Exploring Jewish American Identity at The Jewish Museum NYC

Exploring Jewish American Identity at The Jewish Museum NYC
Yareah Magazine

The Jewish Museum NYC. Elaine Reichek: A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited. Opening August 23, 2013. Exhibition Features Seminal 1994 Work Using Childhood Bedroom as Metaphor for Witty Exploration of American Jewish Identity.


Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Jesse Reichek), from A Postcolonial Kinderhood, 1993, embroidery on linen. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Melva Bucksbaum, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Shafran, and Joan Kaplan Gifts; Fine Arts Acquisitions Committee Fund; and Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Cheryl and Henry Welt, Paula Krulak, Toby Devan Lewis, and Henry Buhl Gifts, 1997-195i

Beginning August 23, 2013, The Jewish Museum will present Elaine Reichek: A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited, a room-size work drawing inspiration from the Early American décor of the artist’s childhood bedroom. The installation combines linguistic, photographic, decorative and textile elements, parodying period rooms in historic houses and art museums while exploring complexities of American Jewish identity, assimilation, multiculturalism, and feminism with wit and startling power. The Jewish Museum commissioned Elaine Reichek to create this work in 1993 and originally exhibited it in 1994. A Postcolonial Kinderhood was created at the apex of American exhibitions dealing with multiculturalism and identity politics. One of the earliest major works to confront the paradoxes of American Jewish identity, it remains resonant today. The reinstallation with some new elements created by the artist will be on view through October 20, 2013.

When The Jewish Museum commissioned Elaine Reichek in 1993 to create an installation exploring her personal identity, her work at the time was preoccupied with marginalized cultures – Irish, Native American, and others. Probing her American Jewish identity presented new challenges. The artist had to consider if Jews were still marginalized in the United States, if they had seamlessly assimilated into American culture, and what barriers, if any, still limited Jewish inclusion in the American mainstream. A Postcolonial Kinderhood probed the tensions, fears and embarrassments – real or imagined – that still prevailed among many American Jews and other immigrants.

As first-generation Jewish Americans, Reichek’s parents had become middle-class, a transformation that took form in the details of their 1950s Brooklyn home. Reimagining her childhood bedroom, Reichek represented her parents’ acquisition of the American dream through colonial-style furnishings.

The childhood bedroom became a central metaphor of the installation. Reichek darkened the room and made the furniture slightly smaller than normal, producing an environment that feels out of kilter and evokes the sense of estrangement she felt when she realized “there was nothing that even remotely suggested Jewish culture in my childhood bedroom.”

She used a combination of handmade and store-bought furnishings: a canopy bed, washstand, wrought-iron lamp, fire screen, and braided rugs. There are interspersed with Reichek’s family photographs and her signature embroidered samplers. The décor, with its patriotic overtones of Protestant New England tradition, reflects the conscious yearning of Jews to claim a place in the American past.

In this current reinstallation the artist is adding several new components. These include a video, Bon Voyage, made from a 1934 home movie of her in-laws’ honeymoon. A bulletin board displays documentation of the original installation; another includes information about the process of making the piece, along with family pictures and other personal memorabilia.

Elaine Reichek has been using thread as a core element in her work since the early 1970s, at first with minimalist line paintings made with thread on canvas, and more recently with her embroidery and new-media works. In A Postcolonial Kinderhood she subverts the moral and religious messages of traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century samplers. She canvassed her family for quotes about their Jewish identity. The quotations are both witty and poignant. A comment from her daughter reads, “The parents of Jewish boys love me. I am the closest thing to a shiksa without being one.” The bedspread grumbles in Yiddish, “What do you want from me?”

The exhibition is organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, Susan & Elihu Rose Chief Curator, The Jewish Museum.

Reichek was an early pioneer among conceptual artists rethinking the role of craft in the fine arts and investigating alternative narratives that had been excluded from the canon, in what is now a burgeoning field of creative endeavor and critical inquiry. Through an extended exploration of the history of the embroidered sampler, Reichek arrived at the fusion of image and text in dialogue with the history of art that continues to be her main area of exploration.


Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Laura Engel), from A Postcolonial Kinderhood, 1993, embroidery on linen. The Jewish Museum, NY, Purchase: Melva Bucksbaum, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Shafran, and Joan Kaplan Gifts; Fine Arts Acquisitions Committee Fund; and Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Cheryl and Henry Welt, Paula Krulak, Toby Devan Lewis, and Henry Buhl Gifts, 1997-195g.

Elaine Reichek lives and works in New York, and has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad for nearly forty years, including solo exhibitions at: New York’s Museum of Modern Art and The Jewish Museum; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Tel Aviv Museum; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Stichting De Appel, Amsterdam; and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Her work is in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Jewish Museum, Museum of Arts and Design, and the Brooklyn Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum, Philadelphia; Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida; and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, among others. Reichek’s work was included in the 2012 São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York, and the Cheongju International Craft Bienniale 2011 in Korea. Reichek is the recipient of The 2013 Francis J. Greenburger Award. She was awarded an Art Matters Foundation grant in 2012, a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in 2011, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006. Reichek is represented in New York by Zach Feuer Gallery, and in Santa Monica, CA, by Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, New York City.

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