TIO NYC: Opium & Opulence, "The Sassoons" At Jewish Museum & More!

Primavera. Printemps. Spring season by any name has sprung in New York. It is a time to get drunk on sensations. Our first full day in the city included Sunday in the Park (Central) among the cherry blossoms with a dear friend and visits to the Jewish Museum and the nearby Cooper Hewitt.

Go here for more on TIO NYC.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea…

Samuel Coleridge composed his famous poem, “Kubla Khan” in a semi-conscious trance on or around 1797 after taking a dose of opium as an anodyne, eyes closing on the line in the book he was reading, “At Zanadu Kubla Khan built a pleasure palace.”

The work serves as a prologue to the story of four generations of Sassoons, on display now at the Jewish Museum through August 13, 2023. The show is a tale of opulence, opium and, ultimately, obsolescence.

The mind turns to Laura Poitras and her “All the Beauty and Bloodshed,” which chronicles the past and present of Nan Goldin, the revered photographer whose experience as an opioid addict turned her into a similarly revered anti-pharma activist. In the doc we see Goldin landing some significant political punches against the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, whose aggressive sales and marketing of the highly addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin showed the family’ prioritizing profit over people.

Sad but true there is a strong parallel between America’s opioid crisis today and China’s opioid problem of the 19th century. In both cases, drugs were pushed on a weakened populace by foreign elites who enjoyed legal protection. The Sassoon family monopolized the drug trade in China, paying off the British empire to act as its mercenary army, forcing the Chinese to open their gates to an unimpeded flow of the toxic stuff.

But that is only part of the story. The unfortunate part, which the museum to its credit addresses head on. That said, the Sassoons also supported the building of synagogues, schools and hospitals throughout India, Asia and Europe.

The sprawling exhibition follows four generations of the family from Iraq to India, China, and England and features a rich selection of works collected over time, revealing the full, fascinating story of this remarkable Jewish family from the early 19th century through World War II.

Image, courtesy The Jewish Museum.

Image courtesy Arts Summary.

Image courtesy The Jewish Museum.

According to the museum, “The Sassoons” features over 120 works: paintings, Chinese art, illuminated manuscripts, and Judaica, amassed by family members and borrowed from numerous private and public collections. Highlights include Hebrew manuscripts from as early as the 12th century, many lavishly decorated; Chinese art and ivory carvings; rare Jewish ceremonial art; and Western masterpieces including paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and luminous portraits by John Singer Sargent of various family members. (Also a few charming paintings by family friend Sir Winston Churchill.)

“The Sassoons” explores themes such as discrimination, diaspora, colonialism, global trade, and war which not only shaped the family history, but also continues to define our world today. Overall, the show is not simply a tale of refugees who came to be known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” The walls and display cases also showcase trailblazing female pioneers and a legacy squandered. “Think ‘Succession’ with yarmulkes,” as The New York Times recently summed up.

Go here for a deep dive into the details from that comprehensive review, written by Jason Farago.

A second show at the Jewish Museum is titled After “The Wild”: Contemporary Art from The Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Collection” is on display through October 2023. The exhibition highlights contemporary artworks by 47intergenerational and internationally based artists made between 1963 and
2023.These works are part of a larger gift to the Museum in 2018 comprising artworks made by the recipients of The Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Award.

For the record Barnett Newman shared the Abstract Expressionists’ interests in myth and the primitive unconscious, but his huge fields of color and trademark “zips” in his pictures set him apart from the gestural abstraction of a number of his peers. The response to his mature work, even from friends, was, well, meh. It was not until later in his career that he began to receive the acclaim he deserved. Subsequently Newman would become a touchstone for both Minimalists and a second generation of Color Field painters.

Commenting on one of Newman’s exhibitions in 1959, critic Thomas B. Hess wrote, “He changed in about a year’s time from an outcast or a crank into the father figure of two generations.”

The cafe at The Cooper Hewitt proved to be a nice, quiet place for lunch and to review what we saw at The Jewish Museum. Not much more to report there.

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