About the exhibition

Please note that the exhibition will be closed the week of Thanksgiving and will reopen Tuesday Nov 28 at 12pm noon.

The exhibition Modern-ish traces a new path for modern art history, drawing on the Eastern European Jewish refugee experience by focusing on modernist painter and Yiddish poet Yonia Fain (1913-2013). The forced migration of millions of Eastern European Jews from pogroms starting in the late 19th century coincided with the invention of modern art and led to the emergence of a creative generation that lived simultaneously in the world of Yiddish culture and the world of modernism. Later, in the 20th century, the unfolding careers of many Eastern European artists, deeply connected to Yiddish culture, were cut short as a result of WWII and the Holocaust; many of those who survived found themselves as refugees in North America, Israel, and elsewhere after the War.

Modern-ish proposes an outsider modern art history that accounts for the immigrant, uprooted, displaced, and resettled Jewish artists, originally from Eastern Europe and with strong connections to Yiddish language and culture. Bringing into focus artists who have been forgotten, neglected, or ignored by national art histories of their countries of origin (Lithuania, Poland, etc.) and of their newly adopted homes (US, etc.) Modern-ish forges a “Yiddish art history” that transcends and upends the borders of nation-states. Modern-ish is a critical intervention into global art history and national art historical narratives of the countries of Eastern Europe as it examines how the experiences of marginalized refugee artists shaped modernism.

Artists of Yiddishland have hyphenated and unresolved identities (Lithuanian-Jewish-American, etc.), even as they possess profound connections to Yiddish literature and culture. Rooted in Yiddish-ness, working and living in at least two languages, and traversing several countries and even continents they created a definition and vision of art for the 20th century that expands prolifically our perspective of modernism.

Artists of Yiddishland are refugee and immigrant Jewish (and non-Jewish) artists from Eastern Europe who do not fit easily into the national art histories of Eastern European countries from which they were displaced. Some of these artists immigrated or fled at a too young of an age to make an undisputed mark on the local/national art scenes of their home countries of Eastern Europe. Some of these artists left at too mature of an age to be able to assimilate into the competitive and hostile local/national art scenes of their newly adopted countries. Some Yiddishland artists have been misattributed and misidentified and their national identities had been questioned/disputed either because of the shifting post-War national borders in Europe or because of their Jewish identity. Some Yiddishland artists do not easily fit the canons of art whether of the West art or of their home countries.

Most Yiddishland artists remain “unclaimed” by art history; they are from the geographical and mental borderlands, from ethnic immigrant ghettos of Western metropolises, from the blind spots of art historical canons. Modern-ish acknowledges that the lives of often unclaimed and overlooked migrant artists who inhabited multiple nations and languages were indeed key drivers of modernism.

Curator: Katherine Carl. Special thanks to Dr. Sheva Zucker, Shane Baker, Joseph Reisberg, Jonah King, and LanningSmith.

Exhibition on view September 14-December 8, 2023, Tuesday-Friday 12-6pm.


September 13

Opening Reception 7:30-9pm

Linking ArtWorlds Conversation 6-7:30pm

October 11, 6:30pm

Yiddish Literary evening with Sheva Zucker, Shane Baker and Elazar Elhanan

October 27, 7pm

Queering Russian Art: Realism, Revolution, Performance book discussion

November 1, 6:30pm

Yiddishland Museum Workshop

November 15, 6:30pm

"Return to the Source" Listening Party

November 29, Elebash Theater

Yiddish Cinema

Reviews and Writing about the exhibition:

The New York Times recommends "Modern-ish"

Jennifer Stern in the Forward, "An exciting, new way of thinking about refugee modernist artists like Yonia Fain. The exhibit “Modern-ish” shows us how to categorize Eastern European Jewish artists who were forced to flee their homelands."

"The Search for Belonging" in Tablet Magazine by Rokhl Kaffrissen.

Nicholas Heskes's exhibition review in The Brooklyn Rail

Laura Hodes Zacks writes about the poignancy of Yonia Fain's paintings in the Forward

A collaboration of the Yiddishland Museum of Modern Art and the James Gallery.

Many thanks to Hofstra University Museum of Art, the Congress for Jewish Culture, the Yiddish Book Center, the League for Yiddish, and the Graduate Center's Center for Jewish Studies.

A companion exhibition Yonia Fain: Refugee Modernism will open at The Gallery at Mercer County College in New Jersey on October 18th.

Wheelchair Accessibility