Sacred Presence/Painterly Process – Jill Nathanson’s “Seeing Sinai” and “New Translations: Genesis”

Sacred Presence/Painterly Process
Jill Nathanson’s Seeing Sinai and New Translations: Genesis
On view September 26–December 19, 2010

Jill Nathanson and Susan Chevlowe, Director, Derfner Judaica Museum
A Conversation

Susan Chevlowe: You have painted abstractly in traditional media since the late 1970s, what inspired you to begin to use mixed paper and plastics in the New Translations works?

Jill Nathanson: Even painting on a rectangular panel, the paint differences feel elemental to me: transparent, opaque, sludgy, airy. I feel like they’re the makings of the world. But when I tried to approach the Genesis text on a rectangular surface it seemed too contained, representational and preposterous. I wanted pure elements, in their relationships, to create the reality of each “Day.” Color can feel like energy, and I tried to make the work from it. At the same time, in the Genesis text Creation is out of “welter and waste.” So while I am trying to use color in its purity, I also want the work to be made of waste; material that is potentially just a lot of dross until it coheres in its new interrelations.

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“Please Grant Me a Vision of Your Glory”…“Behold There Is a Place with Me” (Exodus 33:18, 21), 2005, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

SC: That phrase “welter and waste” is from the first sentence of Robert Alter’s translation: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’” In his commentary, Alter explains that the alliteration of “welter and waste” is meant to approximate the rhyme of the original Hebrew, tohu wabohu. How has Alter’s translation “welter and waste,” in contrast to the more familiar “unformed and void,” inspired you?

JN: “Welter and waste” indicate a chaotic situation rather than a more quiet, minimalist void. There are midrashim that describe God’s creation of earlier universes, which were scrapped. Even though Jewish texts discourage thinking about what was ‘before’ Creation, “welter and waste” tugs at the imagination. Perhaps there was a waste already there to work with when this universe got started. Welter and waste suggests a dark chaos transformed through changed relationships. It felt right to work with a kind of chaos. I could have been more open to using the chaos of recycled materials, but color is my language, so these colored papers and plastics were where I ended up.

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“When My Glory Passes I Will Place You. . .” (Exodus 33:22, 23), 2005, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

SC: When did you first begin to address Jewish texts in your work? What was your inspiration?

JN: In the mid-1990s I studied Jewish texts, and in a class on medieval Kabbalah, I was deeply struck by parallels between the ideas of the sefrot – the Kabbalistic understanding of God’s attributes as dynamic entities unifying as the Divine – and the ways that color, the parts of light, exist as dynamic parts of a mystery. Later I found that color is deeply embedded in the Kabbalists own language of metaphor and description: perhaps the parallels struck them, too. Still later I found that color was part of mystical prayer techniques. I did some experimental paintings in which I tried to bring my developed understanding as a colorist and my beginner’s grasp of religious ideas and practices together in a series of shivitis. I felt, and still feel, that at deep levels, art and religion have a lot in common, despite appearances to the contrary.

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Separate Water from Water, 2007-2010, Mixed paper, plastics, acrylic paint, 46 x 68 in.

SC: In your earlier series of shiviti paintings and the series Seeing Sinai, you incorporated actual Hebrew words in your works, how and why is your approach different in New Translations?

JN: In the shiviti paintings and Seeing Sinai, I was working with the parallels between color/light and ideas in Kabbalah, as well as the ancient mystical idea that the letters of the Hebrew language were elemental in Creation. Seeing Sinai had a landscape space and feel. For New Translations, I felt a landscape version of Creation would not do. I didn’t want to paint the “result” but the process; the relationships activating into a reality. Also, with Seeing Sinai, I was working on a close reading of Exodus 33 with Arnie, now Chancellor Eisen, which was pretty exciting. I had to fgure out, in painting, how to transition from the part in the text where Moses asks to see God on Sinai, to the part where God places Moses in the crevice, covers him, passes by and uncovers him after revealing Himself, in some way, without actually being seen in the way that we usually understand seeing. How to paint this? Arnie suggested painting only the verbs in that sequence. The words in the painting, When My Glory Passes I Will Place You, are those verbs, done with the understanding that we can see what God does but not what God is. Painting language as if painting energies, forces, powers, relationships, was the amazing part of the project, which came of the collaboration. The Genesis project has very much grown out of ongoing conversations with Chancellor Eisen, too.

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Its Seed Within It upon the Earth, 2007-2010, Mixed paper and plastics, 46 x 61 in.

SC: How are the New Translations works related to “installation art” as that term is commonly understood? Why is installation important to how the works are experienced?

JN: Throughout the project, I oscillated between making each “Day” a work in its own right and having the whole work as an installation. This tension could be worked out in many ways. For each “Day,” I entered into the aspect of that “Day” which was most striking; in which the sense of the miraculous seemed most intense. I didn’t conceive of the whole as an installation first, so in many ways this is not an installation, but in its scale and the way it works overall, it is. I want the viewer to be within it as an atmosphere, but it may be more like being within a written text than a gallery installation, because it happens in sequence and then it’s all there.

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In Our Image, by Our Likeness, 2007-2010, Mixed paper and plastics, 44 x 29 1⁄2 in.

