Reuben Kadish: Witness opened at the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington on May 11th, 2018 and was a significant follow-up to a year of exhibitions that revisited the changing representations of the human form. The 41 works on view in Witness appeared in stark contrast to Kadish’s young, heroic idealism from the early 1930s, when he collaborated on monolithic murals with Philip Guston and David Alfaro Siqueiros throughout cities along the West Coast. Between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Morelia, Mexico, the bulky, muscular, monolithic forms portrayed by Reuben Kadish could be seen from a significant distance, as dark themes appeared to send out notes of caution through the representation of ominous themes such as racial inequality, worker’s rights, the rise of Fascism in Europe and the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan in America.
However once Kadish enlisted with the United States Army in 1943, he was dispatched to India and Burma where he drew everything that he had seen: starvation, disease, homelessness and death. By the time he returned to the United States in 1944, the notion that art could influence politics turned out to be further from the truth than the artist had ever anticipated. Reuben Kadish: Witness at the University of Kentucky Art Museum not only highlighted the delicacy of form, but it made the instance of human suffering permanent, reminding viewers how one decision, or even a few, can dramatically shape and change every day life.
Witness unfolded throughout the museum’s main floor gallery and offered up an intense grappling with form. Within the center, six sculptures reflected the disfigured morass that Kadish could not move past, after the war. The weighty bronze figure of Seer I (1966) and an untitled sculpture of terra cotta, made around the same time, are both totemic-like figures that expand upon an earlier piece titled Head made in 1962. When seen together, neither shows anything specific beyond the suggestion of a human head and neck. The body of Seer I and its untitled compliment remains similarly undefined. Both surfaces appeared to have been built-up with layers of clay material before being scaled down and divided into a series of broken blocks that adhere to a larger idea of human form.
Sculpture became the core of Reuben Kadish’s oeuvre when he settled on the East Coast, in New York City, following his return from World War II in 1944. Although the artist had been stationed continents away from where the Holocaust took place, he was struck by the death toll that had occurred before his eyes, within the poverty stricken streets of India and Burma. Reality and the human form had been equally destroyed, just as the loftier goals of peace and political equilibrium had been erased from the world’s societies. Hilda (c. 1972) and Semi-Aggressive (1970–72) for instance, show the reclining female nude in bronze, but in both pieces she is disfigured and ravaged.
The artist’s strong critique of both history and its repetitive turn toward idealism, as seen in classical nude sculptures, culminates in the jarring figure of Jocasta III (1976) where a woman’s fragmented figure crouches down and attempts to cover her eyes. The atmosphere’s gravity is conveyed through the artist’s wadded, hand-molded features that blurs the form entirely. Moreover, a small selection of four ink drawings made between 1943 and 1944 were juxtaposed to the central, sculptural diorama and portrayed death-ridden, if not suffering, figures.
This sentiment continued on the adjoining wall through another selection of drawings that the artist made during the 1980s. As opposed to the four earlier compositions, these ink-on-paper drawings show vibrant tribal figures that dance, writhe and pose together, lending a sense of animation to the cycle that these figures symbolize. Tribal iconography was also suggested in Benin (c. 1985) and Golem I from the Head Series (c. 1988–89) that were complemented by flattened forms seen in two untitled monotypes made around the same time. However Reuben Kadish’s small figurines caught everyone’s attention. These glass-encased, minute forms are half-beast and half-human, and measure no more than 4-inches high. By suggesting the personal, hand-held icon, Kadish left behind an open-ended strategy for experiencing overwhelming events.
Mythology was the visual language utilized by Reuben Kadish since the genres of abstraction and pop art did not address daily contentions that many in the postwar era were facing. Even though Reuben Kadish: Witness closed in late July, the violent events that had influenced all of the art on view continue and remain ongoing. In a 1991 documentary by Bill Page, Kadish speaks at length about the role of the mother figure, and the dominant mother goddess, who is an extension of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Idea. She elevates the individual and then suffocates, emasculates in order to kill the Will. “We’re trying to find out where we came from,” Kadish states. “Trying to find the answer, the impossible answer.”
Jill Conner, New York