To the Rescue: Eight Artists in an Archive

 

March 26, 2000 - June 8, 2000

totherescue_lgLoading matzoh for transportation to the displaced persons camps. Munich, 1949.
 

About

The Contemporary Jewish Museum presented eight international artists' responses to the historical photographic archive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) - a humanitarian relief organization founded in 1914 to help Palestinian Jews during WWI. The work of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Alan Berliner, Wendy Ewald, Leon Golub, Pepón Osorio, Gilles Peress, Fred Wilson, and Terry Winters was on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in March 2000.

Curated by Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric of Lookout in New York, To the Rescue explored the relationship of art to historical, social, and humanitarian issues. The project presented the artists' responses to this emotionally moving and socially relevant archive, questioned our communal and personal responsibility to the past, and investigated how artifacts, especially photographs, function to preserve that past. These specially commissioned paintings, sculptures, photographs and multimedia installations were presented alongside photographs and documents from the archive to underscore the relationship of art to life and human experience in a compelling architectural environment designed by Constantin Boyn. The mission of the show resonated deeply with the Contemporary Jewish Museum because it took a historically significant idea and imbued it with contemporary relevance - a recurring theme in the Museum's exhibition history.

More about the Exhibition

The archive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was the focus for this remarkable experiment in the making of art. For eighty-five years, the JDC has worked to promote and uphold humanitarian values, organizing international rescue, relief, and reconstruction programs. The JDC was established to aid and assist Jews in Palestine caught in the agony of World War I. However, in 1986 the JDC extended its mission to reach beyond the Jewish community and now provides non-sectarian assistance to people in countries such as Bosnia, Turkey, Cuba and Rwanda.

Since its inception, the JDC has documented its work and in the process has accumulated an important and unique inventory of over 50,000 photographs, films, videotapes, oral histories, and documents. The breadth of the archive ranges from portraits of individuals whose lives were saved by the JDC, to images that document the organizations' varied international relief activities. Many images from the archive provided testimony to the war, persecution, famine, disaster, and death that have shaped human history in the 20th century, however the majority represented survival, compassion, dedication and responsibility. In the words of curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric, "The archive, through the accumulated power of photographs, brought to life for us a humbling message, a reminder of what it means to be human."

The response of New York-based French photographer Gilles Peress is an investigation of the ancestral and historical fears that are at the root of survival instinct, historical mobility, and displacement. Peress's Album of Fears is an oversized book combining digitally reproduced images selected by Peress from the archive. Peress's book is displayed in three related passages on freestanding tables for viewers to touch and turn its pages. Like Peress, filmmaker and sculptor Alan Berliner also addresses the notion of collecting images in book form. A floor-based video installation entitled Gathering Stones is composed of a low, tablelike surface covered with a field of black stones and checkered with smaller rectangles of white pebbles, representing the shape and order of an open photo album. Projected onto the five white rectangles are sequences of photographs and motion pictures culled from the JDC Archive. Gathering Stones is a participatory video installation that gives renewed and continued dignity through its focus on a myriad of Jewish individuals, and inspires remembrance of them as our collective ancestors. The work is based upon recognition of the connections between all human beings, connections that link the entire human race into one family. Gathering Stones celebrates the idea that the JDC photo archive is, ultimately, a family album for all of us.

The artwork presented in To the Rescue offers an opportunity to behold, witness, and revisit history. Wendy Ewald specifically focuses on the process and experience of revisiting history. The artist's video projection piece documents her work with two classes of recently integrated middle school children from North Carolina. In this piece, Ewald presents student responses to materials form the JDC archive and inquires into the students' notion of history and their ideas of what life was like for refugee children. The life, culture, and history of Europeans are referenced in a more abstract manner in a series of nine drawings by painter Terry Winters, the only non-representational work in the exhibition. In form, line, and mark making, these drawings echo and reference migration patterns.

