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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 8, 2003
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A Family Memoir for Friends and Strangers: Judith Brodsky
When you hear the institution of the American family
being invoked, it’s usually as the dark host of some pathology or
another. Too much love or too little; parents who are too strict or
not strict enough; dysfunctional offspring who achieve too much or
fail to meet their potential.
Artist Judith K. Brodsky doesn’t see her family this way. She sees
her clan as a bevy of lively individuals who deserve to be remembered
by their nearest and dearest — and by complete strangers, too.
They are her representatives of the living, breathing stuff of
"For years I’ve had in mind doing a project that would be a homage
to my family," says Brodsky in a gallery interview, surrounded
by an installation of almost 100 prints on this single theme. "I
didn’t want them to disappear into the black hole of the dead. Memory
is so evanescent — after one generation, it’s gone."
In their biggest reunion to date, Brodsky’s feisty, forward-looking
family is being celebrated in the exhibition she calls "Memoir
of an Assimilated Family." The two big rooms of the Rider
Art Gallery literally swarm with images and anecdotes representing
her family’s multiple members, some dead and some still living. "I
wanted to surround viewers with my memories," she says, somewhat
For the viewer who traces the artist from her forebears through her
childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, her early and long-lived
to David Brodsky who died in 1997, and her second marriage, through
her children and grandchildren, the story is a positive maze of
Yet at the same time, this is a visual experience. Whether or not
you linger over the texts, the show makes a strong impression.
Artist and Princeton resident since 1955, Brodsky is professor emerita
in the department of visual arts at Mason Gross School of the Arts
of Rutgers University, where she founded the Rutgers Center for
Print and Paper. Active throughout her career in the women’s movement,
she is also the immediate past national president of ArtTable, an
organization of 1,200 women in leadership positions in the visual
Works from Brodsky’s "Memoir of an Assimilated Family" were
shown at the Numina Gallery at Princeton High School earlier this
year. Now an even larger group from the artist’s ongoing series are
on exhibit at the Gallery at Rider University where they will remain
on view to October 26. On Thursday, October 16, at 7 p.m. Brodsky
will give a talk on the show in the gallery. A companion exhibit of
works from the series, "Bending the Grid," curated by Rosemary
Miles, will be exhibited at the Aljira gallery in Newark from January
3 to March 31.
Rider professor of fine arts Harry I. Naar is curator of the current
installation of Brodsky’s "Memoir." It’s a good match because
Naar has known the artist since the mid-1970s when the two shared
a tiny office — and the same desk — at Beaver College in
Using this long association as a jumping-off point, the work is
for maximum effect, and he has produced an impressive catalogue that
includes a transcription of his wide-ranging dialogue with the artist.
Although Brodsky considers herself a colorist — she still
the original Josef Albers silkscreen prints from which she once taught
color theory — this is a monochromatic show. "I was terribly
involved in color," says the artist (who nonetheless believes
she dreams in black and white). Her choice of unremitting black and
white was designed to cool down the show’s emotional quotient. With
a few significant exceptions, most of the show’s photo etchings are
made from 13-by-10-inch plates, printed on 25-by-20-inch sheets of
paper, and placed in simple birch frames.
Working with master printer Sergei Tsvetkov, Brodsky
says her goal was to achieve the rich blacks of Goya’s etchings with
aquatint. The observation allies her project with another artist
to social documentation, in Goya’s case to "the disasters of
The artist’s love of process is manifest in these scanned, cropped,
and manipulated prints. "I wanted the images to have the imprint
of having passed through my hands," she says. Her largest works,
comprised of two separate etching plates, go even further to elucidate
process. And many images show the wear and tear typical of visual
mementos that have been passed down through the family.
Fused together with her bountiful harvest of images spanning six
are Brodsky’s texts, in which she tries to seize the essence of her
subject’s individuality. These are printed uniformly in simple
lettering, another choice, she says, to keep the anecdotes as
Reigning over the first room is Brodsky’s paternal great grandmother,
a 19th-century owner of orchards in the Ukraine who "probably
would never have left if not for the pogroms." The matriarch is
decked out in dramatic black silk and seated in an ornately carved
chair. Brodsky’s big print serves as an iconic introduction to the
plethora of meditations in black and white that come after.
Is it a coincidence that the artist arrives at the gallery dressed
in black, with her bobbed hair, pearls and pearl earrings? Slender,
with her shoulder-length hair styled to frame her face, Brodsky looks
decades younger than her 70 years.
Brodsky began her project more than five years ago, but because of
September 11, 2001, and its subsequent events, she has come to feel
that her memoir has taken on more importance and perhaps more urgency
in addressing international affairs.
"It’s a memoir. I felt really strongly that it had to be since
so much of Jewish art concerns the Holocaust, but this is about the
Jewish experience in America." Although these images are focused
around a single Jewish immigrant family that rose to the middle class,
she says the same kind of experiences were undergone by many other
families with different origins.
