Painter Presses His Cause on Canvas
PALO ALTO, Calif. — An Israeli-American artist contends that a San Francisco gallery that displayed his paintings dropped plans to publish a catalog of his work after he proposed that the cover title of the collection refer to Zionism.
The artist, Alan Kaufman, said several of his Jewish-themed paintings were rotated on-and-off the walls at the Himmelberger Gallery near Union Square beginning in July. Some of Mr. Kaufman’s works bear the names of figures from the Hebrew Bible, while others listed in a contract with the gallery have titles such as “Anti-Semitism,” “Battle for Israel,” and “Flight of Israel’s Foes.” One canvas is named after an Israeli city near the Gaza Strip, Sderot, and depicts a figure crouched under a Jewish star as missiles fly overhead.
Mr. Kaufman said he and the gallery’s owner, David Himmelberger, were working closely on a catalog of the art as well as plans to exhibit it at other sites, when Mr. Himmelberger expressed discomfort with using the word “Zionist” in the catalog’s title and with essays that included references to Zionism.
An attorney for Mr. Himmelberger, Edward Sarti, described the gallery’s choice not to go forward with the catalog as “a business decision.”
Mr. Kaufman said the disagreement erupted on October 8 at a meeting with Mr. Himmelberger to discuss the layout and contents of the 24-page catalog. “He had a printout of the catalog with ‘Visionary Expressionism: A Zionist Art’ in front of him. He pointed to the word, ‘Zionism,’ and said, ‘I can’t do that,” Mr. Kaufman told The New York Sun. “I said, ‘What exactly is the problem? You know what my paintings are about.'”
“He said, ‘I don’t stand for that. … We don’t want to advocate any kind of platform here,'” Mr. Kaufman said. The artist said it was not the content of his art, but the labeling of it as Zionist that seemed to be the sticking point. “None of the paintings at the gallery have the actual word ‘Zionism’ in it. I think it was the appearance of the actual word Zionism in the title and all the essays that shocked him. He gave me the impression that, ‘Oh my God, we have a Zionist in the house.'”
Asked if political concerns or Mr. Kaufman’s use of the Z-word factored into the gallery’s decision, Mr. Sarti said, “I can’t say that specifically.” The lawyer emphasized that publishing the catalog was not part of the gallery’s original deal with the artist.
“The gallery, on occasion, publishes work but that is not what they normally do. At no time did the gallery or Mr. Himmelberger agree to publish any work from Mr. Kaufman,” Mr. Sarti said. “Just because he doesn’t want to publish a catalog by a very young artist should not bring to bear anything other than it’s a business decision not to publish it,” the lawyer said.
Mr. Sarti also disputed Mr. Kaufman’s claims that he was being censored by the gallery. “Alan can go anywhere he wants and publish this,” the attorney said.
An aide to Mr. Himmelberger referred a reporter’s query about the matter to Mr. Sarti.
In an interview with the Sun on Monday, Mr. Sarti repeatedly referred to Mr. Kaufman as a “young artist” or “very young artist” whom Mr. Himmelberger was trying to guide through the vagaries of the art world.
Mr. Kaufman, 55, is the author of two critically acclaimed books. His memoir, “Jew Boy,” published by Fromm International in 2000, describes his upbringing as a child of a Holocaust survivor. A novel, “Matches,” published by Little, Brown & Co. in 2005, describes a young American Jew’s service in the Gaza Strip and is loosely based on Mr. Kaufman’s own stint in the Israel Defense Force.
Mr. Kaufman acknowledged that he had not been formally represented by a gallery before but said his art was shown in 1999 at the Chelsea Fine Arts Building and later in the San Francisco area. He also noted that he taught art history at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
“I am not someone with no experience. … I’m no stranger to the art world,” he said. “This is an effort to juniorize me and to make me into some sort of ‘Forrest Gump’ weirdo.”
In a follow-up interview yesterday, Mr. Sarti said he did not know Mr. Kaufman’s age and was simply trying to refer to the length of his tenure as an artist. “My understanding is that while he’s an accomplished novelist, he’s only been painting for a few years. I did not mean any disrespect,” the lawyer said.
Mr. Kaufman expressed frustration that, while art with Jewish themes is widely embraced in liberal enclaves like San Francisco, finding a home for explicitly Zionist work is more of a challenge. “There is no question that San Francisco is a spearhead of the progressive liberal left in the United States and, therefore, it is the spearhead of the anti-Zionist feeling that permeates all throughout academia, culture, and so forth,” he said. “My standing up and declaring Zionist art in San Francisco is really like a black man standing up in the old South and declaring himself a free man.”
The essays that Mr. Kaufman wished to include in his catalog were from noted Jewish writers, including a young Israeli author, Etgar Keret, a poet and historian, David Rosenberg, and an adviser to the American Jewish Congress who also serves as a contributing editor of the Sun, David Twersky. “I didn’t write about Zionism,” Mr. Twersky said in an interview. “What I wrote about was is there some way to discern in modern art whether there’s a Jewish element.”
A Jewish leader in the Bay area, Riva Gambert, said she was disappointed to learn via an e-mail from Mr. Himmelberger that his relationship with Mr. Kaufman had ended. “That is sad because I think Alan’s paintings and what he was trying to say along with other people is something that’s really important in this time,” she said.
Ms. Gambert said she attended a meeting where Mr. Himmelberger seemed “very enthusiastic” about staging a symposium and off-site exhibition of the paintings. “I did think he understood where Alan was going and what the genesis of his paintings was,” she said.
Ms. Gambert said she defines Zionism to mean Jewish self-determination, but she said others are “working very hard to obscure what Zionism is.”
“Zionism has unfortunately become a four-letter word in certain communities,” she said.
Mr. Kaufman echoed that lament. “We can say anything we want about ourselves, but we cannot say we’re Zionists. I’m sick of this,” he said.