TRACKS: Reuben Kadish, The Anti-Hero of American Modern Art
Jill Conner
The Brooklyn Rail

Upon completion of the mural at Mexico’s University of Michoacan in 1935, David Alfaro Siqueiros proclaimed, “It is my honest belief that Phillip Goldstein and Reuben Kadish are the most promising young painters in either the U.S. or Mexico.” During the same year, this two-man team of artists continued painting murals within the Los Angeles Tubercular Sanatorium, which were completed in 1936. Soon after, Goldstein moved to New York City to work for the WPA, but had changed his surname to Guston, and removed an ‘l’ from his given name. Kadish, however, stayed in California and painted another mural titled “A Dissertation on Alchemy” (1936–37) at the San Francisco State College Science Hall.

In response to the spread of fascism, both Kadish and Guston became active members of the American Artists Congress, which formed in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. All artists involved were fully aware of the threat that art and society faced with the international rise of fascism. In 1943, Kadish was recruited into the United States Army Artists Unit and dispatched to India and Burma. Kadish was a war correspondent, and much like Max Beckmann and Otto Dix during World War I, he drew tragic scenes of a starving, dying, and destitute population. He returned to New York City in 1944 and spent a year working for Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in Greenwich Village. Soon after his relocation to Vernon, NJ, in 1946, Kadish lost all of his then-recent Abstract Expressionist paintings in a studio fire, where he was also injured. From that moment until 1960, when he began teaching at the Cooper Union, the light on the biography of Reuben Kadish dims significantly, despite the fact that this period became the most defining of his career.

The role of art in America had changed significantly after 1943, from a government-sponsored profession supported through the WPA that espoused the national ideals of democracy and freedom, to an activity of self-promotion that centered around the advent of the American abstract artists. A 1946 scene-piece from Time magazine stated, “But hundreds of perfectly respectable artists were unsure of their feelings and unable to remember their dreams. They preferred looking at a tree to painting it. They were the abstractionists.” This growing stylistic schism was split further by the fact that expressive figuration was the most popular style at that time. Prior to and during World War II, as fascism spread across Europe, the New York Times devoted most of its coverage to artists from Germany and France who had either sought exile or fled their homeland. In 1942, Alfred Barr echoed the sentiment of the American Artists Congress from nearly a decade earlier when he stated: “Among the Freedoms which the Nazis have destroyed, none has been more cynically perverted, more brutally stamped upon, than the Freedom of Art.” However, when Reuben Kadish came to New York, he entered a dubious atmosphere in which his convictions about art as a means of preserving the ideals of society clashed with the desires of the emerging wave of abstract artists, some who were his colleagues and close friends from the West Coast, including Jackson Pollock.

From 1950 until 1955, during a time when figuration still commanded more attention than abstract painting, Kadish attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School (BMAS) under the G.I. Bill. Since the late 1940s, the BMAS had been able to attract such notable artists to its faculty as Rufino Tamayo, who was known as the fourth Mexican muralist, William Baziotes, and Reuben Tam. Max Beckmann joined the faculty in January 1950, which was not only a boon to Brooklyn but a grand attraction for students. Beckmann might not have been so enthusiastic about some of the American artists he encountered in his travels. The Fall 1949 issue of the CAA Art Journal’s published Beckmann’s then-popular speech titled “Three Letters to a Woman Painter,” which decried the status quo thus: “I am convinced that your really deep interest in art is not yet too much developed. For, sadly, I have often observed that fashion shows, bridge tees, tennis parties, and football games absorb a great deal of your interest and lead your attentions into idle ways.” Beckmann referred to Abstract Expressionism as “nail polish,” which not only underscored the metaphor in the title of his speech but also ridiculed the artist who, in his view, turned away from the problems of society and instead created colorful, decorative objects for purposes of entertainment.

During the 1950s, Reuben Kadish was driven by a profound interest in the connection between the prolific art production of various cultures and their simultaneous output of literary tragedies. Roger van Oosten, a researcher of the WPA program on the West Coast, describes Reuben Kadish as “a passionate, convinced revolutionary who could see behind the curtain [of mainstream art].” This concern was deepened by the BMAS’s cross-cultural course requirement in art appreciation, which touched upon topics such as mysticism, ancient civilization, and world religion. Sculpture became part of Kadish’s cathartic process. According to Richard Pitts, Kadish’s former student, “It took him into his own depths as he channeled mythology, folklore, and ancient customs.”