"As immigrants to the U.S. seeking social and economic mobility,
my family was fulfilling the American dream. The same thing happened
to the Irish, the Italians — and so many other groups. But we’re
now in a period of upheaval, and the European-American tradition may
change, to be replaced by something else," she says.
"Memoir" is a carefully chosen word for this extensive print
series, a word Brodsky contrasts with biography. "It’s strictly
my voice, not a voice of authority," says the artist, who would
like viewers to experience the installation "more like poetry
than a novel."
Autobiography is here in abundance. "Everyone is seen through
my direct memory or through the stories that have been told to me.
The images are those that are most important to me."
The family, whose forebears emigrated from the Ukraine in the 1880s,
matured and prospered during the 1940s, the very years when other
Jews lost each and every member of their European relatives. "None
of my relatives died in the Holocaust. But they left Europe in the
1880s because of pogroms — in other words, under the fear of being
murdered," she says.
In this particular installation, a strong suite of 12
etchings does address the Holocaust. Created in the same genre as
her memoir, the suite chronicles the family of Harvey Isbitts. This
family remained rooted in Europe until World War II. Isbitts’ own
experience of fleeing for his life, and his shock at having his
parents murdered in the Nazi camps, stand in sobering contrast to
Brodsky’s sunnier story.
The images that form the basis for Brodsky’s prints fall, almost
exception, into the genre of the portrait photograph. There are almost
no candid shots. And this element in itself reminds us what a curious
artifact the portrait really is: the posed photograph as a place where
we may try to define ourselves for ourselves and for others. Every
one of these subjects faces the camera bravely, composing their bodies
and their features as best they can. There are many traditional
here — little boys dressed as cowboys and little girls as
We have the sense that, strong and smiling, almost everyone looks
as they believe others would want them to look.
The daughter of two teachers, Brodsky’s father, I.J. Kapstein, was
a scholar, writer, poet, and professor at Brown University in
Rhode Island, where she and her brother Jonathan grew up. Classes
at the Rhode Island School of Design nurtured her early interest in
art. Her mother, Stella, was also a teacher who taught home economics.
She is the subject of one of the show’s most memorable prints,
Brodsky recalls how she grew up in a white Christian world where
culture was so dominant and Saturday was not the day of rest. Raised
with a Jewish identity and education, her parents’ generation were
still very much engaged in the process of assimilation. "For my
parents’ generation," she recalls, "the whole ideas was not
to be too Jewish."
Thus Brodsky arrives at the "paradox of assimilation," a
in which the immigrant group may feel it is discarding the old ways,
yet they are actively shaping the world they have entered. Brodsky
smiles when she imagines how surprised her grandparents would be to
discover that today’s favorite American foods include bagels and
The same "paradox of assimilation" protected this Jewish
from the 20th-century experiences of so many others, resulting in
an almost shockingly undisturbed family chronicle.
Towering over the gallery’s larger room, and over the densely
show, are life-size images of four young men, teenagers circa 1948.
Three of these young body-builders represent themselves bare-chested,
and the strapping young man on the right is Brodsky’s late husband,
David Brodsky. The brothers and friends grew up in the same dreary
Worcester, Massachusetts, tenement that serves as an almost identical
backdrop to each of these four exuberant portraits.
Married at 20 while still a student at Radcliffe, Brodsky arrived
in Princeton in 1955 with her husband and their first baby. David
Brodsky took a job in the planning department at E.T.S. and gradually
rose to the position of executive vice president. The couple were
married for 44 years. David Brodsky died in 1997 at the age of 67.
She was re-married five years ago to Michael Curtis, an English-born
professor of political science, now retired from Rutgers University.
"I was married to Dave for 44 years, but he died a young 67. He
will never grow old. I hope Michael and I can grow old together,"
writes the artist on a double portrait of David Brodsky and Michael
Once both the children, Frances and John, were in school all day,
she returned to her art studies. Graduate study at Tyler School of
Art in Philadelphia brought her to printmaking. "I loved the
and the surprise of the print pulled from the plate," she says.
"Developing an image through several plates or through additional
states on one plate, the complexity of moving from a drawing to a
plate to a print, all of this physical process became a metaphor for
the layers in my mind."
Immersed in the women’s movement throughout her career,
Brodsky literally came in on the ground floor, working in the
art community. In 1973 she became involved in the Women’s Caucus for
Art, and served as president in 1976.
Brodsky notes that although the kind of cultural documentation she
is pursuing existed in abundance in the work of American writers of
the 1950s and ’60s — Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Saul
for example — it has been much less evident in the visual arts.
