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Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists

Sixteen artists from the past 150 years tinker with the notion of the machine and provide a compelling window into the contributions of Jewish artists to California art history

February 22–July 29, 2018


(San Francisco, CA, October 3, 2017) Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists presents the work of sixteen artists of Jewish descent who have lived in California over the last 150 years—living and not, well known and under recognized. Among the hundreds of Jewish artists who have called the Golden State home, a surprisingly significant number were inspired by the notion of the machine, especially the improvised do-it-yourself machine. Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists examines more closely the work of several of these, including Judith Belzer, Carol Bernard, Edward Biberman, Boris Deutsch, Miriam Dym, Bella Feldman, Howard Fried, Rube Goldberg, John Gutmann, Bruce Handelsman, Ned Kahn, Richard Kamler, Bernie Lubell, Irving Norman, Annabeth Rosen, and Sheri Simons. The exhibition includes large-scale mechanical installations, drawings, paintings, sculpture, photography, and more.

The exhibition is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s (The CJM) Chief Curator Renny Pritikin and guest curator Mark Dean Johnson, Professor of Art at San Francisco State University, in association with the Fine Arts and Jewish Studies Departments of San Francisco State University.

“It has long been a topic of conversation among the leadership of The CJM that we might someday mount an exhibition looking at Jewish artistic contributions to California art history,” says The CJM’s Executive Director Lori Starr. “Rather than an encyclopedic representation, this exhibition selects sixteen for consideration on a fascinating premise, and we were delighted to work with San Francisco State students and faculty to realize it. How exciting to partner with a local university to kick off this first in a series of exhibitions celebrating ten years of The CJM in our jewel of a building, a former PG&E power station reinvented by architect Daniel Libeskind in 2008. In a sense, the building itself is a symbol of the fascination with the “contraption” that proves to be so prevalent in California’s Jewish art history.”

Included in the exhibition are:

Bay Area artist Judith Belzer’s (b. 1956) canvases are often large meditations on the impact of the built world on the natural environment. Paintings from her Anthropocene series show the enormous maze of cranes and freeways on the Oakland waterfront—frenetic, colorful, and attractive, but also repellant in its industrial rapaciousness.

The exhibition features both the early and late work of Southern Californian Boris Deutsch (1892–1978). His cityscape painting Abstraction, part of the founding collection of SFMOMA gifted by Albert Bender, is an example of California futurism—the city as machine.

Twenty years ago, Berkeley-based Miriam Dym (b. 1969) was deeply involved in a long-term project in which she developed idiosyncratic art imagery based on anthropomorphizing the machine. Dym first worked two-dimensionally in ink or acrylic paint on paper, but in later series she employed computer graphics to create complex installations that filled space with both wall and floor graphics and sculptural components.

Howard Fried (b. 1946) emerged as one of the leading figures in the Bay Area conceptual art movement of the 1970s and 80s. For the exhibition, The CJM reproduces watershed D from 1989, originally presented at the Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco. The simple installation is just a door and some text. If visitors pass through, the text flips over making it unreadable, raising numerous questions about problem solving and agency.

John Gutmann (1905-1998) is best known for his photographs from the 1930s, the years that followed his relocation to San Francisco from Berlin. He founded the photography program at San Francisco State in 1947. Included are his Elevator Garage, Chicago and the Civic Center street scene, Automobile with Telescope, San Francisco, among others.

Sonoma County-based kinetic sculptor Ned Kahn (b. 1960) contributes a small work directly in the Rube Goldberg tradition. Hundreds of Number 2 pencils are kinetically aligned through a ceiling-mounted gizmo to display a range of optical maneuvers as the pencils gyrate in space.

San Francisco artist Bernie Lubell (b. 1947) has spent his entire art career making large, often room-sized machines out of lightweight, unpainted wood. These sculptures invite viewer interaction, but their efforts yield very little result, thus making them something of a satire of technological utopian thinking. But the machines make an argument for social cooperation too, as there are more visible results if two or more visitors collaborate.

Annabeth Rosen (b. 1957), based in Davis, CA, is one of the nation’s leading figures in contemporary ceramic sculpture practice. For the exhibition Rosen contributes one of her largest works, Wave II, a static machine of frozen accretion.

Other work in the show includes the delicate Rapidograph-style pen drawings of Carol Bernard (Davis, CA, b. 1929); the eerily poetic cityscapes of Edward Biberman (Los Angeles, CA, 1904–1986); the “anxious objects” of sculptor Bella Feldman (Oakland, CA, b. 1930); select works by cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (San Francisco, CA. 1883–1970)*; the photography boxes of Bruce Handelsman (San Francisco, CA, 1953–1992); the mural-sized drawings of Richard Kamler (San Francisco, CA, 1935–2017); the dystopian watercolors of  Irving Norman (Half Moon Bay, CA, 1906–1989); and the large-scale, kinetic works of sculptor Sheri Simons (Chico, CA, b. 1954).

The CJM will be publishing a catalog, available in The Museum’s Store, with full color plates of work in the exhibition and related essays by Pritikin and Johnson, as well as Rachel B. Gross, the John & Marcia Goldman Professor of American Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

Organization and Funding

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.

About The Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, The Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by two Anonymous donors; Alyse and Nathan Mason Brill; Carbon Five; Gaia Fund; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Wendy Kesser; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Nellie and Max Levchin; Millennium Partners, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; The Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund; Dorothy R. Saxe; Seiger Family Foundation; Taube Philanthropies for Jewish Life and Culture; and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Thank you to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for their support of the Helen Diller Institute at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

For more information about The Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit The Museum’s website at, at

General Information

The Museum is open daily (except Wednesday) 11am–5pm and Thursday, 11am–8pm. Museum admission is $14 for adults, $12 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information on The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the public may visit The Museum’s website at or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between Third & Fourth streets), San Francisco. 

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