Jewish Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent  140 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Florine Stettheimer’s marvelous “Heat” from 1919.  Summer languor distilled into color.

Florine Stettheimer, "Heat," 1919

Entrance, Jewish Museum, New YorkThe first time I visited the Jewish Museum, in July of 2017, it was in the midst of re-installing its permanent collection, taking a floor and a substantial part of the reason to visit offline. I had doubts concerning the temporary shows on at the time— odd curatorial decisions, highly esoteric subject matter and general kitschiness all nudged me away from strongly recommending the museum.

I’ve now been back to see the new permanent galleries, and I’m happy to say that in a rare re-review of a place, the permanent collection hugely and positively changes my impression of the place. As a result, I’m updating my review and my summary rating (it was formerly all 3s).

 Scenes from the Collection

Jewish Museum, ManhattanThe Jewish Museum calls its new permanent collection display “Scenes from the Collection.” It is arrayed around a series of impressionistic, clever topical areas that, speaking critically, epitomize the annoyingly touchy-feely, non-academic, entertain-over-edify approach to curation.

Fortunately, they do it extremely well.

The themes are:

  • Constellations
  • Taxonomies
  • Masterpieces & Curiosities
  • Accumulations
  • Signs and Symbols
  • Television and Beyond
  • Personas
Jewish Museum, Manhattan
Menorah goes Memphis

Throughout the rooms, the museum mixes artifacts and art — including very contemporary pieces, freely. And it works surprisingly well. A crazy, Memphis-style menorah by Peter Shire plays off of a host of more traditional examples. A piece of 2013 neon art, reading “isle of tears” in various languages of immigrants who came through Ellis Island, the eponymous island, may be my favorite thing in the permanent collection.

I love the diversity. A very red “cabinet of curiosities” room includes a dazzling array of artifacts, with touchscreens to describe anything and everything.

Jewish Museum, Manhattan

A single artifact, a charm bracelet carefully and secretly assembled by a woman named Greta Perlman in Theresienstadt (augmented by a few related objects and photographs), tells the story of the Holocaust.

The Old and the New

Wall texts regularly speak to the collection itself, where and when and how the museum acquired the things it has. In this era of sensitivity to provenance, that’s smart, and it tells a fascinating story to boot.

Jewish Museum, Manhattan
Mixing Old and New

In a single nod to virtual reality, a large round table hosts a dozen or so old-timey stereoscopes, with historic 3D images of the Holy Land and the people who lived there around the turn of the 20th century. The section on depictions of Judaism on TV ties tightly to pop culture of modern America and representation.

And things like a Sol LeWitt-inspired kippah just please the eye.

Jewish Museum, Manhattan

Plugging this permanent collection into the Jewish Museum’s temporary shows enables this institution to offer a well-rounded look at Judaism as a contemporary artistic force, as much as (if not more than) a traditional religion or culture. That works — they have a collection that can pull it off. It’s distinct from say the Bernard Museum or the Derfner Judaica Museum. It’s relevant. And it’s awfully well done.

Jewish Museum, Manhattan

Below is my original review, published on July 7, 2017.

Original Review

Another day, another fabulous Fifth Avenue mansion-turned-museum.  The Jewish Museum resides in the former home of the family of Felix Warburg, who in 1947 donated their house to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which previously housed the museum.

Jewish Museum, New York
Mansion Under Wraps
Gothic door, contemporary art

Currently, they are doing some major renovation work on the exterior, which  unfortunately means I can’t show it to you in all its faux French Gothic grandeur.  However, the architect, C. P. H. Gilbert, also designed the Ukrainian Institute‘s grand French Gothic home, so the photo there can provide a sense of what’s under the shroud.  While this house underwent a substantial museum retrofitting, period details in the doors and window frames and remaining fireplaces provide constant hints of what its life as a residence.

In addition to the exterior renovation they are also currently re-installing the permanent collection, to be completed this fall.  I viewed the three (well, four, but I’m not really counting one) temporary shows, which demonstrate an eclectic approach.

Florine Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer, Jewish Museum, New York

The big exhibition looks at Florine Stettheimer, society girl, bon vivant, and Jazz Age painter.  I love Stettheimer’s work. She has a very distinctive style and a sense of humor that shines through in her art.  So I’m happy to see her get a major exhibition–more people should know about her.  She also wrote poetry — simple, direct, almost like haiku.  It was great to see some of that along with her paintings and set and costume designs.

The show emphasized the influence the Symbolists had on Stettheimer, calling her the last of them.  I agree with the influence, but disagree that she’s in their camp. The Symbolists rejected modern society– they painted dreams and myths to create an alternative world for themselves.  By contrast, Stettheimer embraced the modern world.  She painted her friends and family and her contemporary society, in a lovely, if wry and knowing, light. Calling her a Symbolist makes her sound backward-looking, when her art was anything but.

