One of the Righteous

Denver's Mizel Museum of Judaica occupies only a small gallery and a couple of offices in the recesses of the large BMH-BJ synagogue. Despite these modest facilities, however, the institution often presents highly provocative art shows that easily rise above the Mizel's sectarian character. Ben-Zion: In Search of Oneself, which opened last weekend, is just such an exhibit. Though the late and until recently almost forgotten New York artist frequently drew on his Jewish faith for artistic inspiration, Ben-Zion created a body of idiosyncratic work that should interest not just fans of Judaica but general gallery-goers as well.

Ben-Zion Wienman was born to a prominent Jewish family in the Ukraine in 1897; his family moved to Poland in 1900. When their hometown of Tarnov came under siege during World War I, his family fled to Vienna, where he briefly studied at the Royal Academy. In 1920, after returning to Poland at the end of the war, he and his mother immigrated to the United States. Almost immediately, he joined up with the lively scene of Hebrew writers then active in New York City (he'd long been interested in the revival of Hebrew, having written poetry in the ancient language from the time he was eleven). But in 1933 he gave up writing and devoted himself to painting and drawing. He dropped his last name and for the rest of his life was known simply as Ben-Zion.

New York in the 1930s was a hothouse for the development of modernism in all the arts, especially painting. Many of the country's most important and innovative artists were working there, and at the end of the decade their ranks swelled with European refugees escaping the Nazis. Modernism arrived through the portals of Ellis Island, resulting in the establishment of an American style, abstract expressionism, that made New York the world's contemporary art center.

As an artist and art teacher (at Greenwich House and the Cooper Union), Ben-Zion found himself in the middle of these exciting events. Early on, he developed close relationships with several of the first-generation abstract expressionists, including Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. But Ben-Zion followed his own course, and throughout his nearly seventy-year-long American career, his art retained a wholly European feeling. In his work, it's easy to see the influence of the European modern masters, especially Picasso.

As presented at the Mizel Museum, Ben-Zion: In Search of Oneself is a brief and sketchy survey of the artist's career from the 1930s to the 1970s. Perhaps as a result of the MMJ's limited space, the exhibit has not been arranged historically and chronologically, which unfortunately makes it difficult to follow Ben-Zion's artistic advancement over the several decades' worth of work on display.

This show was based on a similar exhibit from last year at Washington, D.C.'s B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, organized by former Klutznick director Ori Soltes. The Mizel credits Soltes for the show's inspiration, but the choices for the Denver exhibit were made by staff curator Molly Dubin and visiting curator Susan Josepher, an art professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. The two worked closely with the artist's widow, Lillian Ben-Zion, who generously loaned pieces from her own collection.

The oldest painting in the show is "Noah in the Ark," an oil on canvas from 1937 that displays Ben-Zion's enduring interest in the Old Testament. In this dark and moody painting, Ben-Zion places Noah's heroic head and torso against a predictable background crowded with animals, including a prominently placed camel and peacock. Ben-Zion outlines Noah and the animals in black and uses lots of white and a variety of dark colors to fill in the details. He employs a monumental and expressionist drawing style, wonderfully conveying the gravity and volume of his subjects.

"Lot's Wife," an oil on canvas from 1938, also takes up a biblical subject, illustrating the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though forbidden from doing so, Lot's hapless wife turns back to witness the conflagration; as a result of her defiance, she is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. The painting, essentially black and white with a little red and yellow, is the most abstract in the show. Unifying the painting are diagonal lines from the top right, which are meant to symbolize the rain of fire descending on the doomed cities; on the left, Lot's wife is a standing figure in dead white, detailed in black.

With a painting like "Lot's Wife," Ben-Zion was stylistically on the margins of abstract expressionism, but unlike that of many of his New York contemporaries, his work from the '40s and '50s wound up being less--not more--abstract. This is obvious in a pair of stunning oil-on-canvas works from 1943. In "Adam's Dream," a sleeping figure lies across the bottom of the picture while from above, the hand of God, in the form of an abstracted cloud, pulls Eve from his rib. For "Cain and Abel," Ben-Zion places a melancholy Cain on the far left with Abel's corpse partly hidden on the right. In both pieces, Ben-Zion uses unnatural colors, painting Eve blue and Cain a sickly mint-green.

