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Jules Kirschenbaum

Yesterday we visited the university art museum where by by far the most intriguing exhibition right now is a retrospective of work by Jules Kirschenbaum. Kirschenbaum, who taught at Drake in Des Moines for a quarter century and died of cancer in 2000, painted canvases that are deeply allusive and richly detailed. Many of the paintings in the exhibitions are still lifes, hardly still: the same table and tablecloth, with objects added and rearranged, the point of view broad enough (and inclusive of the trappings of painting) that it is clear the subject of the painting is less the objects and more the act of seeing. He was not above making the still life a narrative, incorporating a postcard on the table, for example, portrait of an historic event or allusion to another painting, then then reduplicating the image elsewhere, in the background. One of my favorites is a perverse still life of two store mannequins, placed as if sitting around a table. Kirschenbaum painted upon them genitalia, then scattered throughout the room skulls and organs, skinned-and-muscled figures, as if the pages of a medical textbook had been rearranged and copied on the page; in addition to all that, with the mannequins sits the artist, fully clothed. Self-portrait within the scene. He painted skulls, skulls, and more skulls; tortured bodies; books, including those of Kaballah; constellations; himself. Kirschenbaum’s paintings are complex commentaries on seeing, informed by philosophy and history, intense, focused. The three below are only somewhat representative.

Day Dream
Day Dream

La Bas, 1981
La Bas, 1981

Meditations on Death: M. De Unamuno, 1972–1973
Meditations on Death: M. De Unamuno, 1972–1973



so i dig his art, and i’m glad he’s references unamuno….

but, why is the first painting, Time and a Dreamer’s World, a still life?

it could be my too traditional understanding of still life… la bas is totally a still life. even meditations on death, i would place inside a broader definition of still life.

i really dig la bas

i also dig
Double Portrait

then again, i didn’t know him until you introduced us.

Sorry if I wasn’t clear. He’s not all still life—and neither the first painting way up on the left nor Day Dream is still life. What I meant was to say that still life—certainly according to the retrospective exhibition—is a major genre that he employs, and it was the still lifes that first drew me in. Certainly, not everything in the exhibition is still life. Spanish Poet, below, for example, is not, though it draws elements of still life into the painting—not only the stuff scattered on the table, but also the mirrored shade, which he incorporates into his work frequently.

(It’s a large canvas; the photo does it no justice. The figures behind the man are figures in the zodiac.)

On second thought, that might be a book, not a mirror.

I intend to return to the museum soon to spend more time in the gallery. There’s little enough of his work online to be found.

then again, as alaine de lille reminds us:

“Omnis mundi creatura
quasi liber et pictura
nobis est in speculum;
nostrae vitae, nostrae mortis,
nostri status, nostrae sortis
fidele signaculum”

“All the world’s creatures,
as a book and a picture,
are to us as a mirror;
our life, our death,
our present condition, our passing
are faithfully signified.”

are mirrors and books all that different?

let’s just call it a mise en abyme

mise en abyme is what i was thinking, too—it’s an apt trope. however, JK does distinguish between books and mirrors: many of his paintings, like Las Bas above, are mixed media: he will paste snippets from poems, or he will include lines of criticism about representation. books in his work mean something other than mirrors mean. i have to spend more time in the gallery to be able to say with confidence more.

you and he are right, in the end, books are not mirrors. or, at least, haven’t been very good mirrors since 1605… if we had to put a date on it.

though, i wonder if a novel like the museum of the eternal novel wouldn’t be a mirror. but more on that bizarre novel later. forgive my descent into cryptic meaninglessness

it’s not that, it’s just that i walked away from the gallery a bit stunned at all that was there, and I don’t think I can or should attempt more interpretation than I’ve already given—not before going back, that is. his canvases are too dense and my impression too shallow.

anyway, cryptic meaninglessness meaningfulness is mise en abime, so you must be doing something right.