I had some issues with the curation and design of the show, too. The wall texts made enough questionable word choices to distract me.  Sometimes ungrammatical, sometimes museum-speak on steroids. For instance, the Big Summation of the show:  “For Stettheimer, Art was the cult that facilitated modernist transcendence, from the quotidian to the eternal.”  Ugh. 

And the installation used its space oddly.  Big stretches of the gallery lie empty, surrounding two rather cramped spaces representing a living room and a studio.  It makes me think the show turned out way smaller than they were hoping, and, like a college freshman who’s run out of things to say, they’re fiddling with the font and the margins to make it look bigger than it is.  Florine Stettheimer does not require padding.

Jewish Museum, New York
Empty Pink Walls

While I have concerns about the show, fortunately Stettheimer is marvelous.  Her pictures of herself and her world are enchanting, and her use of color reminds me of Matisse.

Other Exhibitions

Show number two looked at philosopher Walter Benjamin’s last work, “The Arcades Project,” through the lens of contemporary art.  Here’s a show that requires a great deal of context to comprehend.  And even with the context, I didn’t always comprehend it.  Each major topic in The Arcades Project, like “Idleness,” or “The Seine,” got one contemporary art piece that reflects it, and a hard-to-read poem.

Hard-to-read poem

And on and on, topic after topic, room after gilded age room.

Walter Benjamin Show, Jewish Museum, New York
“Room after gilded age room…”

While some of the disparate elements are marvelous (a Cindy Sherman, a Thomas Struth, some Nicholas Buffon building models), pulling them together under the rubric of “Walter Benjamin’s chapter headings for his incomplete magnum opus” doesn’t make them any better, or reflect them in a new light.  And conversely, I don’t think these pieces reflect Benjamin or “The Arcades Project” in a new light either.  Maybe it would make more sense if I were a Benjamaniac (as fans of his are never called).  As it is, its ambitions went over my head.

Bear Mitzvah, Jewish Museum, New York
Bear Mitzvah, and fancy woodwork

And the third exhibition was an installation called “Bear-Mitzvah” by an artist named Charlemagne Palestine, a riotous stuffed animal rite of…bearhood?  With music and lights and disco balls and a roomful of stuffed animals. Zany, wacky stuff.  From my perspective, it seems almost a little…sacrilegious?  That’s obviously incorrect, since the Jewish Museum is showing it.  But I wouldn’t expect, say, a Catholic museum to act out the deaths of the martyrs using teddy bears.  Although… I’d definitely go see it if they did.

Bear Mitzvah, Jewish Museum, New York
Grizzly Tov!

Oh, there’s a fourth exhibit, too, but it was tiny and lame and I won’t waste words on it.  Except those words.

Ancient Artifacts, Epic Lox, and Menorasaurs

Jewish Museum Children's Exhibit

The Jewish Museum has a kid’s section, currently decked out in archaeology mode,  focused on the Holy Land.  Kids learn a bit about unearthing the past, history in layers, understanding artifacts, and thinking about how people lived long ago.

I don’t write much about museum restaurants in these reviews, but I must also mention that in 2016, a branch of the legendary Russ & Daughters opened in the basement of the Jewish Museum.  So you no longer have to trek down to the Lower East Side for an authentic and appetizing nosh.  Given food’s importance to Jewish culture, it’s worth planning your visit to around a meal.

And finally, at least twice before on this project I’ve been sorely tempted to cite something in the gift shop as the “best thing I saw or learned” at a museum.  I’m going to continue to resist that.  But I can’t resist a menorasaur!

Menorasaur at the Jewish Museum, New York
Menorasaurs! I want!

Should You Visit?

Given the Jewish Museum’s heritage, importance, and subject matter, I want to insist and demand that you go immediately.  But I can’t.

Throughout this project I’ve often reviewed places based on a temporary exhibit or exhibits.  When I visited the Jewish Museum I saw something too esoteric even for me (Benjamin), a silly bit of fun installation art (Bears), and a retrospective on a great and overlooked artist, marred by some questionable curating (Stettheimer).  So I can’t wholeheartedly say the Jewish Museum lived up to my expectations for it.  I recommend going, but at the same time I’d advise you check what’s on exhibit, and decide based on your interest level.

I plan to come back when the re-open the permanent collection. Once I can see the way they tell their core story, I hope I’ll be able to move this museum into the “worth a special trip” category.

For Reference:

Address 1109 Fifth Avenue (at 92nd Street)
Cost  General Admission:  $15 (pay what you will on Thursday evenings)
Other Relevant Links