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Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists

Feb 22, 2018–Jul 29, 2018

Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists is a group show that presents the work of sixteen California-identified artists of Jewish descent—both historical and living—whose work refers to the machine either literally or metaphorically. Some of the artists are rarely seen now. Among the living artists, there will be large-scale mechanical installations by Bernie Lubell and Sheri Simons, as well as ceramics, drawings, sculpture and paintings by Ned Kahn, Bella Feldman, Howard Fried, and Annabeth Rosen. This original exhibition was co-curated by Chief Curator Renny Pritikin and Mark Dean Johnson, Professor of Art at SFSU.

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about the eXHIBITION

Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists argues that the fame of several pioneer Jewish California families was paralleled by a less recognized history: Jews constitute a considerable number of the artists who have built the artistic reputation of California. Among the artists of Jewish heritage who have lived in California, this exhibition has selected a group of sixteen for close examination. A significant percentage of these artists were inspired by the notion of the machine, especially the improvised machine. Sometimes the reference to mechanical contrivances is literal, from Rube Goldberg to the contemporary artists Bernie Lubell and Bella Feldman. Sometimes they are more metaphorical as in the work of the twentieth century’s Boris Deutsch and his city-as-machine cubism, and Irving Norman and his paintings of trauma depicting the body incorporated into the machinery of history. Some of the artists achieved acclaim in their time, but are in danger of slipping into obscurity now; some are still working today quietly in retirement like Carol Bernard. Others have received art world acclaim like Annabeth Rosen, yet might not be widely known by the general public. What they share, and what the exhibition explores, is an experience of California that when combined with their Jewish culture led them to look to the machine and the gimcrack as a source of imagery, metaphor, and at times consolation.

As defined by the Collins English Dictionary, a contraption is, “A device or contrivance, especially one considered strange, unnecessarily intricate, or improvised.” When used by the artists in this exhibition, they are engaging in a symbolic readaptation of the material and visual culture encountered in their surroundings, which are often perplexing and alien. By achieving a learned mastery, what initially appears as an impenetrable tangle of incomprehensible things and their opaque operating instructions, is transformed into a useful, reassuring state through art, not only for Jews, but many immigrant people who find themselves at an economic or cultural disadvantage. Through parody and exaggeration of a mechanical ethos, these artists also find a way to use humor as a defense mechanism. Bella Feldman states:

…My work is driven by my angst about the state of the world as well as the love-hate relationship I have with machines. It includes an edgy sense of the world being out of whack….I produce anxious objects, yet humor laces through my work because, like my ghetto forebears, I need to laugh at the dark. 

Mark Dean Johnson has been a Professor of Art and Director of the gallery at San Francisco State University since 1994. He is widely acknowledged to be a leader in the field of opening museum practice to diverse artist’s practice. He and Renny Pritikin, Chief Curator at The CJM, agreed in 2015 to collaborate on an exhibition that would document Jewish artists' work in California. After examining some 150 artists’ work, they selected sixteen who used the image of the machine in their work.

Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists is accompanied by a 96-page fully illustrated hardcover catalog co-published by The CJM and Hirmer Publishers, with contributions by Rachel B. Gross, Renny Pritikin, and Mark D. Johnson. 

about the artists

Judith Belzer

Judith Belzer is a Berkeley painter who makes large paintings that are reactions to the Oakland waterfront as examples of human-made environmental change. The paintings careen from recognizable images of freeways and cargo hoists to more spontaneous landscapes of pure color and line, suggesting a world of cybernetic entanglement between nature and the manmade.

Carol Bernard

Carol Bernard lives in Davis, CA. Since her retirement from a long career as an art teacher in Los Angeles schools, she has built a regional reputation in the Sacramento area for her improvised line drawings, which have grown in recent years from modest scale to often quite large. The works reference such varied artists as Al Hirschfeld, Cy Twombly, and Alan Saret.

Edward Biberman

Edward Biberman, born in 1904 in Philadelphia, moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1930s and lived there until his death in 1986. He was a muralist influenced by his friendship with Diego Rivera and was always politically aware. His career was damaged by persecution by the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s, along with his brother Herbert, a Hollywood figure.

