New York

Max Weber

Jewish Museum and Forum Gallery

The problem of Max Weber is the problem of the Jewish artist, the problem, as the Jewish Museum’s catalogue tells us, of an artist from a devout Orthodox Jewish household that—no doubt partially on iconoclastic grounds—proscribed art. Clement Greenberg, in his brief but brilliant essay on Franz Kafka, puts the problem this way: “But might not all art, ‘prosaic’ as well as ‘poetic,’ begin to appear falsifying to the Jew who looked closely enough? And when did a Jew ever come to terms with art without falsifying himself somehow? Does not art always make one forget what is literally happening to oneself as a certain person in a certain world? And might not the investigation of what is literally happening to oneself remain the most human, therefore, the most serious and the most amusing, of all possible activities?”

Weber goes through an early, purely artistic period in which he makes his major Cubist achievements—he called it showing “form in the crystal.” But in the ’20s, coincident with his increasing involvement in radical politics, he returned to what has been called a more “humane” painting mode; one less preoccupied with structure, form, style, and the intensity they generate. This meant not only letting the content come through more obviously than when it was transmuted to the crystalline form Weber favored, but also the introduction of explicitly Jewish themes involving ritual and family. The shift coincided with a move out of New York. In 1926 Weber published a book of poems and graphics entitled Primitives, articulating his belief that primitive art was the basis of Modern expression; primitive art created crystalline form, with discontinuous yet intersecting planes (at times unified through their translucence), yet it was clannish and ritualistic in origin. Thus it could become the resolution of Weber’s conflict—and I think his elegantly small-scale primitivist prints are among his best work. His painting African Sculpture, 1910, announces his interest in primitivism, and the best of his Americana works, such as Maine, 1914, and Laborer’s Departure, 1912, have a strong primitivist cast, thematically if not always structurally.

After the ’20s Weber’s problem was to find a form that could do justice to his humane, Jewish subject matter. I don’t think he ever succeeded; he went to the exact opposite of crystalline form, creating a limp “expressionism,” as it has been called. As embodied in the famous Adoration of the Moon, 1944, it really involves the emasculation of viscerality, or, more precisely, the trivialization of the body in the name of the exaggeration of the head (that organ of Jewish intellect) and sometimes of gesticulating hands (organs of Jewish expressivity). The body is either simply not there or it becomes dumb bulk, as in Exotic Dance, 1940; its most vital part is its contour, which never quite makes up for the absence of true viscerality, no matter how full of twists and turns it becomes. Weber’s problems with viscerality are foreshadowed, I think, in primitivist/Cubist paintings such as Summer, 1909, and Two Figures, 1910. In these early works he was trying to reconcile structure with sensuality, but I don’t think he succeeded. By the ’20s he had given up the effort; Between Rounds and Retirement, both 1921, give us, in their different ways, matter-of-fact bodiliness (the body as a thing). This erodes into the “disembodied” Jewish “expressive” figures of the ’40s.

The problem is that the Jewish moralistic approach to sensuality dismissed the body, either denatured or sentimentalized (shall we say spiritualized?) it. The body had to become a sign of spirit, which is one way of ruining it. Weber’s inconclusiveness about the body shows us just how far a humane approach goes in art—how a conscious effort to make it serve higher purpose goes amiss. Jewishness was, I think, Weber’s downfall as an artist; its insistence on a directly humanizing art falsified art. Rather than disclosing an unconsciously presupposed consciousness through the power of form, Jewishness as felt by Weber insisted upon making art submit to a consciously held conception of humanity—resulting in the inability of both art and humanity to hold their own, maintain their integrity. The tragedy of Weber is his self-emasculation in the name of an archaic ideology, a traditional humanism which, because it rests on its laurels, is no longer in a position to realize the full complexity either of being human or of art—which converge deviously.

Donald Kuspit