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.
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.
Interpreting Deception, which has been installed in the Mizel's formal gallery, pairs Emanuel's paintings on Holocaust themes with his closely related sculptures in clay and bronze.
While the paintings in the first show are strange, the works in this show are beyond that. The subject of many are the vehicles that transported Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust. The trucks and trains are painted in a cartoonish way, but their cargo is ominous. "Night Transport," an oil on canvas from 1986, shows an almost childlike rendition of an open train car. Piled in the car are stacks of bananas -- and a prosthetic leg. Not pretty, but thoroughly compelling.
"Urban Transport" and "Red Cross Transport," oils on canvas from around 1980, explore the same theme. For Emanuel, the trucks and trains are the means by which the Holocaust was carried out.
In addition, Emanuel did many paintings in which Nazis are seen taking away -- or killing -- Jews. The latter can be seen in "Authority Figure in Navy and Turquoise," an oil from the mid-'70s. The composition is extremely crowded, sporting scores of ambiguous forms laid next to and over one another. Embedded in the interlocking shapes is the unmistakable image of a Nazi soldier killing a nude woman. The imagery contrasts with the spontaneously scribbled, almost lyrical handling of the drawing. Similar in subject is "Soldier Taking Away Two People," also from the 1970s. In this painting, which has a dark palette with lots of black and deep red, the three figures described in the title are rendered as flattened forms with their faces clearly separate from their bodies. Though the figures are crudely and heavily painted, the faces are delicately and evocatively detailed, and the expressions, especially those of the captured women, are haunting.
The show also includes several sculptures, the most ambitious being "Seated Bronze Man With Sword," from 1960. The figure represents an old Jewish man; on his right arm is a Nazi tattoo of a serial number.
"Shtetl Transport," a clay figural group, features a horse-drawn wagon accompanied by peasants who are walking and riding. The piece, which is stained a deep brown, was done around 1970. It anticipates, if not in form, then in content, Emanuel's later paintings of Jews being transported.
The Holocaust and the other struggles of the Jewish people were actually abstract notions for Emanuel, because he had no firsthand experience with the pogroms or the Holocaust. His paintings are thus expressions of his thoughts on what it means to be Jewish. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of his courageous and outrageous work isn't its political meaning, but how fresh and new it looks despite the fact that it is already pretty old.
One of the most interesting things about art history is that, at times, it can take on the intricacies of a novel (as in the rediscovery of Akiba Emanuel) or even the intrigue of mystery, as in the fascinating case of Max Lazarus, yet another forgotten modern artist with a Denver connection. Although there is no show to highlight his work, his story is now starting to be told again.
It all began when one Dr. Barbara Schulte, a curator at the City Museum in Trier, Germany, began contacting people in Denver, including the city's top art appraiser, J.H. Kunin. The German museum, it seemed, wanted to mount an exhibit devoted to Lazarus, who lived for decades in Denver.
This last detail is only known to very few in the art world, and an even smaller group has ever seen the artist's work. But Kunin, as an appraiser, happened to be in a good position to know where a handful of Lazarus pieces were and to know a little about him. There's still a lot to learn, though, like why most of his work is nowhere to be found.
Lazarus was born in Trier in 1893. His family was Jewish in a city having a large and prosperous Jewish community. Long a regional cultural center, Trier is one of the oldest cities in Germany, with origins in the Roman era. In the early twentieth century, Lazarus became one of the first expressionist artists in the area, and his position of prominence in Trier's art world is indicated by his having been commissioned to paint a mural on the ceiling of the main synagogue.
In 1933, however, the Nazis began to enact laws against modern art, which they labeled as degenerate. And all art by Jewish artists, modern or otherwise, was de facto degenerate. As a result, Lazarus was forced to give up painting. In 1938, he fled to the United States, going first to St. Louis.
It's a good thing he got out when he did, because just a year later, the Nazis burned down the Trier synagogue, and Lazarus's mural was lost. Most of the rest of his work was lost, too, because the Nazis made it illegal to own art by modernists or Jews (on that count, Lazarus was two-for-two). So surely, nearly everyone who owned a Lazarus painting destroyed it. As a result, Schulte writes in a letter, there "are only a very few paintings left here."
In the late 1940s, Lazarus got a job teaching arts and crafts at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in west Denver, and he worked there through the 1950s. The JCRS was devoted to the care of patients with tuberculosis. At the time, Colorado was a center for tubercular care, our then-clean air being one of the attractions. Lazarus apparently kept a low profile, perhaps because his experiences in Germany had made him shy about public exposure.
He did continue working, however, as revealed by the group of locally owned pieces known to Kunin and by three other works illustrated in the Rocky Mountain News in the 1940s and '50s.
According to a 1940s article by News writer Emmeline Lytle, Lazarus painted a mural, which may survive in the artist's former home on Jackson Street. As illustrated in the newspaper, it's a fresco in the form of an abstraction that extends along the living-room wall and continues outside onto the wall of the patio. The living room and the patio are divided by a glass curtain-wall trimmed in wood, but the mural appears to pass right through it. The piece features a diagonal with a large-scale composition of rectangles juxtaposed with a smaller opposing diagonal decorated with small-scale interlocking geometric patterns.
Another News article, written by art critic Alex Murphree, mentions some exhibits in Kansas and Texas featuring Lazarus's work. A lithograph by Lazarus named "The March of Time" is pictured with the story. The black-and-white print combines geometric arrangements with simplified and abstracted versions of figures. The composition is extremely awkward, with a zigzag of heads across the bottom and a sphinxlike figure on a set of steps at the top left. Murphree also mentions that Lazarus had been denied entry into the Fifteen Colorado Artists group, where his style was deemed not "modern enough." The Fifteen group was dominated by artists associated with the University of Denver.
In 1951, it was reported that, in an ironic twist of fate, Lazarus himself had come down with tuberculosis and had been admitted as a patient to the JCRS. However, he continued to teach after he was diagnosed, setting up a studio near his hospital room. A photo shows him at his easel, on which a traditional yet painterly portrait has been placed.
Lazarus died in 1964 at JCRS. In his obituary, he is described as a "nationally known artist who fled his native Germany because of Nazi terror." The obit also notes that he was survived by a daughter, Mrs. Norma Kerr of Phoenix.
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I wonder how many Lazarus pieces are floating around town? Is Mrs. Kerr still living? How about former students of Lazarus? And what about that oddball lithograph, "The March of Time" -- does someone have it hanging on a wall? Or was nearly everything, like the mural in Trier, lost for all time? Are the few pieces already known by Kunin, and those back in Trier, the only Lazarus pieces left after a lifetime's work?
Kunin would like to hear from anyone with some knowledge about Max Lazarus; he can be reached by mail, in care of the Jewish Community Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 80246.
There has been a lot of whining lately about how "provincial" Denver's art world is. But if the town's art scene of thirty to fifty years ago was already big enough to allow not one, but two modernists to get completely lost in the shuffle -- and who knows how many others -- imagine how vast and sophisticated it is now.