Arts Listings

Joel Isaacson’s ‘Walls’ at the GTU

By Peter Selz Special to the Planet
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:29:00 PM
Joel Isaacson’s “Orange Burqa,” 2007, oil on canvas.
Joel Isaacson’s “Orange Burqa,” 2007, oil on canvas.

Harold Rosenberg, the eminent art critic and friend of the Abstract Expressionists, defined their paintings as “arenas to act in.”  

This description certainly applies to Joel Isaacson’s paintings currently on view at the Graduate Theological Library. At first viewing these canvases look abstract and, indeed the painter welcomed accident, using his palette knife as well his brushes when he made these pictures.  

To be sure, Isaacson began his career as a painter, working in the Abstract Expressionist mode, when he studied with Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko at Brooklyn College in the late ’40s and early ’50s. After his service in the army he decided to change his vocation and to study the history of art, earning his doctorate here at UC Berkeley.  

He then taught the subject for over thirty years at the University of Michigan. Upon his retirement at Ann Arbor he returned to Berkeley and to his previous calling. His field in art history is Impressionism, and indeed some of the paintings on view, such as West Bank (2006) are done in an Impressionist palette and could almost be enlarged details of a Monet panting. Actually, it is a view of villages and the land of Palestine fractured by the walls erected by Israel’s neo-colonial regime. 

The exhibition is entitled “Walls” and addresses the barriers erected by Israel as well as the U.S. to keep out undesired Arabs or Mexicans, respectively. These barriers, to which the Israelis refer euphemistically as “Security Borders,” merely replaced suicide attacks with rocket strikes. One of the paintings on view, called Road Map—West Bank (2008) signifies these walls with straight red, yellow blue and green lines, which rigidly cut across Palestinian towns, villages, olive groves and their secondary roads, ensuring continued Israel control.  

The parallel enterprise of exclusion, the U.S. wall on its Mexican border is the subject of Isaacson’s painting of a map showing the barrier next to the Rio Grande. In the exhibition there is also a highly evocative and deeply troubling canvas, Ghosts of Guantanomo (2008). 

The lower floor of the exhibition displays another kind of wall, the burqa which Afghan women are made to wear to separate their persona from the world outside. Typical is a beautifully painted canvas, Orange Burqa, showing the grid of heavy fabric, resembling a helmet, which makes sure that the woman cannot be seen and may barely look at her surroundings through the small threaded opening.  

In his artist statement Isaacson writes that “the burqa through which Afghan women look out at the world became a sign of everything that was wrong with the Afghan misadventure.” For Isaacson it is a symbol of the suffering of the Afghan people and the cynical claim of the Bush administration of having “liberated” the Afghan people, as well as a continuing manifestation of a restrictive Islam culture. 

The visitor to this exhibition will be well served by examining the fine works on paper in the display cases. The include sketches and studies for the paintings as well as extremely fine renderings of tree trunks and two commanding imaginary portraits of Walter Benjamin. 



Joel Isaacson 

Through Jan. 30 

Graduate Theological Library 

2400 Ridge Road