To everyone outside of the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he returned in 1959 as a teacher of ceramics, Kadish was a dairy farmer who occasionally made clay sculpture. Clay was significant for Kadish due to its malleability and ease of expressiveness, and the artist used it as a means of conveying the weight of existence upon the human figure. This bridging of art and humanity, an interest that went back to his years as a WPA muralist and deepened during his travels in India and Burma, embodied the core of Modern art as he saw it, as manifest in Max Beckmann’s “Departure” (1932–35) and Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937).

Dan Kadish, Reuben’s son, says that before he went to war his father was known as the most eligible master painter on the West Coast. Upon his return, Hindu and Buddhist art continued to resonate with Kadish because of its interconnectedness with the ancient customs that persisted in framing and shaping the daily lives of those cultures. He was additionally inspired by his wife, Barbara Weeks, an archaeologist at N.Y.U who led a pre-history dig in Aphrodisias, Turkey, during the 1960s.

While these experiences contributed to the development of Kadish’s aesthetic worldview and artistic practice, his time in India and Burma was wracked by enormous cultural and human devastation wrought by famine as the armies of America, China, and Britain battled Japan’s efforts to expand its boundaries throughout East Asia and the South Pacific. After the war, Kadish quickly surmised that the problems of society were no longer fit for painting, turning instead to sculpture for its metaphorical resonances of the figure struggling in a mass of material density, always asymmetrical and undefined.

Kadish’s historically informed perspective, which saw the dire events of World War II supplanted by the nerve-wracking stasis of the Cold War, was sharply at odds with the common perception of that period as one of peace and prosperity. His raw forms reflect the wrenching yet inexorable progression of militarism that continued into the latter half of the 20th century with the United States’s wars in Korea and Vietnam. Sculptures such as “Double Jack” (1958) and “Barbara’s Piece” (1959), each standing about 30 inches high, engage the disfigured morass that the artist favored, emphasizing process over form. “Walking Man” (1959) and “Queen of Darkness (Moloch III)” (1960) both represent the artist’s response to lives wasted in World War II. These two pieces vaguely reference the figure and, in particular, capture life as a hell dominated by Moloch, the mythological persona who relished human sacrifice. Although Kadish was stationed thousands of miles away from where the Holocaust took place, he was deeply affected as the news of the death toll unfolded. It drove his tragic vision.

Although it is not known whether Kadish ever attended Max Beckmann’s advanced painting class at the BMAS, the perseverance and passion that compelled him to make and teach art as a means of channeling the depths of humanity do suggest that he absorbed Beckmann’s ideas about the responsibility of the artist, the self, and the ego.

Both Beckmann and Siqueiros had grown up in the rural areas of their homelands, regions that later became boundless platforms for war. Starting out together on the West Coast as first generation Americans, sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Kadish and Guston had similarly aligned their destinies with America’s and its metaphorical landscape of freedom and opportunity. As the modern world encroached upon that ideal with incessant warfare and power politics, each artist’s figurative style became increasingly surreal and expressive, thick and erratic, capturing the traumas faced by society with the global disasters that grew dramatically in scope and number after World War I.

Pitts recalls, “One thing that Rube impressed me with was his ideas of art, history, and mankind. His own personal economics were made manifest by his deep commitment in bringing these together.” Conversely, history has been largely silent on Reuben Kadish, even though his chosen aesthetic would seem to have been redeemed, in the eyes of posterity, after Philip Guston unleashed his first show of figurative paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Abstraction, for these two lifelong friends, clearly was not something that worked with the world. But unlike Guston, Kadish never changed his name, his approach to art.

From 1976 well in to the 1980s, the Grace Borgenicht Gallery featured several exhibitions by Reuben Kadish. Incidentally, the gallery at that time also represented the estate of Max Beckmann.

The author would like to thank the Brooklyn Museum Library and Archives for its research assistance.