Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 19, 2001
Milly Heyd Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art Rutgers University Press, 1999. 272 pp.; 112 b/w ills. Paper $24.00 (0813526183)

Milly Heyd’s Mutual Reflections is a fascinating study of the ways that African Americans and Jewish Americans have depicted each other in the visual arts over the last century. While this distinctive, complex relationship has been explored in cultural, social, religious, and political areas, this book is the first to analyze that linkage through its visual dimension in a substantive way. Heyd investigates how these artists have viewed each other in ways ranging from symbiosis to disillusionment via painting, sculpture, cartoons, comics, and installations.

Heyd weaves together thematic and chronological approaches in six chapters. She asserts that as each group examines “the other,” it also embarks on a journey of self-discovery. This mirroring can lead to disillusionment and criticism. Within these groups, Heyd sees two categories of artists. The first she terms ideological, “engaged” artists, or those “who have the answers” (16). These include African Americans searching for their own artistic identity and Jewish Americans committed to the Black cause in the 1930s and during the civil rights movement. Heyd describes the second category as “engaged/disengaged” artists, “those who raise questions.” These are late twentieth-century image makers who problematize issues rather than “raise banners” (16).

In her chapter, “African Americans Mirroring Jews,” Heyd looks at the period of the 1890s through the 1930s and begins with an African American artist’s depictions of Jews because Black artists entered the art world before Jewish Americans began to participate in it actively. Henry Ossawa Tanner, a celebrated landscapist and biblical painter, expatriated to Paris in 1893 and would ever after negotiate between the three worlds of American, French, and African American culture. As an outsider, Tanner felt an empathy with Jews and began to paint them after an initial visit to the Holy Land in 1897. Heyd argues that these portrayals raise the question of the relationship between type and stereotype. The artist’s use of types to represent biblical themes was not condemnatory but rather a sincere quest for a positive representation of a type. Heyd’s argument is convincing, but she declares that “Tanner was the first Black artist to portray Jews” (18). African American art history is still nascent. Since many works are in private collections and/or have not been published, it is unwise to make such categorical statements. And, in fact, there exists a double portrait of an African American with a Jew, his stepfather, by Jules Lion, predating Tanner’s works by half a century. (See Asher Moses Nathan and Son (1845) in Regina Perry, Selections of Nineteenth-Century Afro-American Art [NY: Met, 1976]).

Heyd next draws parallels between the “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance (a movement which she curiously limits to 1925-29) and the “New Jew,” describing both groups’ quests for self-identification as a reaction to a Eurocentric conception of the world. Within the New Negro movement and the Zionist revival (begun in 1906 with the founding of Bezalel, the first art school in Palestine), there was a call to go back to the sources—to African art and Ethiopia on the one hand, and to the Bible and images “having a flavor of the East” on the other. Heyd examines these impulses in the book illustrations of Aaron Douglas, Abel Pann, and E.M. Lilien, and in their themes of longing and spiritual birth and rebirth. She also effectively compares explorations of rebellious aspirations and a desire for a pure source of identity in sculpture by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and Yitzhak Danziger. Heyd argues that two changes in Blacks’ images of Jews occurred in the early twentieth century: Biblical personages became Black, and artists’ styles became markedly modernist, as seen in the work of Douglas, William H. Johnson, and Romare Bearden. Their portrayals of Jews involved identification, religious quests, class issues, and problems of racial and stylistic identity.

The chapter, “Jews Mirroring African Americans: The Vision,” involves a nuanced discussion of Jewish Americans’ positive depictions of Blacks, from the 1930s through the 1960s, by Jacob Epstein, Ben Shahn, Winold Reiss, Harry Gottlieb, Lucienne Bloch, and Philip Evergood, with an emphasis on Chaim Gross and the Soyer brothers (Raphael, Isaac, and Moses). Heyd relates these images to Matthew Baigell’s explanation of their socially involved art, stemming from memories of oppression in Eastern Europe, the Hebrew Scriptures’ tradition of charity and social concern, and the chance to play a role in American art. Thematic concerns are the identification with the plight of the newly born Black child; the admiration of the image of the Black and jazz; the pride, beauty, and aspirations of Black women and men; and the dreams of multiracial playgrounds and fusion through miscegenation. With regard to the last issue, Heyd attempts to compare images of white women ostensibly nursing black children with black women nursing white children by Raphael Soyer and Daniel La Rue Johnson. Her analysis would be stronger if the visual evidence bore out her argument; she describes a white woman nursing a black child in Soyer’s Village East Street Scene, 1965-66, but the baby stares at the viewer, mouth closed, and the woman’s blouse is buttoned.

