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Two Jewish Artists Incognito

October 27, 2010

I have complained before that there are tendencies in the art world, at least in America, to be homogeneous.  I’ve run into repetitive philosophies as gospel; but it is disturbing proof of homogeneity when a contemporary artist feels that mainstreaming his name to something white or whiter was necessary or more beneficial.  Here are two instances of parallel artists that did just that.

                                                                Mark Rothko painting

The main precedent for this in art history that leaps to my mind is Mark Rothko.  Of Russian Jewish descent, Marcus Rothkovich came to the USA from Dvinsk circa 1910.  This was a time period in Russia where Jews were banned from legally owning land and violent pogroms in different cities were breaking out, particularly during 1905.  Shortly after immigration, his father died in 1914 and older siblings had to enter the work force to support the family; they changed their name to “Roth” for easier social acceptance.  Mark chose “Rothko” for being a more interesting abbreviation of Rothkovich.

“Rothko became a United States citizen on February 21, 1938.  This was 14 years after initiating an application for citizenship in 1924.  Lackadaisical in its pursuit, he only finally formalized the petition in 1935.  Like many Jews, he was worried about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the possibility of a revival of ant-Semitism in America, and U.S. citizenship came to signify security.  This was a time when many American Jews were modifying their names to sound less Jewish.  In January 1940, Marcus Rothkovich decided to become Mark Rothko.  More than 20 years earlier, Rothko’s brothers has changed their names to Roth.  But “Rothko” had the advantage that it did not sound American, Russian, Jewish, or like anything else in particular, and was therefore a bit uncanny, demanding of respect.  The name change was only legalized in 1959, however, when he first acquired a passport.”

Rothko, Jacob Baal-Teshuva [2009]

                                    Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao Spain by Frank Gehry

Seven to eight decades later, artist and architect Frank Gehry gains notoriety but had changed his name from Frank Goldberg.  I have seen the Sketches of Frank Gehry documentary film and he briefly touches on the subject of his invented surname in an interview, but he largely cites that it was his wife at the time and either insistence or pressure from her that was the motivating factor for adopting “Gehry”.  Why he kept it after a divorce in 1966 up and until today is curious.

How much more acceptance can an artist gain in today’s world by mainstreaming and Whiting It Up or trying to “pass”?  Is there some stigma against Judaism in the art world or is it easier to succeed when you blend in?  Does that mean your art is the only thing that is supposed to stand out?  Would I want to or feel I had to hide in the Jew Closet if I had “Goldberg” as a surname?  Rothko had to worry about a lot more in his day and with his background.  Gehry was born in Canada and became an American citizen, far removed from the Holocaust overseas or a childhood in an nation where pogroms were occurring.

One similarity is that both artists attended Ivy League schools; Mark Rothko was in Yale for two years circa the 1920s and Frank Gehry attended Harvard in the 1950s.  They both basically dropped out of these schools, Rothko after two years, Gehry in one.  Rothko was vocal about feeling Yale was an elitist and discriminatory collection of WASPs.  It seems likely these academic institutions showed both artists the harsh side of being outside of the mainstream.  It is sad that the effects of this is ongoing in a living artist today.

“It is kind of surprising,” said my friend Noelle.  “I would think that Jews are accepted more now than ever.”  In America, we are supposed to value our diversity and resist discrimination; yet mainstreaming oneself is counterproductive to that.  It shows that in history, one hundred to two hundred years does not bring as much change as we imagine it to; a century or two only brings slow and subtle changes to the social fabric of a nation.

Movie trailer for Sketches of Frank Gehry documentary:


Categories: Art History, Uncategorized
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