Historical Journal

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Michael Berkowitz: The Ancestors

May 6, 1983
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

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"I am very ambitious in my work, both in terms of its physical presence and conceptual complexity."

May 6 through June 26, 1983
For the past five years Michael Berkowitz, a Philadelphia-trained and New York based sculptor and performance artist, has explored the relationship of art and religion. Reminiscent of the stylized medievalism of the sets of Eric Rohmer’s film Percival, Berkowitz’s striking tableaux are based on both secular and sacerdotal visual sources. His sumptuous costumes resemble Japanese armor or Tarot cards as much as they do cassocks, copes, and chasubles.
Berkowitz’s performances have always included a shamanic stand-in for the artist. In The Ancestors, his Morris Gallery installation, a mysterious and majestic alter ego will inhabit the site from time to time and dispense mementos to gallery visitors. The artist never reveals the specific ceremonial context for his reverentially well made costumes and constructions. Like museum displayed masks and ritual vessels, Berkowitz’s props convey an aura of past purpose while succeeding as sculpture in the setting of the gallery.
Judith Stein
Morris Gallery Coordinator
Artist Statement
At times in our lives, we find ourselves in situations where everything– time, place, weather, atmosphere, sounds, smells–seem to conspire together to awaken us, sharpen our senses. By chance, though it may almost seem by design, all elements of our experience seem to work in harmony to make us focus in intensely on the object of this particular experience, whether it be a visit to a special place, a viewing of a work of art, or a meeting with another person.
There are those, like practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony, who consciously manipulate every element of a room and a ritual to produce a time of perfect harmony without the slightest distractions. This is more or less what I would like to achieve in my work. Beyond simply a sculpture or performance, I seek to enclose that sculpture or performance within a whole context, wherein the floor, walls, ceiling, sound, all objects are governed by a tightly disciplined aesthetic. All aspects of one’s experience of the work should be taken into account. Then, the viewer enters, as the life’s breath, the catalyst to set the whole thing in motion.
I am very ambitious in my work, both in terms of its physical presence and conceptual complexity. I want to take the viewer’s breath away.
The Ancestors is, I hope, many things at once. An object of beauty, a meditative architectural space, a meditation on the nature of art, religion, belief and the power of ritual at a time and place where religion is no more but belief is still needed. It embodies aspects of manipulation and control, as well as paying homage to the past artistically, spiritually, and personally. It evokes many past rituals involving spirits and the dead while remaining modern at the same time.
The sources of my work are eclectic: Tibetan tantric and medieval European art, Japanese porcelain designs, punk fashion, etc. Many of the specific associations, so important to the creation of the work, may elude the viewer. But one needn’t pinpoint each association, but simply sense that the sources of inspiration come from many times and places in history and add up to a statement about here and now to be seen in the context of contemporary art.

Michael Berkowitz
April, 1983
Michael Berkowitz was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952. He attended the Philadelphia College of Art from 1970 to 1973, where he studied with Ree Morton, Cynthia Carlson and Raphael Ferrer. An avid traveler, he has journeyed extensively through Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Central America, and North Africa. During 1974-75, he lived in Chicago. From 1980 to 1981 the artist was Adjunct Professor of Art, State University of New York, Old Westbury Campus. In 1982 Berkowitz was awarded a Sculptor’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was granted a Residency as a MacDowell Colony Fellow.

Solo Exhibitions and Performances
Ox-Bow Summer School of Art, Saugatuck, Michigan, Yankee Rope Dancer Extraordinaire, 1974; N.A.M.E. Gallery, Chicago, Pavilion, An Installation/Performance, 1975; Mercer Street, New York, Mercer Street Shrines #1 and #2, Installation/Performance, 1978; Franklin Furnace, New York, The Vendor of Talismans, 1978; Robert Freidus Gallery, New York, Shrine, Installation/Performance, 1979; Campus Center, SUNY at Old Westbury, New York, Vendor of Talismans #2, 1979; Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, The Revelation, Performance, 1981; Robert Freidus Gallery, New York, Djemma-al-Fna, Installation, 1981; Chicago International Art Exposition, Navy Pier, Chicago, Temple of Ancestors, Installation/Performance, 1982; Robert Freidus Gallery, New York, Ancestor Shrine, Installation/Performance, 1983; Chicago International Art Exposition, Navy Pier, Chicago, Untitled Installation and Performance, 1983.

Group Exhibitions
Amelia A. Wallace Gallery, SUNY at Old Westbury, Fabric into Art, 1981; Pratt Institute, Manhattan Center, New York, Religion into Art, 1981; Eric Makler Gallery, Philadelphia, The Dog Show, 1981; First Women’s Bank, New York, The First Men’s Show, 1982; Columbia Museums of Art and Science, Columbia, South Carolina, Fabric and Wood, 1982; Museum of Modern Art Lending Service, Clothes, at Freeport McMoRan Inc., 1983.

By the Artist:
“Mercer Street Shrine,” High Performance Magazine, December 1978, vol. 1, #4.
“Vendor of Talismans,” High Performance Magazine, March 1979, vol. 2, #1.
“Shrine,” High Performance Magazine, Winter 1979-80, vol. 2, #4.
About the Artist:
C.L. Morrison, “Abiera, Berkowitz and Burden: Performance in Chicago,” Midwest Art, May 1975.
David Shirey, “Originality in Fabric,” The New York Times, April 15, 1980.
John Perrault, “God on Our Slides,” Soho Weekly News, March 25, 1981.
Judith Stein, “Michael Berkowitz at Robert Freidus,” Art in America, January 1982, p. 145.
“The Artists’ New Clothes,” Portfolio, January/February 1983, pp. 62-67.
The Morris Gallery displays the work of outstanding contemporary artists with a connection to Philadelphia, determined by birth, schooling or residence. A committee composed of area artists, museum personnel and collectors, and the curatorial staff of the Academy chooses the exhibitions. Currently serving on the Morris Gallery Exhibition Committee are: Murray Dessner, Anne d’Harnoncourt, Jennie 0. Dietrich, Harold Jacobs, Janet Kardon, Charles Mather 111, Dr. Perry Ottenberg, David Pease, Jody Pinto, Acey Wolgin; and Academy staff Frank Goodyear, Kathy Foster, Linda Bantel, Judith Stein.
Copyright Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1983
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