Judy Brodsky’s artwork may not be in the new five-person exhibition “Biblical Inspiration in a Secular Time,” opening with a reception Thursday, November 5, at Rider University, but it reflects the Princeton-based artist, curator, educator, and innovator’s decades-long exploration of art and social ideas.
“The artists are not thinking of the Old Testament from a religious perspective but as a pillar of western culture, a piece of literature that is the basis of the way our culture is organized today,” says the printmaker, who curated the Rider exhibit, which also features an artists’ talk on Thursday, November 12.
“This exhibition fits into a lot of stuff I think about,” says Brodsky, interview from her workspace on the second floor of the home she shares with her husband, author and Rutgers University political science professor emeritus Michael Curtis . “It came about because I met (participating artist) Marc Malberg. He lives in Princeton and is an orthopedic surgeon connected to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick.
“I discovered he was doing very large ambitious paintings that deal with the Old Testament. He told me that since there is such a large body of the iconography of the New Testament he wanted to create Old Testament narratives that would have the same kind of scale. The paintings are about six feet high and four feet wide. He’s not a trained artist, but he’s interested in how the body’s put together. He is also interested in surrealism, so there is no naturalism. He was very serious, and I thought he should show his work.”
Since the former Rutgers University professor and administrator has a long resume of coordinating art — the 2012 Fertile Crescent series of exhibitions around Central New Jersey and the establishment of the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers University are a few quick examples — Brodsky had a catalog of artists stored in her memory and began curating the show. “I realized I knew five artists dealing with Old Testament themes in ways that are innovative and striking. They’re referential to the Old Testament, but they’re looking at it from a different perspective. I thought an exhibit could get people thinking about the Old Testament as something that was a cornerstone of western culture.”
The first artist Brodsky mentions is Siona Benjamin. Originally from Bene, Israel, an ancient Jewish community near the western coast of India, Benjamin came to the United States to study and now lives in Montclair. “She was identifying with (Old Testament) women who were outsiders. She is an outsider and a feminist. All her works are about women. But what is interesting is that she uses Indian costumes and often her faces are blue. Hindu figures have blue skin, and to her that transcends skin color and race as we know it. She’s mixing mythologies,” says Brodsky.
Brodsky says another feminist in the show is Helene Aylon, a New York-based artist whose son and daughter-in-law live in Princeton. Her son, Nathaniel Fisch, is chair of the plasma physics program and professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. His wife is Brodsky’s internist, Dr. Toby Fisch.
“Aylon’s husband was a rabbi. She attended Brooklyn College, studied with (innovative abstract artist) Ad Rhinehart, started creating minimalist work, and showed through Betty Parson’s gallery. She also became an eco-feminist artist and did performances where she had an ambulance and got samples of earth from nuclear sites and tried to heal them. Then she started doing work based on the Old Testament and found that god had been hijacked by males, that god was not the macho male. She went through the Bible and highlighted the sections where women were missing and exhibited it. Her work is in major museums around the country. The piece we’re going to show is a 30-foot wall. On one side is the Bible in Hebrew and the other the Bible in English,” says Brodsky.
The inclusion of Brooklyn artist Archie Rand seemed a natural step for Brodsky. “He got involved with Biblical imagery when his daughter was going to a yeshiva school, because his wife from Sicily said their daughter ought to know what her heritage was. There was a fundraiser, and Archie was sitting next to a guy who was building a synagogue and asked (Rand) if he would do the murals. That’s when he starts studying the Old Testament and gets hooked. A lot of his art after that has to do with Old Testament themes. We picked 60 paintings. They’re 18 by 24 inches and based on Renaissance and Baroque compositions but in comic book style. They’re popular and accessible.”
Also accessible is the work by artist Hanan Harchol, whose three video animations will be projected on a gallery wall. “Hanan did his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers. I was his teacher. He then went to the school at the Art Institute of Chicago. He started doing animations about relationships and was invited to participate in a video program about a Jewish holiday. So he got interested in the Old Testament and Talmud. He got a commission through a grant from the Foundation of Jewish Culture to do a series of video animations in the format of father and son — and sometimes a mother — talking together about the moral and ethical themes in the Old Testament. The Covenant Foundation wanted to commission them because many young Jews want to be assimilated and the topics would reflect the relevance of Judaism today. His father is a famous Israeli physicist with a dominating personality. They’re in a car and chatting.”
