaft, Andrew Geller, and other influential Jewish architects, and grapples with the ways their backgrounds may have influenced their work.



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