Collector searches for Jewish aesthetic in art

Two men, one of whom is African-American, sit across a table from one another in Morris Topchevsky's mid-1930s etching "Lunch Hour." Both are eating, both are smoking and both are tired. One rests his head in his hand; the other is propped on his elbows.

We know this scene, either through personal experience or by reading our nation's collective history.

"They have big working man hands," observes Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum in Squirrel Hill, where the work is exhibited.

That they're on break, with plates of food and coffee cups in front of them, means that they have work, she says. Work equates with dignity, and that dignity may be extrapolated to both workers. Racial equality was one of the social interests of Mr. Topchevsky, a Russian-born, Mexican muralist-influenced, Work Projects Administration artist who moved to the U.S. with his family in the early 1900s.

"Lunch Hour" is among 32 works by 25 artists in the exhibition "The Eye of the Collector: Images of the New World from the Sigmund Balka Collection," which speaks to the experience of Jewish immigrants. But it also speaks to all who have dealt, or are dealing, with acculturation, whether in early 20th-century America, or now.

"The discussion during the elections about border control and immigration laws made me think 'Why, these works are not dated,' " Ms. Hiller said.

She couldn't have anticipated the election debates when she committed to the exhibition, but she is pleased with the timeliness of the show. "Issues those social realist artists were concerned about [in the 1930s and '40s] are swirling about in our news now. These are our human issues that we face, and every generation will face them in one iteration or another."

The exhibition also speaks to the vision of an individual who has been collecting since the 1950s and who is now in his 80s. Ms. Hiller describes Mr. Balka as "tenacious and earnest" in his pursuit. These, and other of the more than 200 works in his collection, are promised by Mr. Balka to New York's Hebrew Union College Museum. They are a rich repository of Jewish experience; and, like all powerful art, they reach beyond the particular to the whole.

"It's more about psychology in a way -- reading faces," Ms. Hiller says. Julius Bloch's "Tired Travelers" are weary, even napping, during their train commute. It could be anybody who is not an acculturated American.

"Is there a Jewish aesthetic?" Ms. Hiller asks. She thinks Mr. Balka believes there is one. "Or he is looking for strains of an aesthetic, something that is Jewish about the work?" But she acknowledges that you can put 10 curators in a room and come up with 10 differing opinions.

"It's a well rounded and cohesive show representing one person's vision. There are many narratives about universal human issues, societal issues, expressed through different aesthetics, different media."

"The point for me," Ms. Hiller says, " is they're certainly personally driven images, but they represent universal concerns, human concerns, things we can all relate to. We all know someone who is currently unemployed, or has been."

"The Eye" continues through March 28 at the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, 5738 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill. Admission is free. The galleries are open daily. Information: 412-521-8011, ext. 105, or

Kevin Kutz at St. Vincent

Artist Kevin Kutz has devoted his career to uncovering the past, the present and, ultimately, the culture of our region, particularly the rural counties east of Pittsburgh. While his paintings are frequently included in solo and group shows, an exhibition at The Saint Vincent Gallery offers a broader look at his expression and thereby his raison d'etre.

"Landscapes and Roadside Attractions: The Art of Kevin Kutz" includes works more readily associated with the Bedford resident, such as "Pot Reconstruction," which shows the restoration of the 1927 Coffee Pot, a roadside icon that is appropriately in the collection of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor. His popular, somewhat askew cutouts of the Ship Hotel and Shirey's tourist cabins have a wistfulness underscored by the absence of the actual buildings, which have disappeared during the artist's lifetime, funky victims of a national homogenization of tastes.

But more interesting to Mr. Kutz's followers will be drawings like the oversized charcoal "Adam Falls, Linn Run," with its rock faces that segue whimsy with the suggestion of the lingering presence of events and people past. The ink drawing "Turtle Creek Study" comes with an amusing story. While he was sketching the valley below from the Westinghouse Bridge, a policeman approached the artist because of phone calls reporting a possible jumper. An early 1980s painting of "Pitt Street (Bedford)" shows a photorealistic exactness since modified into impressionistic brushstrokes.