The topic of family and influence continues as Brodsky mentions her own parents and how they affected her thought and work. “I’m from Providence, Rhode Island. My father, I.J. (Israel James) Kapstein, was an English professor at Brown University and an expert on Percy Shelley, and a natural teacher who probably inspired me. He was an amateur artist and sculpted in wood. I have some of his artwork and all of his books on sculpture. My father was also a fiction writer. He wrote an important novel in 1938 (‘Something of a Hero’), established the writing program at Brown, and published books on how to teach writing. His best friend was (the humorist writer) S.J. Perelman; they played stickball together.”
Kapstein also was a Hebrew scholar and collaborated with Rabbi William Braude to produce a series of translations from medieval Hebrew Bible texts. “The rabbi would do literal translations, and my father would seize the concept. He was very proud of that translation,” says Brodsky. The work, “Pesikta De-Rab Kahana” (aka “Rabbi Kahana’s Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days”) won the 1976 National Jewish Book Award.
“My mother was a teacher. She came from a family of teachers who lived on Cape Cod, a Jewish family in WASP country. Then they moved next door to my father’s family in Providence, and my parents were childhood sweethearts. My mother taught home economics. She was a graduate of the University of Rhode Island. She was a math major, but women were not supposed to teach things like math. The Providence school systems also wouldn’t allow married women to teach, so she taught in East Greenwich until she was pregnant.”
Reflectively Brodsky — who is recuperating from hip-replacement surgery and sitting at a desk in the corner of a room appointed with tall art storage racks, books, and a wall that serves as an easel — continues, “I was encouraged in my art from the time I was a toddler. According to my parents I was drawing before I could walk or talk. It was clear that I was interested in art. And Providence was great because Rhode Island School of Design had Saturday classes. And on Saturdays I could go to the museum, and it was mine. They have beautiful rooms, and I would imagine I lived there.”
About her path to a career, the artist says, “I went to Radcliffe from 1950 to 1954. It was already integrated and classes were for men and women. I majored in art history because there was no studio art.”
She also married, at age 19, former Brown and then Harvard Business School student David J. Brodsky, whom she knew from summer camp. After she graduated the couple moved to Worcester, where her husband was expected to take over his father’s accounting business, but he did not enjoy the work and at the recommendation of a former professor came with his wife to Princeton and ETS. When he retired nearly 40 years later in 1993, he was the organization’s executive vice president and saw the gallery in the Chauncey Center dedicated in his name. He died four years later.
Brodsky says while Princeton was her home for many years it was also the place from which she commuted: to Tyler School of Art, where she received her graduate degree, and to Rutgers University in Newark and New Brunswick, where she taught, established the Center for Innovative Print and Paper (now the Brodsky Center), and is now professor emerita in the department of visual arts.
She also started an influential printmaking studio in Princeton in 1969. “I got permission to use a litho press, one picked out by Ben Shahn. It sat in Firestone Library at Princeton University.” The press turned to Queenston Press, the subject of two Princeton-area exhibitions in 2014 (U.S. 1, January 14, 2014).
Brodsky says that her love of printmaking started in Philadelphia. “When I got to Tyler I thought I would be a painter. As a teenager I earned pocket money by doing watercolors of children. The dean at Tyler said I needed to take other courses and put me in printmaking. And that was it. I loved the process. I loved the digging into a plate. I loved the idea of surprise, of not making the work of art itself. I loved the connection to prints to literary stuff and the idea of narrative. I was in the school at the height of minimalism, so it was hard to be a painter and be narrative. But as a printmaker I felt free to use whatever I wanted.”
Then with a smile and a glow in her eyes she adds that the freedom and process brought her an awareness and connection to the then-burgeoning feminist movement and shaped her professional career and engagements of projects that freed women to create art, teach, and shape the world. “It was an intellectual and esthetic epiphany,” she says, “Feminist content: using narrative and one’s experience, and responding to the world around you.”
And the world of ideas within.
Biblical Inspiration in a Secular Time, Rider University, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Opening reception Thursday, November 5, 5 to 7 p.m. Through Sunday, December 6. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Artists’ talk Thursday, November 12, 7 p.m. Free. 609-895-5588 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.
Editor’s Note: See Life in the Fast Lane, page 35, for an update of the future of Rider’s art gallery.