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.