The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America

Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America

Samantha Baskind
  • Copyright: 2014
  • Dimensions: 8 x 10
  • Page Count: 260 pages
  • Illustrations: 43 color/78 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-05983-9
“A fascinating and beautifully written examination of the role of biblical art in twentieth-century America.”
“In our secular age, the idea that the Bible could shape a modern artist, never mind a modern Jewish and American artist, seems odd. Yet in her brilliant new book, Samantha Baskind shows how the Bible—not necessarily only a Jewish Bible (Tanach) but also the American Bible of the Puritans—echoes in Jewish American art. Looking at Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj, Baskind provides a sophisticated and critical reading of how religious imagery survives and flourishes in our secular world.”
“Samantha Baskind admirably undermines the strong tendency among art critics and art historians to ignore the relevance of religion for modern fine art. Her investigation of several important Jewish artists demonstrates irrevocably that biblical religion remains vitally pertinent to the critical understanding of a great deal of art in the modern era. In this beautifully illustrated book, Baskind writes authoritatively about artists whose achievements she carefully scrutinizes for their complex treatment of biblical themes.”
“In a ‘modernist’ century, known chiefly for its increasing emphases both on pictorial abstraction and on secularism, surely a book on this topic, American biblical subjects, comes as a surprise. That all the artists in question were Jewish Americans, many of them recent immigrants and first generation in their profession, arrives with the force of a revelation. Presenting these discoveries, Samantha Baskind remains fully the master of her material, a mature scholar well known for her specialization in Jewish modern artists of twentieth-century America. She judiciously chooses case studies that span issues of medium, gender, generation, and—ultimately—complex, often multiple, identity. Like these individuals, Baskind manages to hold in creative tension all the disparate components of the designation ‘Jewish American artist.'”
“In Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, Samantha Baskind reimages the careers of five well-known modern American artists by training a focus on their mostly little-known, but more than occasional, adaptation of biblical narrative and imagery, both Old– and New Testament–based. Articulating a profound Jewish connection between painters and sculptors not necessarily considered in tandem under any other rubric, Baskind delineates connective paradoxes underscored by the purposeful adaptation of biblical interpretation (midrash) in the career trajectory of each. She argues, in these five case studies, that the freedom of America’s secular society enabled re-presentation of ancient archetypes and that these, in turn, provided different but equally important cues for ‘navigating modernity.’ Baskind’s new book opens a number of avenues to a wider interpretation of visual art’s role in ongoing debates on ethnicity, gender, and multiculturalism—topics increasingly relevant today. Art historians, Judaic studies scholars, and anyone interested in investigating the American Jewish experience through a twentieth-century lens will profit from reading it.”
“Baskind presents an illuminating analysis of the largely ignored biblically-themed work of five Jewish artists, well-known on the twentieth century American art scene for their oeuvre.”
“Baskind’s careful and detailed analysis and art historical background . . . make this a treasure for art historians and students; biblical, Jewish studies, and feminist scholars; and others.”
“In five chapters, art history professor Samantha Baskind offers a sophisticated, richly illustrated look at each artist’s work and influences.”
“This beautifully produced and illustrated book examines the place of biblical imagery in the work of American Jewish artists, a topic that, according to Baskind, has heretofore been neglected. . . . The substance of the book is a detailed consideration of the work of five Jewish artists—Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj—each of whom receives a sympathetic and often revealing treatment. These biographies, along with a concluding epilogue, are amplified by observations on comparable work by other Jewish artists laboring in the same vein.”
“Scholars of contemporary religious history, of art history, and of the immigrant experience will find much to interest them in this fine volume.”
“This book is a meticulous examination of a marginalized aspect of the work of five respected American Jewish artists and it opens the way for a re-examination of 20th-century biblical art and what Baskind has revealed as ‘the catalytic role of the Bible on art from the previous century’. The book succeeds, I believe, in inviting us to rethink and re-examine 20th-century American art.”
“Beautifully illustrated and compelling.. . . . [Baskind’s] fine book argues for a more inclusive art history that is more attentive to the factors that contribute to artistic identity, such as religion.”

Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Larry Rivers, and R. B. Kitaj have long been considered central artists in the canon of twentieth-century American art: Levine for his biting paintings and prints of social conscience, Segal for his quiet plaster figures evoking the alienation inherent in modern life, Flack for her feminist photorealist canvases, Rivers for his outrageous pop art statements, and Kitaj for his commitment to figuration. Much less known is the fact that at times, all five artists devoted their attention to biblical imagery, in part because of a shared Jewish heritage to which they were inexorably tied.

Taking each artist as an extensive case study, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America uncovers how these artists and a host of their Jewish contemporaries adopted the Bible in innovative ways. Indeed, as Samantha Baskind demonstrates, by linking the past to the present, Jewish American artists customized the biblical narrative in extraordinary ways to address modern issues such as genocide and the Holocaust, gender inequality, assimilation and the immigrant experience, and the establishment and fate of the modern State of Israel, among many other pertinent concerns.

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University.


List of Illustrations



1 Catastrophe and the Biblical Archetype in Jack Levine’s Art

2 George Segal and the Book of Genesis

3 Audrey Agonistes: Anguish, Stereotype, and Audrey Flack

4 Biblical Parody: Larry Rivers’s History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews as Counterhistory

5 R. B. Kitaj: Village Explainer of Jewish Art

Epilogue: Jewish Artists and the Formation of the American Art Canon




Other Ways to Acquire

Buy from
Buy from an Independent Bookstore
Buy from Powell's Books

Also of Interest

Also of interest book cover

Viennese Jewish Modernism

Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler