The latest exhibit at the American Jewish Museum of Pittsburgh is a chronicle on canvas of the trials of Jews in the 19th- and 20th- century America compiled by a single art collector.
The new Anna L. and Irene V. Caplan exhibit, titled Eye of the Collector: Images of the New World from the Sigmund R. Balka Collection, opened Monday and will run through March 28 in the Fine Perlow Weis Gallery.
Balka is a Queens-based attorney who has been collecting art since he graduated from Harvard Law School more than 50 years ago. In 2006, Balka gifted more than 200 pieces of Jewish interest from his personal collection to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, representing Jewish art in the 19th- and 20th- centuries. In turn, HUC-JIR lends parts of the collection to various venues each year.
Melissa Hiller, director of the AJM, located in the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, carefully selected the pieces from the collection permanently housed at HUC-JIR.
For the most part, the artwork Hiller chose reflects a narrative depicting the immigrant experience, particularly in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
“A lot of the pieces have to do with labor, the pride of working and the weariness and isolation that goes along with unemployment,” Hiller said.
Many of these images represent Jewish life on the lower east side of New York during the depression.
While some pieces were made by non-Jewish artists, they all represent topics or motifs that are Jewish-themed.
HUC-JIR also sent a few key pieces from its own permanent collection, bringing to 32 the total number of works in the exhibit, though the vast majority are from Balka’s collection.
Balka is “laser-focused” as a collector, Hiller said. “He has an affinity for representational art and as a result of that, there’s a lot of work that represents social realism, post-impressionism and early pop art.
“There’s a lot of street scenes, where there’s images of commerce happening and a lot of real chaotic hustle and bustle,” she continued. “The interaction of humanity is really important in his collection; there are few images where there are solitary figures.”
Among the artists whose works are in the exhibit are Philip Held, Nikoali Cikovsky, Norman Goldberg, Bill Jacklin, William Gropper, Saul Rabino, Selma Bluestein and Ira Moskowitz.
Speaking from his home in Forest Hills, Queens, Balka said his mother, who appreciated art’s importance in social action and in Jewish heritage, sparked his own interest in collecting it.
“With that background, my interest in art developed,” he said. “It was a beautiful prelude to understanding the importance of art in life as a way to appreciate the potential of art to acknowledge the meaning of existence.”
Elaborating upon the lessons taught by his mother, Balka said he believes in “fighting evil by means of teaching, through art, the importance of tikkun olam and tzedaka — principles that have guided my life, personally and professionally.”
The bulk of Balka’s collection are “works on paper,” including prints, drawings, etchings, lithograph, graphite on paper and even some photography.
While the exhibit displays art of a Jewish interest, both Balka and Hiller say that the exhibit contains universal themes and can be enjoyed by everyone. Much of the exhibit reflects the theme of immigration, Hiller added, which is “as relevant now is as it was during the time the artwork was made.”
Originally from Philadelphia, Balka has family in Pittsburgh. He began his law career as an attorney with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He has been vice president and general counsel with Krasdale Foods Company for the past 34 years.
But Balka has contributed more to Krasdale Foods than just his legal skills: in 1986, he established the Krasdale Galleries, which feature eight exhibits per year. As chief operating officer of the galleries, he’s curated 120 shows at their two locations, White Plains and the Bronx.
“I’ve done all kinds of exhibits, some of which are distinctly Jewish-oriented,” he said. From time to time he does show works from his own collection, but the space is available for artists of any background.
Balka maintains about 10 personal art collections and has donated works to other institutions, including Williams College.
He donates his artwork so it may be “seen and understood by people who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity.
“What I want them to do is not to look at the work quickly,” he added, “but study the work individually and to see how those works suggest a pattern of life for them.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)