SC: These works have no visible support and their boundaries are seemingly random, unconstrained by a canvas edge or frame. What has it meant for you to work in this new way?

JN: The boundaries are pretty random. If I could have afforded to buy endless colors to use, or could have cut out a mile of sky, and the cliffs of the Palisades, that would have been just great. I was so much more aware of limitations, working outside the boundaries of a shaped format. It gave me a chance to imagine God working: the boundless artist with boundaries so absent we can’t begin to imagine. I don’t know how to judge this work in the ways I’ve judged my work over the years. It’s expanded my practice and helped me reconnect with meaning, which is positive. How others connect to it is important to me; the viewer/participant really matters, so my understanding is in flux. Painting itself is in flux, and the ideas I learned are no longer any kind of a given, so I’m glad to be uncertain.

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And They Shall be Lights in the Vault of the Heavens, 2007-2010, Mixed paper and plastics, 47 x 80 in.

SC: Critics have noted the tension in your work between the various formal elements, as if there is a struggle going on – a struggle that ultimately leads to balance. What does this mean for you as you engage biblical texts? And how does this relate to your view of your approach as a process of locating a relationship between biblical text and the necessity of painting?

JN: Painting is often, perhaps very often, the wish, the dream, of a way to feel at home in the world. That is a sort of myth, like the traditional origin myth that sets out how we got here and why we are an important part of it all. I think painting and myth have much in common. Both allow us to experience chaos and then put the world back together. I have always loved how art can open, elaborate and extend possibilities and tensions, but I love the resolution part as well. I believe the power of abstract painting has been to take painting to the brink of formless nonsense. It takes apart the elements of our seen world and re-engages them. I’ve always been interested in the brink, the border, and have more work to do as an abstract painter there. In this project, I view the biblical text not as an ordered prison but as a text written from the brink of chaos, written either by God, Moses or some writer(s) who understood the potent scope of chaos.

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Across the Vault, 2007-2010, Mixed papers and plastics, 60 x 48 in.

SC: The richness of Alter’s translation of Genesis comes in part from his keen understanding of the Bible as a literary text, one that should be preserved in translation. He has commented that the failure of some other translations– making use of translation in the service of mere explanation – has resulted “in the most egregious instances…. to explaining away the Bible.” Alter’s observation helped me to see the connection between his approach and yours; that you, in effect, attempt to translate the biblical text in another medium, rather than merely illustrate it. Is that what you were attempting to do?

JN: Yes. By translating the “Days” into painting, or into the language of painting’s elements, I wanted to retrieve the strangeness and awesomeness of the text with the essential help of this great translation. Another influence has been Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the Scottish Torah scholar, who wrote The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. A thousand artists could work on this subject, hopefully all of them good painters, and it wouldn’t be exhausted. The relationships between color, in its intensity, between the unmoored elements of perception, as stand-ins for the elements we can’t see; the amazing balances that result in matter, light, life. We need good painting and good language to cure us of our apathy to this amazing situation. And without politics or ideology, to accept that this is what sacred text does, in the original did do, and for many still does do. The Jewish belief is that Creation is renewed constantly.

About the Artist

Jill Nathanson is a New York-based abstract painter. She was born in New York City and received a BA from Bennington College in 1976 and an MFA from Hunter College in 1982. She has been exhibiting her work in New York galleries and internationally since 1981.

Seeing Sinai: Meditations on Exodus 33–4 was a collaboration with Arnold Eisen, former Koshland Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University and current Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Nathanson’s and Eisen’s discussions began with the question, “Is there anything distinctive about seeing in the Torah?” Three of the works from the series are on view in this exhibition.

New Translations: Genesis is a series of seven mixed-media collage works. They have been influenced by such literary texts as Robert Alter’s Genesis: Translation and Commentary, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis and conversations with Chancellor Eisen, as well as midrashic texts. According to Nathanson: “New Translations is a meditation on energy and matter forming, separating and ordering in those first six ‘Days.’ It is a commentary on how the parts of existence might be thought to relate to one another. How did God know when the job was done, creating things that had never been seen before (when nothing had been seen before)?”

Continuously experimenting with visual human responses to paint, Nathanson’s paintings reflect her search to reconcile the physical properties of paint – viscosities, fluidity, translucency, color relations – with the metaphoric and spiritual transformation that painting can provoke.

Further Reading

Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Baigell, Matthew. “Abstraction and Divine Contemplation in Jill Nathanson’s Paintings.” Sh’ma (December 2008): 14-15.

McBee, Richard. “The Language of Sinai/The Process of Genesis: The Paintings of Jill Nathanson.” The Jewish Press, February 25, 2009

Nathanson, Jill. “New Translations” and “Seeing Sinai,” artist’s statements,

Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb. The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1996.

Featured image: Called the Light Day, 2007-2010, mixed paper, plastics, acrylic paint 23 x 36 in.

This text originally appeared in the brochure produced in conjunction with the exhibition Sacred Presence/Painterly Process Jill Nathanson’s Seeing Sinai and New Translations: Genesis held at the Derfner Judaica Museum, September 26–December 19, 2010.

About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere.  RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

dclaLogo_color_2This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.