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Landau exhibit opens at Rosefsky gallery

By : Eric Coker

Jacob Landau was committed to the belief that art “must do more than entertain or please,” the president of the Jacob Landau Institute said at a Sept. 23 lecture that kicked off an exhibit of the visionary’s work.

“Jacob Landau’s humanist art makes demands on us,” said David Herrstrom of the New Jersey-based institute. “His exuberant forms exhilarate, but at the same time cause stress. They accost us and ask uncomfortable questions.”

The exhibit featuring more than two dozen of Landau’s prints, drawings and watercolors will be on display at the Rosefsky Studio Art Gallery until Oct. 23. All of the works come from the Jacob Landau Institute’s collaboration with Monmouth University, with the exception of “Horses and Man,” which was donated to Binghamton by Rebecca and Ken Mebert ’78.

The lecture and exhibit’s interdisciplinary approach “exemplifies and furthers the mission of Harpur College,” Dean Donald Nieman said.

“It’s an approach that helps our students and faculty develop a much more nuanced, holistic understanding of what at the end of the day is a very messy, complex world,” Nieman said. “Jacob Landau certainly fits that interdisciplinary paradigm. He was a brilliant artist who used his artistic gift to probe the human condition.”

The works of Landau (1917-2001) can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Art Gallery. The artist had a “commitment to central human concerns and to the human as the central concern,” Herrstrom said, and made two obligations: be a witness to what threatens human growth or limits the imagination; and provoke human growth.

Landau also “swam against the current of modern art,” Herrstrom said, by focusing his visual work on the form of the human figure

“Having taking on the obligations first to witness and second to find a means of speaking out through images, he arrived at what he believed to be the humanist purpose of art — altering consciousness,” Herrstrom said.

“(Landau) said, ‘Art not tied to individual growth, to humanity and life, is dangerous, because it lulls or amuses without alerting consciousness.’”

Herrstrom spent much time discussing two Landau works now on display at the Rosefsky gallery: “I, John Brown” and “Holocaust Suite.”

The former was commissioned, but not used, by the Department of the Interior during the Vietnam War in 1968. Its comic book-style drawing, influenced by Landau’s stint with Marvel Comics in the early 1940s, seems to pose Brown as both a terrorist killing innocents and an abolitionist hero revolting against oppression.

 “We’re seduced by this poster, pulled in by the human figure,” Herrstrom said. “At the same time, we’re repelled. In short, we want to look and we don’t want to look.”

In “Holocaust Suite” (1968), Landau creates seven lithographic prints to tell the story of the Holocaust. A meeting with a group of Holocaust survivors changed Landau’s life, Herrstrom said.

“He concluded that the Holocaust was the ultimate test of our humanity and we flunked the test,” he said. “It was not just what Hitler did, but what the rest of us did not do.”

The “Suite” images move observers to the role of participants, as Landau’s works ask, “What does it mean to be human?”

The human figures featured in “Suite” are key, Herrstrom said, as Landau does not caricaturize or sentimentalize the victims.

“We’re not allowed to distance them as mere victims,” he said. “We’re forced to respond to the gestures they make, asking for help, dismissing us, accusing us. In the end, we are implicated as humans being capable of compassion and as murderers, as well.”

Herrstrom urged the audience to “make companions” of the work he described as “seductive and threatening, endlessly inventive and exhilaratingly imaginative.”

“Take warning: Such companions could prove to be dangerous company,” he said. “They could in fact provoke you with a crisis of consciousness  — perhaps even triggering a fascination.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08