Detective Stories

A pair of forgotten Jewish artists are rediscovered in Denver.

It was probably a year or so ago that Molly Dubin, the curator of the Mizel Museum of Judaica, asked me if I knew anything about an artist named Akiba Emanuel.

I didn't, so Dubin explained that Emanuel was a modernist painter and sculptor who had lived in Denver off and on from the 1950s until his death in 1993, but who had never exhibited his work here, instead showing it in New York, where he also lived. Dubin had become aware of Emanuel when she was contacted by his daughter and sole heir, Pennsylvania-based poet Lynn Emanuel, who was interested in having a Denver exhibit of her late father's work.

Dubin showed me photos of Emanuel's paintings and shared some catalogues featuring illustrations of his work. I couldn't believe my eyes: The paintings were at once so strong and so strange. Even stranger, considering the incredible originality of the work, is the fact that Emanuel was essentially unknown around here.

"Soldier Taking Away Two People," by Akiba Emanuel, oil on canvas.
"Soldier Taking Away Two People," by Akiba Emanuel, oil on canvas.
"Seated Bronze Man with a Sword," by Akiba Emanuel, sculpture.
"Seated Bronze Man with a Sword," by Akiba Emanuel, sculpture.

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Through May 20, 303-333-4156
Mizel Museum of Judaica, 560 South Monaco Parkway

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Locals are getting a chance to know him now, however, through Catastrophes & Pleasures: The Language of Form and Interpreting Deception: Images of the Holocaust, both at the Mizel Museum. Taken together, the two shows follow Emanuel's artistic development over a period of fifty years.

Emanuel was born in 1912 in Pennsylvania. At the age of eighteen, he moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. He was only modestly successful, though, working sporadically in the Yiddish theater and in off-Broadway productions through the 1940s. Eventually he abandoned the stage for painting, which he had taken up years earlier.

What had sparked his interest was a 1933 trip to Paris where he met Matisse and worked as an artist's model for the great modern master. When he returned to New York, Emanuel began to paint -- his early pieces having a decidedly Parisian slant. In 1938 he began exhibiting his work in New York and earned a living for the next several years with the Works Progress Administration in the easel-painting division.

In the 1940s, Emanuel was living in the East Village, a hotbed of vanguard art and intellectual life, and he became friends with abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko and left-wing actor and comedian Zero Mostel. At the end of the '40s, Emanuel left Manhattan and lived in various towns in New York state, earning a living as a teacher.

In 1952, Emanuel's wife, Dorothy, and their daughter, Lynn, moved to Denver. Emanuel joined them in 1954, remaining in Denver until 1960. During this time, he taught at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, then a center for art in the city. He also taught at the Denver extension of the University of Colorado, the predecessor of UCD. In the summer of 1955, he renewed his friendship with Rothko, who worked as a visiting artist at CU-Boulder.

When Emanuel returned to New York, he joined the faculty of the School of the Visual Arts, where he remained until his retirement in 1980. All along, he'd been exhibiting his paintings and sculptures in various New York galleries, notably the Artists' Gallery, which also exhibited the work of Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt. In 1981, Emanuel returned to Denver and worked here until he was incapacitated by a stroke in 1991. He died two years later.

In 1994, a retrospective was presented at New York's Alexander Gallery; in conjunction, author Avis Berman compiled a biography of Emanuel that chronicled his life and all his exhibits.

Catastrophes & Pleasures, the first of the two shows at Mizel, includes paintings that were mostly done in the 1970s, the last decade that Emanuel lived in New York, and the 1980s, which he spent in Denver, though a few pieces date back to the 1930s. (The show has been installed in the corridors outside and around the corner from the gallery.) It's interesting to consider Emanuel in the context of the Denver art world of the 1980s, a time when a homegrown crop of neo-expressionist painters emerged. In considering Emanuel's work, I realized that the greatest neo-expressionist painter of 1980s Denver wasn't one of these highly promoted art stars, but an old man in the suburbs.

The show demonstrates that Emanuel reached his mature style when he was in his sixties. That style is marked by a gestural and automatist handling of the composition. His technique is painterly, with heavy daubs of paint. Frequently he paints out passages or paints the same passage over and over.

"Happy Lunch," a very strange 1970s oil on canvas, is a good example of how advanced Emanuel's work is. In the painting, which portrays a family meal, the artist has painted the table covered with food from various angles at once. Details like a bowl of fruit are intentionally done in a clumsy way, fitting perfectly into the "dumb art" wing of neo-expressionism of the 1980s, only this piece was painted ten years earlier. Emanuel was obviously a pioneer in this movement, but few people ever saw his later paintings.

"Happy Lunch" is one of many Emanuel abstracts based on tabletops, each of which has a narrative underpinning. In this case, it's Emanuel's difficult childhood, but the meanings of most of the others are hard to figure out.

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