The notion of revisiting history is made physical in the installations of Leon Golub and Magdalena Abakanowicz. Both installations create a walk-through environment in which the viewer is immersed within the dimensions of the artworks. Leon Golub's large-scale photo installation documents aspects of resistance and partisan activity in Nazi-occupied Europe. The viewer walks through and interacts with photographic transparencies hanging from the ceiling that lends a participatory immediacy to the situations depicted in the photographs. Participation and immediacy also characterize the installation of artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. For this exhibition Abakanowicz combines sculptural elements drawn from two previously completed works that, seen in the context of this exhibition, take on new meaning. A crowd of freestanding headless sculptural figures made of burlap and resin are arranged so that the viewer must navigate though them. The installation negates any sense of separation between the viewer and the figures, thus establishing a sense of community and an environment of empathy and relation.

To the Rescue is an exhibition that places a photographic archive at its epicenter - Pepón Osorio examines that archive and its function through the concept of magic. He makes a statement about creating photographs and the magic of their survival in an archive. On another layer, Osorio uses magic to comment upon the actions of groups like the JDC, actions that must seem like miracles to those who are saved.

The importance of images and their relationship, role, and function in history is also pertinent to the work of Fred Wilson. The artist installs images selected from the JDC archive, arranging them on an intersecting wall. Wilson crops these photographs by masking off all elements of the image except those he considers essential to his reading of their story, and situates the masked prints in a way that related to the original, unaltered images. Wilson's installation addresses the question as to where the factual, emotional, and cultural content of photographs actually lies. The installation examines the nature of photographic presentation and considers what they hide and what they reveal to viewers.

To the Rescue presents its audience with an opportunity to reconnect to history and to the stories of individuals swept up in history, to explore art's connection to the pressing issues of our time, and to question our actions and responsibilities as citizens of the world.


About the Artists

Magdalena Abakanowicz was born at her parent's country estate in Falenty, Poland, in 1930. Her childhood was brutally interrupted by World War II, followed by German, then Russian, occupation of her country. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and graduated in 1954. She began her career as a painter, then moved toward making sculpture, first abstract, then figurative. She creates large groups of 40, 80, or 100 figures. There might be as many as a thousand, but they have never been seen together. They remain in various public and private collections. With these sculptures Abakanowicz makes her statement about the human condition. Abakanowicz also creates monumental outdoor permanent installations using stone, bronze, and steel—"spaces to contemplate"—in Italy, Israel, South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Lithuania. In the beginning of the 1990s she designed Arboreal Architecture, a model of an ecological city in which she transformed houses into vertical gardens. She also creates and choreographs dances that derive from her sculpture experiences. They have been performed on the occasion of her exhibitions in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Warsaw.

Abakanowicz lives and works in Warsaw. Abakanowicz has been a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland and a visiting professor at UCLA. She received honorary doctorate degrees from the Royal College of Art in London, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz, Poland. She is the recipient of the Grand Prix of São Paulo Biennale (1965), the Comandor Cross of the order of Polonia Restituta, Chevalier dans l'Order des Arts et Lettres in Paris, the Leonardo da Vinci Prize in Mexico, and the Award for Distinction in Sculpture, granted by the Sculpture Center in New York. Her works are in many public collections, including the National Gallery in Washington, the Seson Museum in Tokyo, Muse d'Art Moderne in Paris, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Center for Modern Art in Warsaw, and the Museum of Modern Art in Seoul.

Alan Berliner is a filmmaker and media artist. His award-winning and critically acclaimed experimental documentary films are in the permanent collections of many libraries, festivals, universities, archives, and museums worldwide. The Family Album (1986), a collage of American family home movies and audio recordings, was included in the 1987 Whitney Biennial and received the "Experiments in Form" Award from the 1992 San Francisco International Film Festival. Intimate Stranger (1991), a biography of Berliner's maternal grandfather, received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association in 1993. Nobody's Business (1996), a portrait of his father, Oscar, received the International Film Critics Association Prize at the 1997 Berlin International Film Festival and "First Prize for Innovation" at the 1997 Festival Dei Popoli in Florence. Berliner's films have been described by the New York Times as "powerful, compelling, and bittersweet ... innovative in their cinematic techniques ... unpredictable in their structures ... illustrate the power of fine art to transform life."

