“Frank Stella: Had Gadya” — Then came a dog and bit the cat, 1984.
© Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
One might not immediately associate Frank Stella (b. 1936), the American painter, sculptor, and printmaker noted for his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction, with Had Gadya, a cumulative, lyrical poem that concludes the traditional Seder, or festive meal, on the Jewish holiday of Passover. In Frank Stella: Had Gadya, Illustrations after El Lissitsky, currently on view at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum, visitors can explore the ten-verse narrative of this song as depicted by one of the leading American artists of our time.
Describing a chain of events culminating in divine intervention, Had Gadya (One Little Goat) is one of the earliest recorded Jewish songs for children. Some view the song’s lyrics as a parable about the nations that rose up against the Jewish people throughout history. Others see a metaphoric reminder of our essential interconnectedness. An injury to one becomes, with time, an injury to all.
Just as each of the ten verses of the song builds on the one before it, Frank Stella’s Had Gadya series builds on the original 1919 series of 11 prints illustrating Had Gadya by Russian-Jewish avant-garde artist Eliezer (El) Lissitzky (1890-1941), which Stella encountered at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1981. Lissitzky’s Had Gadya was published by the secular Yiddish Kultur Lige in Kiev, which promoted the flourishing of Jewish culture after the defeat of Tsarist oppression. His lithographs are infused with Yiddish typography, ethnographic shtetl imagery, architectural elements, and abstraction. They relate to the work of his contemporaries, Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich.
Lissitzky’s works spurred Stella to develop his own language of narrative abstraction in his sequential works. Each stanza is conveyed by the juxtaposition of architectonic elements, painterly gestural drawing, vivid color, and motion-filled forms projecting toward the viewer and beyond the prints’ boundaries. His forms are not literal depictions, but their narrative essence is transmitted through the dramatic, dynamic repetition, collision, intersection, and aggressive movement through space of cylinders, cones, grills, waves, and graffiti-like scrawls.
In his Had Gadya series, the abstracted narrative of successive episodes of strife, ultimately concluding with redemption, offered Stella, a Catholic, the opportunity to express a universal message of justice in the face of destructive forces in the world. Almost three decades later, this message could not be timelier. Like the snowballing tragedy of Had Gadya, our modern lives are marked by floods, fires, and earthquakes, a global pandemic, political upheaval, wars and refugees seeking haven, racist violence, and increasing antisemitism. Had Gadya calls our attention to suffering, but it also offers a radical vision of hope. May its message of redemption beckon us to imagine a better future.
The Cincinnati Skirball Museum is the second venue for a national tour of the three HUC-JIR campuses in North America. Frank Stella: Had Gadya appeared at the Los Angeles campus March 31-December 31, 2022 and will be on view at the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum on the New York campus September 7, 2023—March 2, 2024.
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