In Case You Missed It: Ori Z. Soltes on the Jewish Abstract Expressionists After the Holocaust

One of the highlights of last night’s Nextbook lecture by Ori Z. Soltes on his new book The Ashen Rainbow: Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust, was his discussion of the split that occured in the early 1950s between the Chromaticists (Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottleib) and the Explosionists (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning) of Abstract Expressionism. Focusing on the former group, Professor Soltes remarked on the preponderance of Jewish artists and expounded specifically on Newman’s “The Name II.”

Barnett Newman.

The eye is drawn into the glaring center of this all-white painting, trisected by two thin vertical lines into an apparent triptych. Those conversant with the Jewish tradition would be aware, moreover, that, as God’s ineffable Name is never uttered outside of prayer by Orthodox Jews, references to the Divinity are offered in Hebrew by the circumlocution “The Name.” Such a viewer would thus know that a work called “The Name” offers not only an instance of reunifying the world on the microcosm of the canvas in simple visual terms, but is intended to solve the implied generations’ old problem of the Jewish artist: where do I fit into western art which has been, for so many centuries Christian art? By appropriating that most Christological of formats, the triptych, but replacing the image of the Crucified Christ or of the Madonna and Christ Child, flanked by saints, with nothing but whiteness–the absence of color (the absence of that element so fundamental to painting in its traditional, pre-constructivist form) at the same time, by paradox, in being most akin of all pigments to light which is the totality of color–Newman has (symbolically) represented, without representing, the God that cannot be visually represented for Jews. We stare at the absolute absence of “thingness” that at the same time time is the source and therefore the totality of all things. In the post-Holocaust era , the work puns notonly on the matter of God’s presence or absence–the ultimate theological Holocaust question–but in particular the Christian God of Mercy.”

Excerpt from The Ashen Rainbow: Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust (Eshel Books) by Ori Z. Soltes.

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