Portraying Mother, Identifying Self

“When the Jewish Museum asked me to make an artwork for the lobby … I realized the most Jewish thing I could possibly do would be to make a painting of my mother.”
— Alex Israel

On view through Sunday, April 23 in the lobby of the Jewish Museum’s Warburg Mansion, Self-Portrait (Mom) is a 2016 painting by Alex Israel that, as the title suggests, portrays the artist’s mother within the profile of the artist’s head. The painting is featured in the latest iteration of the ongoing Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings, a series of artist commissions for the Museum’s lobby. The Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings series, building upon a 1970 exhibition entitled Using Walls, has presented six exhibitions of new or adapted works of art since its inception in 2013.

Installation view of the exhibition Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Alex Israel, November 4, 2016 — April 23, 2017. The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo: Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com

Alex Israel’s painting appears particularly at home in the Museum (formerly the residence of Jewish philanthropists Felix and Frieda Schiff Warburg). Perhaps this is because Israel’s approach and subject resonate with the Jewish Museum’s own collection, which contains hundreds of portraits from the 18th century through to today. Even more relevant to Self-Portrait (Mom), the Museum maintains surprisingly numerous portraits of mothers and, in particular, mothers of the artists who depicted them.

Then again, it may be unsurprising that visual representations of mothers across eras and mediums have made their way into the Museum’s figurative hands (pardon the pun). As Kelly Taxter, Associate Curator, underscores in the gallery guide that accompanies the exhibition:

Characters from television and film have propagated Jewish stereotypes, including the yiddishe mamaleh (Jewish mother). She is loving, yet smothering, and offers unsolicited food, observations, and advice to her children as she simultaneously riddles them with guilt. Examples include cringe-worthy characters like Sylvia, Fran Drescher’s materialistic, whiny mother on television’s The Nanny, and, on the flip side, the ultra-groovy Roz Focker from the film Meet the Fockers.

It is only fitting that an institution dedicated to investigating the intersection between art and Jewish culture would (incidentally or intentionally) explore aesthetic explorations of mother figures. Taxter goes on to assert that Israel’s depiction of his mother “stands in stark contrast” to trite versions of the Jewish mother that have been proliferated in the media — as do, in fact, other mother portraits that have been acquired by the Jewish Museum.

Arlene Gottfried, Mommie kissing Bubbie goodbye on East 14 Street, 1991, from Family, silver dye bleach print. The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund, 2001–31

Take, for instance, Arlene Gottfried’s Mommie kissing Bubbie goodbye on East 14 Street (1991). The photograph is part of her Family series that seeks to capture three stages of motherhood through Gottfried’s grandmother, mother, and sister. The photographer intends for the series to depict her “family’s journey: my mother’s illness and my grandmother’s passing and my sister’s choice to have a child later in life so that the family would continue.” The corporeal intimacy between her mother and grandmother produces a twinning effect — the parallel heights, statures, and clothing reflect one another. The resulting mirrored figures are not coincidental: Gottfried seems to seize on this frank display of affection to illustrate how one life stage begets the next, harnessing the nature of the photographic medium to freeze her family in time.

Larry Sultan, Untitled (Mom Posing in Front of Green Wall), 1983–89, chromogenic color print. The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Ferkauf Fund

Like Gottfried, Larry Sultan also uses the medium of photography to immortalize his relatives. With Untitled (Mom Posing in Front of Green Wall) (1983–89), Sultan captures his mother standing within his childhood home. The artist articulates his drive to document his parents as having “more to do with love than with sociology . . . I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.” Gazing boldly and impenetrably into the lens of her son’s camera, Sultan’s mother commands the viewer’s attention. Her erect and statuesque form appears immovable, as if she has become a permanent fixture of the room — a clearly deliberate visualization on the part of Sultan.

Alex Israel, Self-Portrait, 2013. Acrylic and bondo on fiberglass. Photograph by Hans-Georg Gull, courtesy of the artist.

Through these delicately nuanced and profoundly personal portraits of their own Jewish mothers, Gottfried and Sultan rebel against the one-note portrayals that regularly inundate our television and film screens. Perhaps Gottfried and Sultan are able to achieve such representations because these works serve, in Taxter’s words when describing the painting by Alex Israel, as “double portraits”: the photographs depict their subjects as much as the artists who created them. Israel, in painting his own Self-Portrait (Mom), seems uniquely aware of the potential for self-identification through mother’s image. By crafting within the silhouette of his own head an idealized vision of his mother — a “timelessly elegant” and “confident” woman who appears “appropriated from the all-American, aspirational advertisements of Ralph Lauren,” claims Taxter — Israel reckons with his own identity.

Don’t miss the final weekend of Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Alex Israel on view through Sunday, April 23. Explore the Jewish Museum’s online collection to find other portraits of mothers or relating to motherhood, including: Neil Sidney Kerner’s Mother and Child (1946, gelatin silver print); Laurie Simmons’ Mother/Nursery (1976, gelatin silver print); Neil Winokur’s Mom and Dad (1990, silver dye bleach print); and Boaz Tal’s Three Generations at My Parents’ House (1991, gelatin silver print).

Julie Reiter, Marketing and Production Coordinator, the Jewish Museum