FACES EVERYWHERE - IN BEN-ZION’S HOUSE
If an art piece is an artifact of the artist’s world, what happens when the artist’s everyday life comes to resemble the art?
A few months after I started as a curator at YU Museum, I was invited to look at work in (and all over) the Chelsea home of the abstract painter and sculptor Ben-Zion (1897 - 1987). Every inch of wall in the townhouse was covered with racks of hundreds of painting, sculptures, scrap metal, prints, and layers of curios. Every object had been placed by the artist to not only create a pleasant and purposeful aesthetic for his living space, but seemed to in fact shape the space into an art piece that looked back you. This was particularly evident in the dozens of masks leering, grinning, and quietly watching from every wall and corner. All of these were made by the artist.
Though not much of a household name, Ben-Zion was, during his lifetime, an important abstract artist, and notably a member of The Ten, a group of avant-garde artists in the 1930s, which included Mark Rothko, Ilya Bolotowsky, Adolph Gottlieb, and others. Born Benzion Weinman in the Russian Empire (Ukraine), Ben-Zion immigrated to the United States in 1920. Ben-Zion distinguished himself by his embrace of primitivism, and, later on, his treatment of Jewish imagery in both paintings and sculpture. His works are in numerous collections around the world.
I had no clue what to expect during my foray (excursion, safari, I’m not sure what) into his home to meet his widow Lillian. Though I came to look at his Jewish-focused paintings and sculptures, I was struck most by the presence of dozens if not hundreds of masks all over the place. Some were made form salvaged wood with little more that a few holes drilled or dug out to make a face. Others were pieces of scrap metal, or constructions. Though most were situated along walls, especially in the basement and garden, some of these faces were nestled with other “objects” like the building’s gas meters and a wall-mounted collection of antique tools. They were on the floor, on the ceiling, in the corners, under furniture. Everywhere.
What impressed me more was the simplicity of these faces, and how Ben-Zion was capable of so simply defining a face in part of a log, or a castaway piece of rusted steel. It was as if he took just a few more steps to finish each piece, which had been started for him by another set of unseen forces.
So why do this, why live with so many faces? Why, I asked Lillian, would he want to live with these objects gazing at him from every corner of his house (did he have one in the toilet even?). I don’t remember her answer with terrific clarity, but I do recall it had something to do with feeling as if he had company (not in a sad and kind of creepy “Wilson from Cast Away” kind of way). I got the sense that there was something deeper, though, and that these faces were a gateway for Ben-Zion into the world of those unseen forces that had already done most of the work. Whether it was the divine, the human spirit, nature, or something otherwise ineffable, I think these faces (and not masks) connected Ben-Zion to something he wanted know was there by seeing it.
Only recently did I get a sense of how much this experience effected the way that I look at art, and present it in galleries and elsewhere. For my recent project working with students learning about exhibition design, and in fact designing the gallery for the Stern College for Women senior student art exhibition, I suggested that they think about each art piece as an artifact of a world that each artist inhabits — or hopes to inhabit. That’s not the studio or the gallery, but some place in the artist’s mind. This task was tough for them — it’s a tough task. How can a person see and experience an artist’s world — either in its totality or even just a small piece of territory? Some artists are able to create this for us. Most can’t or do not need to do so. The design class called the exhibition Trespassing treating the gallery as a chance for the audience to “trespass” into the worlds created by the artists on view.
Ben-Zion created a world for himself that I’m not sure he meant for most people to see. I was lucky to have seen it, to feel the stares, gazes and smiles of his acquaintances, which, I think he hoped, would tell me that nowhere are we alone.