Heyd next examines the ways both African Americans and Jewish Americans depicted lynching as part of their struggle against racial projections. While Black artists frequently avoided the spectacle itself, preferring to lament the victim and appeal to viewers’ morality, Jewish American artists wrestled with the implications of depictions of both Nazi and lynching atrocities. Heyd analyzes political cartoons of Klansmen by Bearden, Peshka, and William Gropper; paintings and prints of crucified victims by Bloch, Louis Lozowick, and Harry Sternberg; and sculptures of hung men by Adolf Wolff, Aaron Goodelman, and Seymour Lipton in the 1930s. While she also looks at some illustrations by minor artists in Crisis, Heyd surprisingly leaves out the more sophisticated and frequent contributions of Albert Alexander Smith to that magazine. And while her formal analyses are generally solid, one can’t help but wonder at her questions regarding the plain, rectangular base of Lipton’s Lynched (1933): “Does this mattress allude not just to lynching but to the long history of slavery? Or does it also, in its square format, metaphorically allude to the inability of Black people to fit into the procrustean bed of racist society?” (107). Heyd then jumps a generation to KKK scenes by Philip Guston in the 1970s and Pat Ward Williams’s Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock (1986). Over the course of the twentieth century, she writes, the positive identification and one-to-one correlation in earlier works by both groups lessen. The complexity of the mutual gaze becomes heightened and marked by skepticism.

In Chapter 4, “Working Together: The Civil Rights Movement,” Heyd examines the ways artists worked to overcome oppression in the 1960s. She investigates body language-unified bodies, fragmented ones, ritualized gestures, and threats to the body and its nonexistence—in images by Shahn, Cliff Joseph, Gross, Jacob Lawrence, David Hammons, Benny Andrews, and others. She asserts that for Jewish American artists during this decade, only the tone of identification with the civil rights movement prevailed. While some African American artists created affirmative portraits of Jews, others expressed discord, ambivalence, and suspicion; raised questions; and used irony in their images of Jewish Americans.

“‘Hot’ versus ‘Cool’: Involvement and Detachment” is a short, but excellent, chapter about Larry Rivers’s desire to become part of the African American experience itself. Heyd explores Rivers’s personal identification with Blacks, his positive homosexual self-image, and his interest in jazz as an attempt to break with his restrictive Jewish background. She describes this self-quest in terms of pivotal experiences—Rivers’s trip to Africa; his identification, collaboration, and disillusionment with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka; and his controversial exhibition, “Some American History” (1971), including the most significant image in that show, Black Olympia (1970), featured on the book cover. By way of contextualization, Heyd alludes to staged color-reversals by African Americans Howardena Pindell and David Hammons. She also contrasts Rivers’s entangled and multi-layered involvement with black culture with the “cool,” detached art of super-realists in the portrayals of Blacks by Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz.

Heyd’s most ambitious and complex chapter is “Postmodernism: Addressing Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping,” concerning art of the period, 1972-1994. She scrutinizes the combination of text and image by “engaged/disengaged” artists, which is at times “highly involved and passionate, yet at times reflective and ironical” (177). This section includes Jungian analyses of Jonathan Borofsky’s Dream series; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s depictions of Black boxers; Art Spiegelman’s use of racial stereotyping in his comic strip, “Maus”; Adrian Piper’ s calling cards (in just two paragraphs!); and postmodern ambivalence in Barbara Kruger’s work. The common thread in these widely disparate artists is their critical stance and “highly effective way of forcing the viewer to confront his or her own racial and ethnic prejudices” (207).

Overall, Heyd’s book is a remarkable and extensive analysis of the reciprocal gaze of Jews and African Americans, full of previously unpublished (or less accessible) images, interviews, and archival information, as well as insightful observations about the work of many artists. And the author skillfully weaves theories by West, Gilman, DuBois, Kampf, Rampersad, Boime, Gates, Mosby, Nochlin, Locke, Schapiro, Amishai-Maisels, Pieterse, Vendryes, Baraka, Fanon, Powell, Wallace, and Bhaba into a carefully conceived structure. The study, however, is somewhat unbalanced in its focus on Jewish American and male artists. Less than a third of the illustrated images are by African Americans, just 33 out of 112, and only 7 women are represented, though others are mentioned. (And why didn’t Heyd address Judy Chicago’s contested depiction of Sojourner Truth in her Dinner Party?) Heyd explains that “there are more examples of Jewish-American artists dealing with African-American themes in their art than vice versa” (208), but even so, there could have been more effort to balance representation in the investigation. Despite this bias, and some minor factual and analytical errors, Mutual Reflections is a highly sophisticated, courageous, and valuable book concerning volatile subjects that cut to the core of our national psyche.

Theresa Leininger-Miller
Professor, Art History, University of Cincinnati