A carved frame around a contemporized Catskill panorama and a mixed media work referencing the famed 1836 "Oxbow" painting by Thomas Cole are among works that come from an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the father of the Hudson River School provided by a grant from The Eben Demarest Fund in 2009. Through this exploration and resultant work, Mr. Kutz claims his association with the brotherhood of the great plein air painters who first represented this country through landscapes that were also visual declarations of national philosophy and destiny.

Mix that reverence for the "founding painters" with a wry humor and study with Robert Brackman, a student of Ashcan School visionary Robert Henri, and you begin to see more fully the wider structure of Mr. Kutz's expression, his unique approach to the land we often travel but don't often slow down enough to lock eyes with.

A longer story on this exhibition ran in PG East on Feb. 14. See it at

The exhibition runs through Sunday in the Robert S. Carey Student Center, third floor (elevator accessible), Saint Vincent College, Latrobe. Admission is free. Gallery hours are 1-4 p.m. today through Sunday. Information: 724-805-2197 or

Persian, African ceramics

"A Kind of Alchemy: Medieval Persian Ceramics," from the area that is now Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at The Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze ($12, members $10; reservations recommended at 412-371-0600). At 7 p.m. Feb. 27, Edda Fields-Black, associate professor of history, Carnegie Mellon University, will speak on the "Diaspora of Design," chronicling the migration of African ceramic design and technique from East Africa to the Indian Ocean (free and public). That evening will also include a display of African-inspired children's art created in collaboration with Frick community partners. The exhibition runs through June 16. Information:

Feminine aesthetics

An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday for the Women of Visions' exhibition "Feminine Aesthetics" at The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust 709 Penn Gallery, 709 Penn Ave., Downtown. Thirteen members of the local African-American artist organization explore femininity and beauty through a variety of media. Curator Elizabeth Asche Douglas will speak at 1 p.m. March 9. Free and public. The exhibition continues through March 31. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Art class sampler

If you've had an itch to take an art class but haven't wanted to invest in a full course, the newly launched Masterpiece Center for the Arts is holding "Try It" classes Feb. 23-24. The fee is $35 for two hours, supplies provided. Media include acrylics, oils, sculpture and watercolor (the latter with William Mcallister who is exhibiting at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts). Participants must register by Friday at 412-888-6188. The center is at 800 Lincoln Highway, North Versailles. Regular classes begin March 4.

Building interest

The spring lecture series, co-sponsored by Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture and the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art, continues at 6 p.m. Monday at the museum. Michel Rojkind, of Mexico City-based rojkind arquitectos, will speak on "Overstimulation." The firm's multinational team works globally, simplifying complex digital designs for practical applications and developing innovative urban strategies.

An upcoming talk to mark on your calendars is "What's Next?" by Winy Maas, founder of the internationally acclaimed firm MVRDV, 6 p.m. April 8 in Carnegie Library Lecture Hall. The event received support from the Netherlands Cultural Services. MVRDV is featured in the exhibition "Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture," which continues through Sunday at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in the Purnell Center for the Arts. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. daily through Sunday (412-268-3618 or

Lectures and exhibition are free and public.

Ai Weiwei, dissident

The documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," which was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, will be shown at 10 p.m. Monday on WQED-TV as part of the PBS Independent Lens series. For a review: and search Ai Weiwei Never Sorry.

Actress joins artist at CMOA

Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand will appear with New York-based visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra in a performance of "Bodycast" at 7:30 p.m. March 1 at Carnegie Museum of Art. The sold-out presentation, described as "part artist talk, part performance, part essay, part live video installation," is based on Ms. Bocanegra's experience wearing a body cast from ages 13 to 15 due to scoliosis, which influenced her development as artist and woman. There is a waiting list for tickets, which must be purchased beforehand ($27, students and members $22). Information: 412-622-3288.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925. First Published February 20, 2013 5:00 AM


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here