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Jules Kirschenbaum: The Need to Dream of Some Transcendent Meaning

by Thomas Worthen
The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City IA, 2006
132 pp. $29.99
ISBN: 087414155-9.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art
University of Northern Iowa
Website: <www.bobolinkbooks.com


This is a beautiful exhibition catalog, with a clearly written analysis of a memorable, posthumous showing of the lifework of a painter named Jules Kirschenbaum (1930-2000). The exhibition was held at the University of Iowa Museum of Art from September 17 through December 2006. For those of us who knew the artist, the show was a somber, disturbing farewell, a still-too-soon reminder that Jules had died prematurely from cancer more than six years ago, at an age when he might have continued to work for several more decades. As evidenced by the installation and (now) by the full-color plates in this book, he had always been a rara avis, an artist who had set his sights on an uncompromising level of achievement, regardless of what was in fashion in the fleeting so-called "world of art." Among the most interesting aspects of this volume is the transcript of a talk he gave in 1987 at Drake University in Des Moines (where he taught painting for many years, and, for a shorter period, was also the department head). That transcript teems with ideas that are as rich in detail and suggestion as are Jules’ paintings, as when he says that "Wittgenstein said that sometimes an expression has to be withdrawn from language and sent out for cleaning, then it can be put back into circulation again. That’s how I feel about contemporary art…In a time like ours when self-expression has become ridiculously simpleminded, as artists accept anything that comes of themselves as valuable, I would like to send all the clichés of modernism out for cleaning." When I first saw Kirschenbaum’s paintings in 1985, I could easily sense his antipathy toward the thinness of what now poses as art, self-expression, art history and theory. As the author of the essay states, virtually everything Kirschenbaum touched was "skillful, intelligent, evocative, and intense." That said, if this is the sole (and definitive) book on his astonishing artwork, we should all be greatly saddened: As insightful as this catalog is, his paintings are so complex, so extraordinary, that they deserve far more discussion, and one can hope this is just the beginning of a new (albeit posthumous) look at his concerns and accomplishments.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2007.)



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