In addition to his films, Berliner has produced a substantial body of audio and video installation works. Audiofile (1993) and Aviary (1993), both interactive audio installations, were exhibited at New York's Lincoln Center in 1994. His first solo exhibition, Found Sound, was held at Sculpture Center Gallery in New York City in 1996. Alan Berliner has received grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Jerome Foundation. He is the winner of three Emmy Awards, and retrospectives of his films have been presented at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography in New York.

Wendy Ewald has for thirty years collaborated in art projects with children, families, women, and teachers in Labrador, Colombia, India, South Africa, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Mexico, and the United States. Starting as documentary investigations of places and communities, Ewald's projects probe questions of identity and cultural differences. In her work with children she encourages them to use cameras to record themselves, their families, and their communities, and to articulate their fantasies and dreams. Ewald herself often makes photographs within the communities she works with and has the children mark and write on her negatives, thereby challenging the concept of who actually makes an image: who is the photographer, who the subject; who is the observer and who the observed. In blurring the distinction of individual authorship and throwing into doubt the artist's intentions, power, and identity, Ewald creates opportunities to look at the meaning and use of photographic images in our lives with fresh perspectives.

Ewald has received many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the Fulbright Commission. She has had solo exhibitions at the International Center of Photography in New York, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, the George Eastman House in Rochester, Nederlands Foto Instituut in Rotterdam, and the Centre for Photography as an Art Form in Bombay, India. She has published four books and her fifth, a retrospective documenting her projects, will be published in 2000 by Scalo Books. She is currently a research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Leon Golub is a politically engaged eyewitness to history who portrays and exposes the anguish of the human condition, an essential characteristic of his art. Working on often large, unstretched raw canvases, Golub has created paintings that powerfully depict situations of racism, oppression, and military conflict. An expressionist figurative artist recognized since the early 1950s, Golub took on an activist role in the 1960s at a time of domestic and international upheaval, responding with some of the strongest statements made in opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He has depicted the everyday evils of torture, terror, and the brutality of mercenaries. Referring to the Holocaust, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the use of napalm in Vietnam, he produced the paintings of the Burnt Men series. Golub often uses photographs as a source and reference for his paintings, and in recent years he has produced large-scale photo-based installations. In these walk-through environments viewers interact with transparent panels on which photographic images have been refocused, manipulated, and heightened.

A practicing artist for more than fifty years, Golub is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received honorary doctorates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where he completed graduate and undergraduate studies in 1950), from Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim and Ford Foundation fellowships, the Skowhegan Medal for Painting, the Dickinson College Arts Award, and the Visual Art Award from the National Foundation of Jewish Culture. In 1996 Golub and his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, received the Hiroshima Art Prize in Japan, and in 1998 jointly presented their work at the Festspielhaus Hellerau in Dresden.

Pepón Osorio is known for interdisciplinary work combining art and non-art techniques to explore culture, community dynamics, and to expose stereotypes. Since 1985 he has concentrated on creating installations that depict the experience of his adopted community, the South Bronx, and in 1991 his work was the subject of a retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York. Major works include: The Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), exhibited at the 1993 Whitney Biennial; En La Barberia No Se Llora (No Crying in the Barbershop), a work that explores the pervasive role of machismo in Latino culture commissioned by Real Art Ways that opened in Hartford in July 1994; Badge of Honor, a video installation about a young man growing up in the absence of his jailed father; El Cab, a mobile installation placed in independent taxicabs in New York City; and Las Twines, a video installation exploring race in the Puerto Rican community of the South Bronx. Osorio's works are filled with real-life objects and create worlds that are striking for their humanity, theatricality, and exuberance. Originally from Puerto Rico, Osorio has made his home in the South Bronx since 1975.

Osorio has received grants, commissions, and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He was awarded a media fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and has won the Louis Comfort Biennial Award, the New York Dance and Performance BESSIE Award, and the 1996 International Association of Art Critics Award. His work is represented in major collections across the United States, including those at the Whitney Museum of American Art, El Museo del Barrio, the National Museum of American Art, the Walker Arts Center, and Wadsworth Atheneum.