"It was the women’s art movement that made decoration,
autobiography, social and political issues, photo-based work, and
narrative integral and accepted elements in the visual arts
says Brodsky. "The ideas that came out of the movement gave me
permission to develop my art in the directions that were most
to me — particularly narrative."
"The women’s movement, with its emphasis on autobiography and
family history, made it OK to make art about family," says
While the West Coast branch of the feminist art movement was given
a tremendous kick in the pants by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro,
both women of Jewish descent, Brodsky also considers African-American
photographers Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems as significant
Both Simpson and Weems examine family, identity, and relationships,
also employing text as a tool of their art. Brodsky also cites the
work of Asian-Americans Huang Liu and Yong Soon Min, both of whose
art addresses comparable issues of cultural assimilation.
Daughter Frances is a molecular biologist and immunologist at the
University of California, San Francisco, and author of a series of
mysteries that she published under the pen-name B.B. Jordan. Her son
John lives in Scarsdale, the father of two children, and works in
marketing for Pfizer.
Lest we think that Brodsky’s family life is less fraught than our
own, family foibles are fully in play here — enough for many of
us to ask ourselves how we ever survive the push and pull of family
love. Illustrated on the show’s invitation is "My Grandmother
Worried a Lot," an image of Brodsky in her pram with her
accompanied by the artist’s wry memories of her beloved grandma.
"When they received the invitation, three of my elderly aunts
and uncles called — they were upset with me," says Brodsky
warmly. "Your grandmother was not a terrible cook, she was a
cook," they had insisted. "Well, I knew her chocolate pudding
had lumps in it," she says with a wry smile, "and I could
only tell them that maybe, because she was older then, her cooking
was no longer as wonderful as they remembered it."
"I think, if you idealize your family, no one pays attention.
But you grab people when you tell their little foibles — it makes
them come alive. And I want them to live."
2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, 609-895-5588.
"Memoir of an Assimilated Family," on view through October
26 in the gallery on the top floor of the student center. Tuesday
through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. The
artist gives a talk on her work in the gallery on Thursday, October
16, at 7 p.m.
exhibition of Oriental Art with original art, limited-edition prints,
and shadow boxes in styles from traditional to contemporary. Open
Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m. to
6 p.m. To October 31.
Nassau Street, 609-921-6748. "Lost Princeton," an exhibit
that explores lost businesses and houses. The historic house also
houses a long-term exhibition about Princeton history highlighting
the Native American occupation, the Revolutionary War, and Princeton
in the 19th and 20th centuries. Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday,
noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
to Distant Locations: The Art and Artists of Australia, the
and Japan" features limited edition prints by Rolf Weijburg,
Endo, Katsunori Hamanishi, Joerg Schmisser, and Yoshikatsu Tamekane.
By appointment through October 31.
Siskind at 100," photography show on view to November 11.
Than Fiction: 19th-Century Photographs from the Permanent
to December 8. Also "The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan
Library’s Medieval Picture Bible," exhibiting the greatest
French manuscript of the 13th century. To June 6.
"The Italian Renaissance City: Selections from Princeton
Collections," with rare books and maps that highlight aspects
of the city that fascinated Renaissance artists and architects. A
symposium is planned in conjunction with the show; to January 11.
Also "The Arts of Asia: Works in the Permanent Collection"
and "Recent Acquisitions in Asian Art: 1998 to 2003," both
shows to January 6. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Highlights tours every Saturday at 2 p.m. Free
School, 609-258-1651. "Humanity in Action: Resistance and Rescue
in Demark," a show by photographer Judy Ellis Glickman whose focus
is the rescue of Danish Jewry during World War II. Gallery is open
Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To November 6.
"Brave New World: 20th-Century Books from the Cotsen Children’s
Library," an exhibition that fills the library’s main gallery
and the Milberg Gallery upstairs. To October 26.
New Brunswick, 732-932-2222. "Critical Mass: Happenings, Fluxus,
Performance, Intermedia, and Rutgers University, 1958-1972," a
show that traces the early years of avant-garde artmaking based at
Rutgers organized by faculty member Geoffrey Hendricks, a founding
member of Fluxus. Closing reception is Saturday, November 1, from
5 to 8 p.m., for the show that runs to November 5. Show is open Monday
through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Library Place, 609-497-7990. "Painting Toward a Book of
an exhibition by painter and printmaker Ellen Wiener. A lecturer in
the Department of Visual Arts at Princeton University, Wiener is
on a series based on the medieval book of hours. Open Monday to
8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. To October 17.
609-490-7550. "Embodied Abstractions," a multi-media show
by Tim Trelease, chair of the Peddie arts department for the past
eight years. Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To October 10.
Annual Fall Exhibition featuring landscape paintings by Albert L.
Bross Jr., Harriet Ermentrout, and Mike Filipiak. Gallery hours are
Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To November 16.