Boris Deutsch

Boris Deutsch was a Bay Area artist who lived from 1892 until 1978. His estate is in the collection of the Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley; his paintings included in Contraption are borrowed from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA] and and The Magnes Collection.

Miriam Dym

Miriam Dym is an East Bay educator, artist, and textile maker. She has lived in the Bay Area for over twenty years and uses conceptual strategies to explore the relationship between fine art and industrial commercial products.

Bella Feldman

Bella Feldman lives in the East Bay and has shown her work in the Bay Area for many decades. She is best known for machine-like sculptures, but also has taken up painting later in her career. Her sculptures range from small metal objects under glass domes to wall-sized installations of interactive levers, pulleys, and cranks.

Howard Fried

Howard Fried is one of the most respected figures from the 1970s conceptual art movement in the Bay Area. He still lives in the North Bay and had a large exhibition at the Wattis Institute at the California College of the Arts in 2016.

Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg was born in San Francisco in the 1890s and achieved early fame as a cartoonist in the Bay Area after graduating from UC Berkeley. Goldberg relocated to New York City after WWI and became an American icon for his wacky drawings of impossible machine and political cartoons in national syndication.

John Gutmann

John Gutmann fled Nazi Germany early in the 1930s and spent most of his adult life living in San Francisco and teaching at San Francisco State University, where he both founded the photography department and the experimental film screening program.

Bruce Handelsmann

Bruce Handelsmann was a San Francisco photographer who developed an unusual display system for his work that involved wooden frames that telescoped out in an unpredictable way. He died in his 30s while his career was just gaining attention.

Ned Kahn

Ned Kahn, a MacArthur Fellow, is arguably America’s most accomplished public artist, with dozens of completed projects all over the world. He is known for making invisible aspects of the natural environment visible, such as the whirls and eddies of wind across the sides of buildings made apparent by small kinetic devices the artist designs and installs. He lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Richard Kamler

Richard Kamler's socially engaged art, for the past four decades, has taken many forms; drawings, installations, interventions, audio pieces, presentations, and sculpture and have dealt with issues such as peace, the environment, and mass incarceration. Sadly, Richard passed away at the end of 2017.

Bernie Lubell

Bernie Lubell is a San Francisco sculptor who engineers frail wooden machines in the Rube Goldberg tradition. His machines are usually large (room-sized), lovely, elegant and utterly useless—a great deal of work pedaling and cranking by the visitor goes into an output that is either nonexistent or miniscule.

Irving Norman

Irving Norman was born in Lithuania in 1906 and died in Northern California in 1989. His life and dark, surreal art were deeply affected by his experience in the Spanish Civil War. The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento has published a book about his work, titled Dark Metropolis.

Annabeth Rosen

Annabeth Rosen has taught at UC Davis for two decades as the Arneson Chair in Ceramics. She creates conglomerations of ceramic elements that form large abstract shapes that refer to everything from Rube Goldberg to Philip Guston. Her work was the subject of a retrospective exhibition organized by The Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, in 2017.

Sheri Simons

Sheri Simons is a sculptor who has taught at Chico State University for many years. She is known for making large-scale sculptural installations.


Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists, an original exhibition of The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM), was organized in association with the Fine Art and Jewish Studies departments of San Francisco State University. The exhibition is presented on the occasion of The CJM’s Tenth Anniversary in its Daniel Libeskind-designed building.

Major sponsorship is provided by Gaia Fund, the Taube Philanthropies for Jewish Life and Culture, and Dorothy R. Saxe. Patron sponsorship is provided by Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston and The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson. Supporting sponsorship is provided by Riva and David Berelson, in memory of Gita and Henry Baigelman; Howard and Barbara Wollner. Additional support is provided by Doug Mandell and Scott Ullman.

Generous support is provided by The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Bernard and Barbro Osher Exhibition Fund.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum thanks The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for its lead sponsorship of The Museum’s exhibition program.

Image Credit

Header image: Miriam Dym, photo by Jeannie O’Connor, One Quarter Century, 1994, 120 in. x 40 in., ink and gouache on paper.