By Tom Austin
Not that long ago, South Beach, a cruel nocturnal jungle where the middle-aged and lumpy risk being shot and put out of their misery by Amazonian 14-year-old supermodels, was all about the art of being old, Jewish, and barely holding on. It was as soft and sweet as a piece of rugelah from the long-lost Friedman's Bakery, a landscape of wizened art deco hotels and chipper retirees, smiling beatifically at all the nice young people who would eventually devour Ocean Drive and push them away from the sea.
Now, the last bastion of that vanished civilization is the Jewish Museum of Florida, situated in two exquisite synagogues built in 1929 and 1936 respectively. Infused with the genius of art deco pioneer Henry Hohouser and on the National Register of Historic Places, the architecture occasionally surpasses the art in the museum.
And one of the current shows, The Art of Aging, a traveling exhibition organized by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, has its share of problems. Some of the first-rate artists -- George Segal, Kiki Smith -- in the original incarnation are not in evidence. The inclusion of early South Beach, such as the evocative photographs of old Jewish life taken by Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe, might have given the show a local focus. The Art of Aging has too many heavy-handed and bombastically didactic paintings, but in other arenas, it can be subtle and surprising, with a warmth oft-times bordering on schmaltz that sneaks up on even the most practiced cynic.
In general, the exhibition centers on aging as a grand continuum filtered through Jewish values, charting the topography of the heart and the tricks of time and memory. The show emphasizes the positive aspects of old age, such as compassion, patience, creativity, and the inklings of wisdom, though, as the Bible noted, "Alas, the wise man dies just like the fool."
Humor is part of the equation and the cartoons are the punch line of the cosmic joke that is decrepitude. Al Hirschfeld's Self-Portrait as Inkwell, The Artist at 95, features the theatrical caricaturist dipping his brush into his fanciful cranium of ink. Mort Gerberg, who writes about having a professional obligation to "kvetch about it all," contributes cartoons inscribed with "Half a Pound of Pain and Anguish" and "I understand she's marrying him for his condominium in Fort Lauderdale." And Ben Katchor contributes one of his brilliant installments of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.
One of the stronger disciplines in the show is photography, from the straightforward -- Lloyd Wolf's shot of an exercise class at a senior center, Judah S. Harris's portrait of an old lady holding azaleas, elderly Israeli farmers captured by Aliza Auerbach -- to the more arcane. Alicia Milosz uses ridged photographic emulsion to portray her parents at the ages of 25 and 77; when viewers shift in front of the images, youth and old age dances like a flip card run amok. Mark Berghash'sDisintegration, a Polaroid and wet transfer piece, contains six images of the artist slowly dissolving into a patina of being. Joanne Leonard incorporates the work of the master -- Edward Weston's photographs of her grandmother -- with diary entries and her own images of her mother, exploring memory and l'dor v'dor, the passing of things from generation to generation.
The Art of Aging also embraces the low-tech form of paper cutting -- Allan Winkler's Old Man with Hat -- and more traditional portraits. Mary Regensberg Feist, who studied with the great John Sloan and whose work hasn't shaken his influence, has produced a portrait of herself and her late husband: the pomade of wariness, resentment, and tenderness that is a 60-year marriage is captured in a passing glance between the couple. Joan Snyder's Kaddish for Lilly is a oil and papier maché piece that examines the endurance of friendship, with the artist observing "She was a therapist, a Holocaust survivor and a very complex person who over the course of years antagonized almost everyone she knew."
One of the more affecting works is a short documentary film, Making Way for a Green Leaf, which features the 85-year-old actress-dancer Devora Bertonov. At alternate moments, she is captured in the realm of eternal youth on stage ("applause is joy") and the loneliness of her private life. A truly engaging and brave creature, she is the Jewish grandmother that transcends the form, and with any luck, Ecclesiastes nailed the truth of life: "The day of death is better than the day of birth."