Writer, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art
A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, the 1982 album by Siouxsie and the Banshees, is the cornerstone of my “career in the arts.” My friend Gregory and I were shopping at Arboria Records in State College. Already an obsessive Siouxsie devotee, I was struck by the album’s cover, which featured mirror images of the punk princess — skin alabaster, hair jet-black, eyes fortified by moorish-gothic-Byzantine architecture of mascara and eyeliner—amidst a layered, whirling mosaic of gilded, jewel-toned geometric patterns and sleeping Banshees. Gregory, an art-history major, informed me that the design was inspired by the Vienna Secessionist Gustav Klimt, and that he had a catalogue of Klimt’s works in his dorm room.
A Kiss in the Dreamhouse and the creations of Klimt and his fellow Secessionists possessed my ears, eyes, and mind for weeks, perhaps months. My meandering interests eventually spread from the Secessionists to the contemporaneous English and American Arts and Crafts movements. This is where things got serious. After graduating from Penn State and embarking on a volatile (failed, ultimately) career in fashion (if you can call Urban Outfitters “fashion”), I went to grad school so that I could devote myself full-time to looking at pictures of rectilinear furniture, mossy green pottery, and ethereal images of people (Pictorialist photography) and trees (Tonalist painting).
Now I’m a writer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a volunteer curator for the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art. How’d that happen? Proto-modern movements like Art and Crafts led me to early-modern art and, best of all, Dada, the elegant subversiveness of which spoke to the punk aesthete within me. Where better to work, then, than the PMA, with its unparalleled collection of Duchamps and their hermetic constructions and cryptic/poetic titles?
And what does Judaism have to do with Siouxsie, Stickley, and Duchamp? I’m “progressive” in a kind of nineteenth-century way: “promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods*.” Nineteenth-century progressive values were made material in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and found theological expression in liberal religions like Unitarianism, Ethical Culture, and Reform Judaism. I became as obsessed with the latter as I had earlier with punk rock and mission furniture. The first time I walked into Rodeph Shalom, the mammoth Moorish-gothic-Byzantine Reform temple on North Broad Street, I not only found a spiritual home, but a curatorial reason for being: I was greeted by an exhibition in RS’s Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art of Technicolor photographs depicting scenes from the Holocaust rendered with toy soldiers and the kinds of to-scale trees, houses, etc., familiar to model-train hobbyists. This was “Jewish art” such as I had never anticipated: unflinching, iconoclastic, and challenging. I sought out the PMJA’s director/curator Joan Sall, who took me under her wing. The rest is…well, it’s been a mixed bag of shows presenting everything from “Shalom Slalom” ski caps (Cary Leibowitz) to vases inspired by “brutalist”–style synagogues (Jonathan Adler) to tiny boats that craftily convey the meanings of Yiddish words (Shelley Spector).
For all of this, I’m grateful. Kiss them for me, Siouxsie.
In memory of Gregory Nelson 1964-2012
* The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin