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 Ben-Zion Weinman  (1897 - 1987)

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Lived/Active: New York / Ukraine/Russian Federation      Known for: mod genre-religious, sculptor

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Ben Zion is primarily known as Ben-Zion Weinman

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Ben-Zion Weinman
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography is from "Search for the Soul of Judaism"
by William Brailsford, The Washington Times: May 18, 1997

In modern Hebrew, the words for truth and art come from the same root.  With masterful sensitivity, the artist Ben-Zion has transformed the horrible truths of the 20th century into a powerful artistic repertory of etchings, drawings, paintings and sculpture that beckon the viewer into his magical interpretation of the world, and the realities, of Jewish culture.

In the centenary year of this self taught artist, The B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum has brought together an extraordinary collection of Ben-Zion's work.  A poet and writer, Ben-Zion stopped using the Hebrew language as the realities of the Holocaust became evident; writing in "the language of the martyred ones" became "unthinkable" to him.

The artist never actually depicts the horrors of the '30s and '40s, but rather he holds man up to himself, to show him what he has done to God's handiwork.  Although there are many pieces in this collection that have Biblical themes, Ben-Zion's work cannot be termed "theological" by any means, but the viewer is drawn to his rich Biblical imagery, especially in his oils.

Perhaps the most striking painting in the exhibition is his 1937 oil on canvas entitled Noah in the Ark.  Here, we find a peacefully slumbering Noah, his eyes contentedly closed, caressing a menagerie.  The dark, somber tones seem bereft of any source of light; in fact we seem to be in the belly of the Ark itself until we suddenly realize that the eyes of all the animals shine brilliantly, like torchieres against a night sky.  Here, Ben-Zion seems to convey Noah's peace with having obeyed God, while the animal kingdom wonders what lies in store.

Following another story from the Scriptures, Ben-Zion has two depictions of Ruth and Boaz.  A small drawing in India ink and paper (1945) and then a larger oil on wood (1958), reminiscent of Henri Rousseau's 1897 Sleeping Gypsy, have a hypnotic effect on the observer.  Like many of the artist's oils, this one has a particular dreamlike quality.  The vibrant colors and rich textures create the sensation of a moving canvas, as in his Summer (1972) and Path in a Wheatfield (1953).

In two haunting pictures A Simple, Forthright Polish Jew (1936), an oil on denim, and Prophet on the Ruins (1938), another oil on canvas, Ben-Zion has summed up the exilic nature of the Jewish people.  These remarkable images, devoid of comfort, seem to represent the horrible decade in which they were painted and convey the dark decade of the Jewish soul better than any words. Ben-Zion has himself assumed the mantle of a prophet, and his pictures transform themselves into jeremiads warning modern man of what is to come.

But the heart of the exhibit may be found in the 1957 oil Scribe and the 1975 oil Kiddush.  In both paintings, Ben-Zion focuses on the face -- in essence, the face of modern Judaism, vibrant despite the diasporatic centuries, the horrors of modern times and the misapprehension of their neighbors.

Along with the paintings, there are sculptures in iron and wood, whimsical masks, a few examples of his own yod (the pointers with which the Scriptures are read) and even a few pieces of stained glass.

Truly, Ben-Zion's work can be summed in his own words, reminiscent of King David: "A light sound like the thinnest of threads accompanies me in the darkness of the abyss. God forbid if this thread should break"  In his works, Ben-Zion offers that thread to accompany us as we try to understand the darkness of the abyss.

2001-2002, Ethics and Public Policy Center


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Painter Ben-Zion (Benzion Weinman) was part of "The Ten," a group of young artists, including Joseph Solman, who strived to create something new in art in the 1940s.

Weinman came to the U.S. in 1920, and has worked in oils, watercolors and has created a large body of ironwork.  Teaching positions include: Cooper Union, 1943-1950; Ball State University, summer 1956; and Union Iowa, summer 1959.

Ben-Zion has continued his style of representational painting based on the abstract, and is perhaps best known for his Biblical paintings and etchings.

Ben-Zion received an American Jewish Congress award.  His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Les Krantz, American Artists, Illustrated Survey of Leading Contemporary Artists

Added note:
The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama has two paintings by Ben- Zion:

End of Don Quixote, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25, Undated, and The Strangled Tree, Oil on canvas, 267/8 x 36 Undated (though we know it was featured in a NY gallery exhibition in March of 1946).

Both works were featured in the State Department art show entitled Advancing American Art in the fall of 1946 and will be included in an upcoming exhibition on this historic show complete with catalogue that will open at the museum in the fall of 2012. 

Marilyn Laufer, Director

Biography from Mercury Gallery:
Ben-Zion Weinman was the son of a Polish cantor and composer who raised him for the rabbinate.  He became "Ben-Zion" in America after World War I because "to drag around two names is rather too difficult."  His beginnings in America are sketched elsewhere in this catalogue by his wife, Lillian Ben-Zion, but in 1983 he told an interviewer from the Archives of American Art about his discovery by the historic dealer J.B. Neumann.

"I see you coming here from time to time," said Neumann one Saturday afternoon. "Are you an artist, or are you buying art?" Ben-Zion said he was neither.  But Neumann repeated the question several weeks later.  "So I said, 'I don't know if you can call that art work,' "  Ben-Zion recalled, but "I make those small, little drawings [on a writing pad].  And that's all what I have."  Neumann asked how much he wanted for three of them. "I don't know," Ben-Zion replied.  Neumann offered $15. "Not too much?" the artist asked.  "No," said Neumann, "and you'll find out that I'm probably cheating you."  Instead, the purchase launched Ben-Zion's career.

In 1935, he became a founding member, with Mark Rothko, Joseph Solman, and Adolph Gottlieb, among others, of the group of American moderns, The Ten (see "The Ten: Birth of the American Avant-garde," Mercury Gallery, December 1998). Critics took note at once.  A skeptical New York Sun critic said Ben-Zion painted "furiously" and called him "the farthest along" of The Ten.  His The Glory of War was featured in The Ten's 1938 show, "Whitney Dissenters," staged to protest the emphasis on regionalism and social realism in the Whitney's annual exhibits.  The Glory of War was "resounding" and "forceful," an Art News reviewer wrote.

"Ben-Zion selects philosophical, poetic, psychological or tragic passages from the Bible," wrote New York Times art critic and Rothko biographer Dore Ashton in 1952, "and endows them with an added spiritual dimension by means of oppressive distortions and imaginative color.  In [his] canvases there is an intense and very personal interpretive bias which captures the visual and emotional values of themes without literary overtones."  His "Biblical pieces," Joseph Solman wrote in 1997, "are the only profound works in that genre in modern art besides. . . Chagall and the dramatic scenes of Rouault."

When New York's Jewish Museum opened in 1948, it was with a Ben-Zion show. Twice more he was exhibited there, including a large 1959 retrospective. The Phillips Collection and The Museum of Modern Art acquired Ben-Zions.  The prominent dealer Curt Valentin exhibited Ben-Zion and published his remarkable Biblical etchings.

But when Abstract Expressionism became ascendant Ben-Zion, who viewed all art as abstract expressionism, stopped showing at galleries.  He died in 1987, fed up with the art market, inspired as ever by art itself.

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