It may not have been on everyone’s radar, but last week a new New York art gallery opened — in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. True to one of the major cultural groups that neighborhood has long been known for, the new space is dedicated solely to Jewish, mostly Hassidic, art. Betzalel Gallery is the joint undertaking of Boro Park art dealer Shmuel Pultman and Crown Heights businessman Dovy Andrusier, and it has two worthy namesakes: the biblical figure of Bezalel, who was the chief architect of the ancient ark of the Israelites, and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, in Jerusalem.
A press release announced the arrival of the gallery with a brazen headline: “Is Crown Heights becoming the Hassidic Soho?” It was attention-grabbing, but over here at Hyperallergic couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they really meant the next Lower East Side, Williamsburg or Bushwick. Then again, maybe we were getting ahead of ourselves. As Pultman explained to me in a phone conversation, Hassidic art is a relatively new phenomenon, still growing and finding its sea legs (and collector base). Works currently on view in the gallery’s solo exhibition of nonagenarian artist Itshak Holtz range from $3,000 to $175,000. So maybe comes Soho first, and Williamsburg later. After all, you wouldn’t have one without the other.
I asked Pultman a few questions about the gallery, what qualifies as Hassidic, or Jewish, art and how he feels about the internet.
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Jillian Steinhauer: Why did you decide to open Betzalel Gallery?
Shmuel Pultman: I had a gallery about 19 years ago, but I called that off — my lease had ended. But being in the business, I never really left it. So I figured let’s do it [reopen] now — never mind the economy, it’s still an opportunity. My client base I have, I wanted to expand on it, and even with old clients, it’s not the same not having a brick and mortar place.
JS: Are there other Hassidic art galleries?
SP: There are, but I believe that my gallery is more serious. It’s a real gallery — museum-quality lighting, the fixtures are hung like in a museum. I’ve had a gallery, and I know what it is to do things the right way. The other galleries … things are on the floor. It’s a different type of a gallery. I’m very serious about showcasing art in a fine art setting. That’s, I believe, the difference.
JS: What makes something a good piece of art, by Hassidic standards?
SP: Most of the artists that I deal with have followed school for eight, nine years in art, almost all of them. But the main criteria is: I look at the difference between the men and the boys, or the women and the girls, if you will. I look at the quality of the painting — the skill, the craft and the emotional content of the work. I can see right away if the man is trained, how good his training is, the quality of the painterly craft and the artistic merit. I guess that’s the same as any gallery owner.
JS: Is the art ever abstract?
SP: As of now — and it has a lot to do with my personal likes — I don’t intend to go abstract. I’m willing to go to expressionism, but I don’t see myself going abstract. There’s no criteria particularly for Hassidic art, but it is an argument what is the criteria for Jewish art. Is it the artist or the content? To me, it’s clearly the content. Rembrandt painted Jewish art like no one else. I don’t really care if the artist is Jewish or not; to me, the most important thing is is that the theme and content are Jewish. I don’t just sell Hassidic art — I sell Jewish art.
JS: What’s the difference between Hassidic art and Jewish art?
SP: It’s really the theme. Hassidic art usually is the theme of Hassidic people. There is some based on Kabbalistic or Hassidic teaching — that’s not really my cup of tea either. I’m much more figurative or places, like Jerusalem. Hassidic is really not a catch-all phrase; it’s a narrow part of Jewish painting. But I think it connotes orthodoxy — usually it’s used with that connotation.
JS: Are there different art communities in the different sects, like Satmar artists vs. Lubavitch artists?
SP: The Hassidic art market is so limited, there’s so few galleries. It’s like in the non-Jewish world: collectors make up a small minority of the population. It’s that much more so in Jewish or Hassidic art, because we don’t have that deep history of art. It’s a newer form, and they’re coming to it much later. I always say that Jewish art is utilitarian, because we’re always on the run. There’s very rarely two-dimensional art hanging on the wall.
JS: What’s the history of art in the Hassidic community?
SP: It’s very hard to pin a date on when it really started. I’d say the father of all this would be Isidor Kaufmann. His art was probably the first Hassidic art. He painted the shtetl life as it was. His paintings go with 19th-century masters, not always the Judaica auction, because he has a following. But it’s a new art form, and it took a while to adapt to the orthodox world, because they just were not used to collecting. Now that we have enough silver, you want to go to the ultimate thing, which is the least utilitarian of all: paintings on the wall. Why is art a different level? Because it’s not utilitarian, it’s strictly here for aesthetics.
JS: Tell me a bit about the artist you’re showing now, Itshak Holtz.
SP: His origin is Polish. I wouldn’t call him Hassidic, but he leans towards that — that’s his inspiration. He is really well-trained, and he’s 86 years old now. He does a lot of scenery as well, all on location, just like the Impressionists.
JS: Are there any women artists?
SP: Yes, definitely. Do I have any right now? No, but I’m probably going to have some soon. Now that I opened, I wish I had as many customers as I had artists walking into the place. It’s unfortunate, but the artists are searching and searching.
JS: This past weekend there was a rally at Citi Field Stadium to discuss Orthodox Jews’ use of the internet. Your gallery has a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Where do you stand on this question of the internet in the life of Orthodox Jews?
SP: I’m going to be very measured, I hope you understand. First of all, I don’t manage these accounts; we hired someone who’s doing a wonderful job. Second of all, it really has no bearing whatsoever on my business. The internet is an issue: whether it’s something that I feel is going to help or not, the internet is here to stay. Orthodox Jews, while we may be ascetics in a certain sense, we definitely embrace technology. We’re not like the Amish. This gathering was basically about having it in the house, not in business. Business they understand; there’s no way today you can have business without the internet. So it really has very little dealing on my end of it.
Itshak Holtz: A Personal Vision is on view at Betzalel Gallery (567 Empire Blvd, Crown Heights, Brooklyn) through June 10.