New Hope, 215-862-4858. "Annie Haslam: Dream Expressionist,"
art by the former lead singer of the English classic rock band
To October 19.
Street, 609-397-0275. "Narration of Boundaries," paintings
and drawings by Brooke Schmidt, a student at Tyler School of Art.
Her works focus on memory and intuition, reminding us, without
a complete story. Gallery hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 1
to 9 p.m.; Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 1 to 5 p.m.; Saturday,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To November 7.
Bridge Street, New Hope, 215-862-3396. Sculpture exhibition features
the outdoor installation of seven large-scale works at sites around
town. Host sites include Union Square, New Hope Solebury Library,
the Wedgwood Inn, New Hope Historical Society, Golden Door Gallery,
and New Hope Mule Barge. On view to Spring 2004.
609-397-3349. An exhibition celebrating the work of artist Bernard
Ungerleider who died on August 6, 2003. Select paintings spanning
the career of the Bucks County oil painter will be shown with pieces
created by artists who painted alongside Ungerleider in his weekly
sessions at his Bridge Street studio and on plein-air painting trips.
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
To October 13.
Human," an exhibition featuring works by figurative artists
Heinrich, Charles Kumnick, Pat Feeney Murrell, and Susan Wilson.
Each artists employs a different set of materials and techniques to
explore the human form and the frailty and resilience of human nature.
Gallery hours are Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. To October
609-989-3632. Ellarslie 25th season anniversary show features
by Ricardo Barros, Phil McAuliffe, and G. Fredrick Morante. Open
to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. To November 9.
"Furniture, Curios and Pictures: 100 Years of Collecting by the
Old Barracks," a new display in the exhibit gallery is included
in the tour admission fee. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
the last tour is at 3:50 p.m.
609-252-6275. "The Fascination of Sun and Shore: Impressionist
Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1870-1940." Curated by Roy Pedersen,
the show features works by 30 artists, members of two successive
who made contributions to the uniquely American brand of
Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends and holidays,
1 to 5 p.m. To December 7.
609-497-9288. Photographs by members of the Princeton Photography
Club are on view in the Atrium of the Administration Building through
January, 2004. Open by appointment only during business hours.
609-292-6464. "George Tice: Urban Landscapes," an exhibit
spanning the career of the photographer who has been working in urban
and suburban New Jersey since 1967. Tice’s photographs are in many
major collections and he is the author of 12 books, including the
now-classic "Urban Landscapes" of 1975, just re-issued in
a new edition. Show runs to November 30. Open Tuesday to Saturday,
9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and
state holidays. Www.newjerseystatemu seum.org.
New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "Stephen Spinder: Through My Lens,
Budapest and Transylvania," a collection of photographs of the
Gothic spires and neo-classical facades of Budapest. Also "Homage
to the Skyscrapers," an exhibition of sculpture by Blawenburg
artist Joseph Petrovics. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.;
and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. $5 donation. Both shows to November 9.
streets, New Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "Vivat, St. Petersburg!
Images of the City and its Citizens from the George Riabov Collection
of Russian Art." Show celebrates the 300th anniversary of the
city’s founding with rare prints and watercolors. On view to February
1. Museum hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday
and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Spotlight tours every Sunday at 2 and 3
p.m. Admission $3 adults; under 18 free. Free admission on the first
Sunday of each month.
609-298-5556. A new gallery in Historic Bordentown City owned by John
and Nina Schroeder. Schroeder, a retiree from the Trenton Police
and his wife have been collecting art for more than 25 years. The
gallery carries traditional landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes
as well as limited-edition prints by featured artists who include
watercolorist Phil Aklonis, painter Gerald Lubeck, and folk artist
Nancy Lubeck. Open Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; Friday until
215-579-0050. "Home and Away, Photographs of Maine" by David
Graham. Nan and Arthur Kellam are the subject of Graham’s latest
book, "Alone Together." The couple lived on a remote island
off the coast of Maine for 40 years. Now abandoned, the remnants of
their simple home and belongings continue to tell the story of their
lives together. Show runs to October 12.
Oil paintings by Betty Dickson. To October 25.
609-921-3272. Garden State Watercolor Society juried exhibition
by Domenic DiStefano and Siv Spurgeon. Opening reception is Saturday,
October 18, from 1 to 4 p.m., for the show that runs to November 2.
The center is open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sundays
from 1 to 4 p.m.
269 Georges Road, South Brunswick, 732-524-3350. "Show Us Your
Face: An Exhibit of Portraiture," featuring works by 21 area
and curated by Joan Arbeiter. Exhibit is open Saturdays and Sundays,
from 1 to 4 p.m., through October 26.
Utilities Office, Route 130, just south of Route 33, 609-259-3502.
Fifth annual art exhibit, juried by artist Marge Chavooshian. Exhibit
is on display Mondays to Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. To
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