16 June 2016

The Art and Thought of Mel Alexenberg

From the 2016 book Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art and Architecture by Dr. Ori Z. Soltes, Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts, Georgetown University and Director of the Jewish National Museum in Washington, DC

Chapter 16: A World of Revolutions: From the 1970’s, Pages 433-435

The play on Western visual themes in a uniquely “Jewish” direction that differently defines Rivers’ triptych and Rand’s diversely sweeping series of paintings also—differently—forms a substantial part of the work of Mel Alexenberg (b.1937). As by the 1980s the explosion of visual artistic creativity in the United States among Jewish artists born here continued in exponential expansion, Alexenberg is symptomatic of one end of the broad spectrum of artists and media that fall logically within the parameters of this narrative. That is, antithetical in myriad ways to the work of those artists in which “Jewish content” requires somewhat of an archaeological enterprise, he exemplifies a pattern of intense overtness with regard to consciousness of and asking the question of how to define Jewish art.

Beginning as a New York-based scientist, Alexenberg early in his career began very consciously to articulate the parameters of Jewish art in conceptual form. He was commenting in the summer of 1984 on the form of the tallit—the prayer shawl—in the Jewish tradition, and its termination in particularly structured fringes (tzitzit) which, apart from being an element that hangs from the tallit, is worn daily by observant Jews, as its own separate garment, under the shirt. In his remarks he noted the tzitzit structure: knot, spiral, branching, extending, outflowing terminations. Alexenberg related these images, of spiral, scrolling and branching, both to the natural world—from the DNA helix to the sea shell—and to Jewish visual symbology. Not only is the tzitzit a spiraling, scrolled fringe, but the phylactery thong that wraps around the arm in prayer forms a spiral, as does each of the unshaved earlocks of traditional Jewish males, and, of course, the doubly scrolled Torah: Book of books for the People of the Book.

Interestingly, much of Alexenberg’s work has been electronic—he offers computer-generated images—which also develop as spiral and branching systems: the doubly-wound video and audio tape, the branched format of the microchip.  This is endemic to nature, he argues, as it is to Jewish consciousness: and thus, both his chosen technique at the time of his remarks, of computer-generation, and his sense of image, are endemically symbolic of Jewish art and artistic consciousness. Hundertwasser, we recall, had denounced the straight line as pagan. Alexenberg speaks of the one-line circle as idolatrous—relating the Hebrew word circle—iggul—to that for the Golden Calf (Egel HaZahav)  of the Exodus story (Ex 32:1-6, 15-20) which pulled the Israelites back toward pagan, Egyptian-style worship. Even more emphatically, he refers to the single-line square as symbolic of slavery with its enclosed, stop-based parameters (at each corner one stops in order to turn and continue the line).

This is an artist whose every thought in generating art derives from a conscious exploration of himself as a Jew and what it means to be a Jewish artist. There is superb irony—even humor (and the humor of appropriation and transformation of message, while not unique to the Jewish engagement of the world, is certainly endemic to it)—in his appropriation of an icon from the western—Christian—artistic tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, floating up the ladder of the Patriarch Jacob/Israel’s sacer-suffused dream. Alexenberg repeatedly used, transformed and essentially distorted that image by digitalizing, dismembering and recreating it in an important part of his work of the 1980s [FIG 504].

 Like Rivers in his “Story of Matzah” triptych, but completely different in technique, style and visual direction, Alexenberg transforms the normative Western tradition within which he works, as he rebels against it—as a Jewish artist conscious of the long centuries through which Jews were denied participation in Western cultural and other mainstreams. He does it in various media, sometimes by superimposing that Rembrandt angel, intermediary between divine and human, sacer and profanus realms, over a Brooklyn street scene in which delicatessen—food—signs repeat themselves; or soaring into the space left when a bite has been taken out of a buttered muffin advertised in a subway car.

FIG 504: Mel Alexenberg: Muffin Angel (from Subway Angel series), 1987
Thus he word-plays on the relationship in Hebrew between the term for food (ma’akhal; okhel) and angel (mal’akh) and the classical term for art (m’lakhah), and thus between the most down-to-earth notion (food) and the element of the divine (angel) as mediated by art, created out of human—in this case, Jewish (certainly linguistically Jewish)—consciousness.

He has attached giant styrofoam Hebrew letters—the seven letters that are typically decorated by a scribe with vertical pointed crowns called tagin—to hydrogen-filled weather balloons. The letters were painted the seven colors of the rainbow floated upward from the wilderness of Tzin, near the Dead Sea. Alexenberg observes that a midrash points out that these seven letters are found in words like “hate,” that are too heavy to float up to Heaven when the Torah is chanted, and therefore need the tagin to help elevate them. The artist literalized and aggrandized this idea with his upwardly-soaring letters released near the lowest geological point on the planet's surface and both in Israel and near Jordan [FIG 505].

 FIG 505: Mel Alexenberg: Ascent from the Tzin Wilderness, 2009

At other times he uses technology as his paintbrush and the human worlds both below and above as his canvas. He has sent computer angels via satellite from the Old City of Jaffa, in Israel, to New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Buenos Aires: creating a universalistic happening by “connecting” these seven sites across the globe; or in the sky above Munich—Hitler’s 1930s geographic rallying point, and the PLO’s 1972 Olympic murder point—where he floated seven giant Hebrew letters, in the 1983 “Sky Art” exhibit.

 As elsewhere, in these gargantuan works the artist draws explicitly on the number seven with both its broad and its narrow significance: a pregnant, redemptive number that connects creation to Sabbath to Temple Menorah to Jewish (and Christian and Muslim, among others) art symbolism. Floating upward, like the spherot of the Jewish mystical tradition, these angels, these letters and numbers, intermediate between God-creator and God’s created universe; they represent the transformation of spirit into matter and of matter into spirit. They recall Jacob’s dream in the journey out from Canaan, of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth, to counterpoint his dream on the journey back to Canaan, where he wrestled the angel of God to a draw and was transformed, from Jacob to Israel. Within the blue sky with its white, whispy clouds, these are strands of the blue and white conceptual tapestry—the blue and white tallit—with which Mel Alexenberg weaves “Jewish art” out of the minute and magnificent elements of human aspiration.

Alexenberg has also used art, more recently, as specifically American political commentary on the relationship between heaven and earth. His interactive “Divine Retribution” installation of 2000 offered newspaper front pages from three moments in President Clinton’s political life: the day before and after his 1992 election and the day of the impeachment decision. Below these mounted newspaper clippings, we read that the President brought back a substantial amount of earth from Israel to be offered as “gifts”—soil from the Holy Land—to political patrons. The artist’s implied commentary was that the impeachment was divine punishment for abrogating God’s will by taking away and giving away pieces of the Promised Land to those to whom it was not promised—and the viewer was invited, tongue-in-cheek, to carry off a scoop. Alexenberg punned, moreover, on the idea of “Four corners of the Land”—a biblical phrase used with reference to that Holy Land—by selecting the news headlines from cities located in the four corners of the United States. He thus also implicitly commented on the issue of Homeland/Promised Land that has, in many Jewish circles, placed Israel and the United States in either opposition or apposition since the end of the nineteenth century.

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