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The Jewish Art collection of the Magnes provides a vivid depiction of the processes of Jewish integration into modern secular life since the mid-nineteenth century, and documents the ongoing debate about the definitions of Jewish identity in the modern world. The collection also provides a record of the role played by the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in fostering a generation of California Jewish artists since the 1960s, encouraging them to articulate their oftentimes complex Jewish identities. A recurrent theme in post-war art is the reflection on the Holocaust.
The holdings include painting and sculpture, photography, works on paper and artist books, as well as digital and mixed media. Along with fine examples of American, European and Israeli art, works by California artists are also well represented.
The unique collection of prints and drawings, artist books and posters, consisting of over two thousand works on paper, is one of the largest of its kind. Developed by Florence B. Helzel, the collection was introduced through such outstanding catalogues as The Print and Drawing Collection of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (1884), Narrative Imagery: Artist Portfolios (1991), and Shtetl Life (1993). In the 1980's, the museum began collecting contemporary art, affirming its commitment through exhibitions, publications, commissioned works and juried competitions. The collection of video and photography resulted from competitions such as the Jewish Video Competition and the Richard Nagler Photography Competition.
The commitment to contemporary art has been reinvigorated through recent exhibitions of prominent local and international artists, including Larry Abramson, Naomie Kremer, and Jonathon Keats, and the acquisition of their works for the collection. The former Judah L. Magnes Museum was the first Jewish museum to include many of these artists in its collection. Among more recent acquisitions are works by important early 20th-century artists such as French Surrealists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, and Russian Suprematist Lazar Khidekel.