Gilles Peress was born in France in 1946 and attended the Institut d'Études Politiques and the Université de Vincennes. He began working as a photographer in 1970 with a portrayal of a French coal mining village struggling to rebuild itself after a debilitating labor dispute. In 1972 he joined Magnum Photos as an associate and became a member in 1974. In 1971 Peress traveled to Northern Ireland to begin what has now become a twenty-seven-year look at the Irish conflict. Power in the Blood, which formalizes his work there, is the fourth part of Hate Thy Brother, his series of documentary books and exhibition projects that witness intolerance and the reemergence of nationalism in postwar years. The Silence, a book about the genocide in Rwanda, Farewell to Bosnia, and The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar are cycles in the series. In 1979 Peress traveled to Iran to document the fragile relationship between American and Iranian cultures during the Iranian revolution and compiled his commentary in Telex, Iran: In the Name of Revolution. Peress' other major projects include understanding the flows of immigration throughout Europe, and an examination of the legacy of the Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar. Peress has lived in New York City since 1976.

Peress is the recipient of many awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, la Fondation de France, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also received the W. Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography. His work is exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the world, and his photographs are in the collections of, among others, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Fred Wilson, maker of provocative installations, poses unconventional questions about the motivations of museums and cultural institutions, drawing on his understanding of cultural history and his personal experiences as an African American of mixed ancestry. Early in his career Wilson worked as an educator in New York City museums, where he became interested in the philosophy and intention behind a museum's mission. By the late 1980s he was using his insider knowledge to create a series of installations about museum practices, exploring how and why objects are selected for display or placed in storage and what those choices tell the public about an institution's priorities. His widely known project Mining the Museum (1992) for the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, considered the judgment and cultural assumptions of museum professionals as they determine how cultural history is constructed and displayed for diverse audiences. Wilson recently collaborated with the Egyptology Department at the British Museum, using borrowed artifacts and antique cases and labels to examine the underlying issues behind the museum's involvement with Egyptian cultural history.

Wilson has presented solo exhibitions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and has had numerous gallery exhibitions since 1991. His work is in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Seattle Art Museum, Denver Art Museum, Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University, and the New School for Social Research in New York. A graduate of the State University of New York at Purchase, Wilson is a recipient of grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Wilson's award-winning Baltimore project was jointly sponsored by the city's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Terry Winters became widely known for his development of a vocabulary of organic forms and painterly, ambiguous spaces in the early 1980s. His work has become increasingly abstract, while still drawing on a broad range of visual material that includes architectural renderings, medical photography, and computer graphics. In his current work he transforms these sources, through the process of painting, into radically complex and paradoxical pictures that combine modernist flatness with perspectival recession, architectural with organic geometry, and an overall lack of hierarchy with a centralized image. At the same time they are intensely atmospheric and seem to pulsate with life and create their own emotional fields.

Winters has had solo exhibitions at numerous museums including the Kunstmuseum, Lucerne; the Tate Gallery, London; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1991 the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a major retrospective of his work, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. A 1998 retrospective at the IVAM Centre Julio Gonzales in Valencia, Spain, will travel to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in February 1999. A retrospective of his prints was organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts for 1998-1999. Born in New York in 1949, he is a graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the High School of Art and Design. He is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and will have a show there in May 1999.


Supporters

The exhibition was organized by Lookout for the JDC and was made possible through a generous grant from the Estate of Emil Lang. Additional support was provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; The Skirball Foundation; The Friends of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: Andrea and Charles Bronfman, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Judy and Nick Bunzl, Rita and Fred Richman, Elizabeth and Michael Varet, Marshall M. Weinberg, and Jane and Stuart Weitzman; and MJM Creative Services, Inc.

In San Francisco, To the Rescue was organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibition was made possible by generous grants from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, the Simcha Foundation, Jerome I. Braun, Chara Schreyer, Roselyne C. Swig, Anita and Ronald Wornick, and Mary and Harold Zlot.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is sponsored in part by a grant from Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and is a beneficiary of the California Arts Council, Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

 

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