Robert Katz: The Five Books of Moses

On view from September 18, 2016–January 5, 2017 in the Derfner Judaica Museum
Opening Reception and Artist’s Talk: Sunday, September 18 from 1:30-3 p.m.

Text by Susan Chevlowe, Chief Curator and Museum Director

Inspired by the first five books of the Bible, Robert Katz’s mixed media assemblages owe something to childhood memories of his father, an aircraft mechanic during World War II, using tools and fixing things. “Growing up,” Katz has explained, “I remember that the trunk and back seat of our ‘56 Chevy was often filled with his beloved tools and mysterious mechanical apparatuses.” He has also vividly described the two of them sitting side by side in synagogue on hot, early autumn days and inhaling “his fragrance of oil and grease” as they shared in Jewish observance, instilled and passed on from generation to generation. “As he turned the pages of the prayer book, I would notice the accumulation of years of dirt under his finger nails,” he said.*

Over time, those paternal influences combined with what Katz observed and learned from the work of such major 20th-century sculptors and early installation artists as Eva Hesse, Edward Kienholz, Jacques Lipchitz, Louise Nevelson, David Smith, and Robert Smithson. Each of these artists connected to their environment in a deeply subjective way, incorporating memory or elaborate fantasy, irony and social commentary, the quirky and uncanny into their art.

Robert Katz, The Five Books of Moses, 2011, installation: steel, cast plaster, cloth and found objects, 28 x 20 x 20 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.

Katz’s Assemblages

In The Five Books of Moses, 2011, Katz used found objects, his father’s old tools, and other castoffs from a pile in his studio or from a steel yard. Each sculpture is filled with industrial detritus and other vestiges whose former utility has been transformed. Still, the newly configured array of items provides a way into the text. Recognizable objects that are whole or mere fragments, smooth or coarse, durable or ephemeral, neutral or bright in color have been repurposed to illuminate the biblical narrative.

The parts have been welded and assembled on a steel plate above a cast plaster book opened to the corresponding title page; purple velvet fabric drapes across the supporting pedestal. In Genesis, Katz incorporated a manifold from the exhaust system of an old truck, which had brought to mind the Creation. In Exodus, a yellow fragment of molten bronze had suggested to him the golden calf and a square piece of marble and blue thread were used in Numbers because they resembled the Tabernacle, the sanctuary during the time of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. With these symbolic allusions, the artist eschews narrative while engaging with text, tradition, and memory. His process connects ancient words and stories with tokens and traces of his life.

Conversation with the Artist

Susan Chevlowe: What inspired you to create this installation?

Robert Katz: About five years ago, my children climbed into bed next to me one early Sunday morning and asked me to read to them. The book that they brought me was an old, illustrated text of the Bible stories that was given to me when I was their age. They were as much enthralled by the illustrations of the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, the Great Flood, and the Exodus, as the story that I was reading. At the end of the reading, they asked me to make them a Bible book. An innocent enough request, but one that had great implications for me.

SC: So how did their request for a book become a sculptural tableau?

RK: I have often been accused of being a storyteller but never a book maker. For many months I thought about their request that I wanted to honor. Then one day, standing at my work bench, inspiration came to me. I noticed a well-worn, wooden box containing screws that had ten compartments and it suggested to me the Ten Commandments. . . . I had suddenly come to realize that my book would not be in the form of traditional pages, but rather it would be a mixed media, three-dimensional sculptural installation that would reveal the story of the five Books of Moses.

SC: Can you describe the process of assembling the Books?

RK: Using many of the old tools that my father left me, I began to assemble each book with the welding torch. It was like a puzzle, where initially the pieces are well hidden among the pile in my studio and steel yard. Daily discoveries brought forth the wonderful exuberance of clarity.

SC: Your work is not a literal narrative. How do you expect the viewer to interpret it?

RK: When viewing this project, some components will be obvious to the viewer, and other symbols may need closer scrutiny, investigation, and thought. I enjoy the uniqueness of telling this ancient story with a variety of unlikely industrial, twentieth-century components that in our everyday lives would have no reference to the biblical text. It is an artwork that uses these unlikely objects to reveal a familiar story that has impacted the lives of nearly all Jewish children. . . . the meaning of each tool and object. . . ultimately will be open for the viewer’s interpretation.”

*All quotations from the artist are taken from an email to the author dated July 30, 2015.

About the Artist

Robert Katz in his studio

Robert Katz was born in 1950 and grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn. He studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and received his undergraduate degree in studio art from New York University in 1972. In 1973, he traveled to Montana and settled near the banks of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers, establishing a studio in the shadow of the northern Rockies, where Native American culture shaped his artistic process. In 1975 he earned an MFA degree in sculpture from the University of Montana.

Katz is Professor of Art in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he has taught since 1981. He has also been on the art faculty at Southern Illinois University and Oberlin College. Influenced by an initial trip to Israel in 1987 and many more to Poland commencing in 1990, his art during the past twenty-five years has explored issues of Jewish identity, family remembrance, social memory, and the Holocaust, and he has participated in numerous conferences, panels, and seminars addressing the Holocaust and other genocides. For three summers in the 1990s he was artist-in-residence at Seeds of Peace International Camp, creating large outdoor sculptures with Israeli and Arab youth.

In Maine, Katz has exhibited at the Barn Gallery in Ogunquit, the Danforth at the University of Maine in Augusta, Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, Viles Arboretum in Augusta, and the Michael Klahr Center, University of Maine at Augusta. He has also been commissioned to create Maine Percent for Art projects in the communities of Auburn, Benton, and Waldoboro. His multimedia installation Were the House Still Standing: Maine Survivors and Liberators Remember the Holocaust is a permanent installation at the Michael Klahr Center.

Nationally, his sculptures, drawings, and installation projects have been exhibited in numerous one-person and group exhibitions at museums and galleries, including the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut; Hundred Acres Gallery, New York City; the Art Academy of Cincinnati; Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Missouri; the Missoula Museum of the Arts and the Yellowstone Art Center, both in Montana; and Gallery 401 at the Jewish Community Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Dwelling of Remembrance: A Holocaust Memorial was dedicated in 1989 at Scarsdale Synagogue, Scarsdale, New York. In 2010, he was included in Seduced by the Sacred: Forging A Jewish Art at the Mandell JCC in Hartford, Connecticut, and in 2012 in West Meets East: A Cross Cultural Exhibition at Jiangsu Chinese Art Academy, Nanjing, China.

Additionally, his installation/performance projects have been exhibited at the March Gallery in Richmond, Virginia (The Day of the Dinosaur); Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, Connecticut (Fragments of Dispersion); the University of Maryland (Journey Home), and the Medalta Potteries National Historic Site in Alberta, Canada (Where Have All the Children Gone?).

More information on the artist may be found at

This text appeared in the brochure printed conjunction with the exhibition Robert Katz: The Five Books of Moses on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum from September 18, 2016–January 5, 2017.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, 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 provide educational and cultural programming for all visitors, including residents of the Hebrew Home, their families, and the general public, who come from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs, and elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 12,000 older adults 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. Call 718.581.1596 for holiday hours or to schedule group tours, or for further information visit our website at

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


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