These simple and boldly conceived pieces also reveal Ben-Zion's interest in tribal art, since the faces of Adam and Cain are conventionalized, like masks. Primitive art was an important inspiration for Ben-Zion, and the Mizel show includes a display case filled with relevant artifacts Ben-Zion collected during his lifetime. And though none are included in the show at the Mizel, Ben-Zion (like fellow New Yorker Jackson Pollack) briefly painted in a style derived from the work of American Indians, particularly those in the Southwest desert and on the Northwest coast.

The simplicity of tribal art led Ben-Zion to sometimes use an economy of line in the creation of cartoonish caricatures; this is reflected in "Jew Studying," a 1946 oil on canvas. In this painting, a pious man reading a book (likely the sacred Torah) is conveyed through a few blunt lines on wide, flat areas of color, mostly a heavy even black against a speckled bluish-green. The clunky, childlike character of Ben-Zion's rendering anticipates the work of the neo-expressionists in the 1980s, but at the time the painting was done, its style was hopelessly out of step with contemporary art--and ensured that Ben-Zion would slip through the art-historical cracks into the oblivion his reputation has only recently escaped.

To further seal his fate, Ben-Zion's finest work is figurative and dates from the 1950s, when abstraction predominated. During that time, Ben-Zion turned to a kind of neo-classical style beautifully shown in a painting such as "Job and His Daughters," an oil on canvas from 1950 depicting the Old Testament prophet surrounded by his three daughters. The composition is traditional, with the figures sitting before an open-air porch, its supporting columns behind them; beyond are green rolling hills beneath a pink sky. The heavy, fully formed figures strike an elaborate interlocking pose.

Characteristic of Ben-Zion's technique is his use of dry pigments, which prevent the colors from bleeding into one another and allows for a lively, scabrous surface. In 1959 he began to focus more on direct metal sculpture. Only a handful of sculptures are included in the Mizel show, but they're stylistically more radical than Ben-Zion's paintings, even when they include representational imagery. Those images, sometimes suggested more by the titles than by the sculptures themselves, are also religious in origin. An elegant example is 1962's functional "Chanukah Menorah," a large ritual candelabra made of iron with a fine bronze-colored patina. On a rectangular stand, embellished with twists of iron, a pole supports eight tubular candleholders set at right angles. This piece looks ancient and modern at the same time.

Dubin and Josepher have also included a number of Ben-Zion's delicate and graceful etchings, mostly dating from the 1960s and '70s. Of particular interest is the suite titled "The 36 Unknown," created between 1971 and 1975 and shown here for the first time in its entirety. The 36 etchings concern the 36 righteous men who, according to the Torah, hold the world together. Their identity is unknown and will never be revealed; the moral of the story is that everyone should be treated as if they might be one of the righteous. Ben-Zion depicts the men as dedicated craftsmen; for example, "The Potter" at his wheel and "The Scribe" with his pen and paper.

Ben-Zion worked until his death, in 1987, at the age of ninety. Throughout his career, as is evident in the Mizel show, he was apparently oblivious to art trends that came and went. In this regard, Ben-Zion's life and work is reminiscent of that of Denver's own nonagenarian Jewish immigrant painter, Roland Detre--maybe the curators at the Mizel should take a fresh look at him.

Like the Mizel, ILK@Pirate is another small room that makes a big contribution to the Denver art scene. Currently on view is Bill Brazzell, a sublime, self-titled show of neo-minimalist pattern paintings.

Apparently an expert at surface detailing, Brazzell comes up with a wide variety of finishes in a series of paintings that are both interrelated and highly individual. Especially successful is Brazzell's technique of laying wax over oil paint, which allows his patterns to appear as if they float beneath the surface of his pictures. In "Diamonds," an oil and wax on fiberboard, Brazzell covers the vertical panel with a diagonal grid in gray over an off-white field. For "Quiet," another oil-and-wax painting, this one on wood, Brazzell creates a checkerboard pattern in various shades of ocher and cream.

Part of a circle of emerging artists who use straight lines and geometric shapes to fill out their compositions, Brazzell cuts a distinctive course in a movement that already includes Bruce Price, John Clark, Christina Snouffer and Jason Hoelscher, among others. Why doesn't someone do a group show?

Ben-Zion: In Search of Oneself, through November 30 at the Mizel Museum of Judaica, 560 South Monaco Parkway, 303-333-4156.

Bill Brazzell, through September 20 at ILK@Pirate, 3659 Navajo Street, 303-296-1933.

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