The Conscience of 'an Unconscious Jew': Meyer Schapiro, Identity, and Modern Art

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Date: April 23, 2021
Time: 1:30 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Location: Zoom
Category: Lecture

An Emeritus Academy colloquium presentation by Jeffrey Abt, Art and Art History

Abstract: Over the last couple of decades scholars have explored the extent to which the work of previous generations of Jewish art historians and critics was inflected by their ethnic identity. A focal point of that interest is a circle of critics integral to America’s contributions to modern art in the post-Second World War period. At the time increasing numbers of Jews became leading artists, collectors, and critics—all as the international center of contemporary art shifted from Paris to New York. The most prominent art writers of the era included Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Schapiro. The first two were critics and the third an art historian, all were active in New York’s art world, and all were Jewish. Of them, however, only Greenberg and Rosenberg publicly addressed questions of Jewish identity in their work or that of others. Schapiro (1904-1996) didn’t and as a result is said to neither have “contributed to the scholarship of Jewish art” nor to have allowed his Jewishness to affect his writings, or if he did, it was only “subliminally.” 

Schapiro’s nearly four-decade-long association with the Jewish Museum of New York tells a different story. Behind the scenes he was instrumental in the institution’s turn to contemporary art and its becoming the leading venue for avant-garde art at a time when the city’s museums nominally devoted to new art—the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art—were far less adventuresome. This paper explores Schapiro's role at the Jewish Museum, the context of his contributions, and his take on Jewish art-world participation.

Jeffrey Abts artwork is in collections throughout the United States and has been exhibited in America and abroad. His books include American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute(University of Chicago Press) and Valuing Detroit's Art Museum: A History of Fiscal Abandonment and Rescue (Palgrave Macmillan). He co-edited the Museum History Journal for several years and now serves on the Association for Jewish Studies board of directors. The material presented in this talk is a byproduct of archival research for his current book project, “Exhibitionary Secularism: Jews and Their Objects from Religious Ceremonials to the Avant-Garde.”

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Arthur Marotti


April 2021