Talia Levitt's "Hang-Ups," acrylic on canvas (2018), is part of "Skowhegan School Artists" through June 25 at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. (Courtesy Maine Jewish Museum)
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Much as many Jewish artists (think Alfred Stieglitz and William Zorach among others) and Jewish intellectuals (art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg) were in the forefront of bringing modernism to an American audience, the Maine Jewish community pioneered contemporary art in the Pine Tree State. 

Some of the earliest contemporary art shows in the state were staged in the 1960s by members of the Jewish communities in Augusta, Bangor, and Portland. For decades, Lewiston lawyer Philip Isaacson was Maine’s most prominent and best-loved art critic.

One of the people who helped organize the early Temple Beth El art shows in Portland is Nancy Davidson, who, as a curator and gallerist, has spent her life celebrating the cultural life of Maine. Now curator of the Maine Jewish Museum, Davidson is an art enabler. One of her most recent inspired acts was to invite artist Juliet Karelsen to curate an exhibition at the museum.

“Supermarket,” by Ben Shahn; serigraph in black with hand coloring, 1957. (Courtesy Maine Jewish Museum)

Karelsen immediately thought of Skowhegan.

“Skowhegan School Artists” (through June 25) features 15 artists who are both Jewish and alumni of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the nationally renowned summer program on Lake Wesserunsett in Madison that serves as America’s premier fine art finish school. Artists learn to make art in art schools and universities, but they learn to be artists at Skowhegan.

The éminences grises of the Skowhegan show are Alex Katz, who was a student at the school in 1949 and 1950, and the late Ben Shahn, who started teaching at Skowhegan in 1954 and for many years had a summer home on the Skowhegan campus.

Katz is represented by a grisaille aquatint “The Swimmer,” which depicts his son Vincent submerged in Maine waters. Shahn, who celebrated the life of the common folk, evokes the everyday America of the 1950s with a jazzy lithograph of grocery carts.

“Still Life with Water #7,” by Gail Spaien; acrylic on linen, 2020. (Courtesy Maine Jewish Museum)

There are four Maine residents in the show. Abby Shahn (1959, 1961) shows ceramic vessels and drums and a quintet of ghostly rust paintings. Natasha Mayers (1976) contributes a trio of colorful figure abstractions. Gail Spaien (1986) is represented by a gorgeous pair of geo-floral pattern paintings. And Karelsen herself (1996) exhibits two pedestals with round windows at the top providing mirrored views of paper flowers, the floral species depicted being those that appeal to endangered bees.

The majority of the artists are from Massachusetts, New York, and Chicago and, except for Julianne Swartz (1999), attended or taught at Skowhegan in the 21st century. Swartz has made a delicate hanging wire sculpture that could be a microbe or a universe.

Rachel Frank (2005) shows a fabulous bead wall hanging inspired by yurts. Gina Siepel has created a portable monument to anarchist Emma Goldman. Lauren Cohen (2010) painted a trio of intricate and elegant little grid paintings and has painted a boulder in the front courtyard of the museum that speaks to the green palette of the synagogue’s stained glass window.

“The Swimmer,” by Alex Katz; aquatint and drypoint, 1974. (Courtesy Maine Jewish Museum)

Naomi Safran-Hon (2012) constructed a mixed media piece that looks like a wall in a destroyed home. Iranian-born Shadi Harouni (2013) shows “The Last Day of the Bombardment,” a framed facsimile of a Polaroid snapshot of a family of four standing at the edge of the sea. Alex Bradley Cohen (2014), who is both Black and Jewish, has painted what might be a self-portrait, a Black man bowing his head with a prayer shawl around his shoulders. And Neil Goldberg (faculty 2015) contributed a video of a drag queen visiting an art studio.

My favorite work is a garish painting by Talia Levitt (2019), the youngest artist in the show. Using the bright palette and pop-culture clutter that are popular with her generation, Levitt paints a brick wall in front of which is a clothesline. On the line hang a rainbow pony bedsheet, a bra and panties, a blouse and slacks, and an upside-down flamingo towel. A slice of young life. Wild.

Karelsen has put together a tough little show that places a few of the next generation in the context of a few of their Skowhegan School elders.

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He first saw serious modern art by artists such as Ben Shahn, Leonard Baskin, and William Zorach at Temple Beth El in the 1960s.

“Poppies,” by Juliet Karelsen; tissue paper, wool fiber, wool, wire, pipe cleaners, paint, gold leaf, felt, in a pedestal made of wood, mirrors, LED lights, and glass, 2020. (Courtesy Maine Jewish Museum)

Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St., Portland; 207-773-2339, mainejewishmuseum.org.