The brushstrokes on the wall: Jewish muralists of Los Angeles
On the walls of Los Angeles, the mural capital of the world, where are the Jewish brushstrokes?
Two concurrent exhibitions are currently highlighting the work of Edward Biberman and his 1941 Venice post office mural — at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice. The two shows remind us that some Jewish artists changed the way we look at our area’s built landscape.
Edward Biberman, self-portrait (Courtesy of Gallery “Z”)
For decades now, a quasi-survey of L.A. Jewish history has appeared on a wall adjacent to the Canter’s parking lot on Fairfax Avenue. But a couple of generations before the paint dried on that work in 1985, Jewish artists, like prophets with paintbrushes, were pursuing justice on the walls of Los Angeles by creating murals, some of which have by now been covered up, or long ago put in storage, or even allowed to fall almost into ruin.
Among the most prominent among these artists is Hugo Ballin (1879-1956), a native of New York City, who created scenic backgrounds for silent movies, and also produced around 100 of the films. Ballin also painted murals. Notable among them is his epic 320-foot 1929 mural circling the interior of the dome of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which he called “History of the Jews.” He also painted the murals inside the Griffith Observatory, illustrating, aptly, the history of astronomy in 1934, and he explored Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” — freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear — in his mural in the Burbank City Council chambers, which was dedicated in 1943. In the section on freedom of religion, Moses with the Ten Commandments dominates, while below him a Protestant clergyman preaches, a man dressed in white blows the shofar and another holds a sefer Torah.
The “Four Freedoms” Hugo Ballin, Burbank City Council Chambers.
However, the “Freedom From Hunger” section, which illustrates how America relieved its hunger pangs, produced some bellyaching of another sort. Depicted in this scene of plenty is a donkey, located right behind the mayor’s seat at the council table, that is being loaded up. According to an article written by William M. Kramer in the journal Western States Jewish History, “if you looked from the correct angle, it looked as if the donkey’s ears were coming out of the mayor’s head.” As a result, in 1962, the lower part of the mural was covered by a drape, and in 1964 a remodel of the council chamber concealed the upper part.
Then, in 1989, Kramer, who was the rabbi at Temple Beth Emet in Burbank, came to the mural’s rescue. During a City Council invocation, Kramer reported, he explained the mural’s historical significance, influencing the council to open the curtain. To circumvent the problem, he noted, the mayor’s seat was “slightly shifted.” Then, during a second remodeling in 2001, the ceiling was raised, exposing the entire work, and the entire mural was cleaned.
At the City of Hope in Duarte, another significant mural by Jewish artists also came close to disappearing.
The T-shaped mural is located above an arched doorway and was created in 1935-1936 for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by two artists who grew up in Los Angeles: Philip Goldstein (1913-1980), who attended Manual Arts High School, and Reuben Kadish (1913-1992), who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home and studied at the Otis Art Institute.
Detail from mural at City of Hope by Phillip Goldstein and Reuben Kadish. (Edmon J. Rodman)
Using nude and draped characters, the two young artists created a dramatic commentary on life, from birth to death, with the arts forming a bridge over the doorway.
Both artists would go on to become established New York artists — Goldstein would later change his last name to Guston and become a leading member of New York’s Abstract Expressionist school, and Kadish, after a stint of dairy farming, also became a New York painter and sculptor of some note — yet their mural was largely forgotten.
By the 1960s, the mural was falling into disrepair when Robert J. Reid, a hospital official, brought its sad condition to the attention of Ernest Lieblich (1914-2009). Born in Germany, and trained as a cantor, Lieblich was president of FoodCraft, a pioneer in delivering beverages and snacks to offices. After seeing the mural’s condition, Lieblich, an avid benefactor and supporter of both the hospital and the arts, agreed to finance the restoration of the mural as well as the building, which today serves as the hospital’s visitor center.
Edward Biberman (1904-1986), who painted “Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice” for the Venice post office, was the son of a well-off Philadelphia Jewish family of Russian immigrants who owned a women’s dress store. After getting both an economics and arts education and living in Paris for three years, Biberman met the Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco while living in New York. He would go on to spend a summer with the Navajo in Monument Valley and fall in love with the West, leading him to move to Los Angeles, in 1936.
Suzanne W. Zada, who was a friend of the artist and is the representative of the Biberman estate, observed that “given [Biberman’s] background, he had incredibly revolutionary ideas.”
This can be seen in a work that made him a runner-up for a Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts competition for a mural at the St. Louis post office — his design depicted the role of the black solider in the Civil War (sketches for which are on view at SPARC). He then was awarded three L.A. murals, two for a downtown U.S. federal building and post office, (one remains on display at the U.S. Courthouse, Western Division; the other is in storage) and the Venice post office job.
At LACMA, Biberman’s approximately 6-foot-by-16-foot mural-on-canvas greets the museumgoer with a resolute-looking likeness of Abbot Kinney, the man who developed Venice, shown standing before his vision of canals, gondolas and bungalow houses.
On one side of the image are Venice boardwalk amusements, including a rollercoaster and, surprising for a still very racially divided city in 1941, a black couple chatting with a white woman.
“Nothing there is by accident,” Zada said.
On the other side, darkening Kinney’s vision, is an oil slick and derrick.
In a letter to Biberman that is included in the LACMA exhibition, Venice Postmaster Leo H. Strickland made clear he wanted the derrick out of the picture.
“There has been nothing but dissension and court action to have those derricks removed,” he wrote.
“These old derricks are as integral a part of present day Venice as are the skyscrapers a part of present day New York,” Biberman wrote in a letter to an official in the Public Building Administration. “These postmaster-turned-art-critics are really getting me down,” he added.
The mural hung in the Windward Circle post office until the building closed in 2012; it was sold to Hollywood producer Joel Silver, who plans to use it as new offices of his production company. Silver, according to the Los Angeles Times, also leased the mural, had it restored at his own expense, and plans to reinstall it sometime after work on the building is complete, in 2015.
Biberman also painted portraits, including of the noted African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, as well as of Dashiell Hammett and Lena Horne, which were purchased by the Smithsonian for the National Portrait Gallery. In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Biberman also painted a searing-eyed painting of the civil rights leader.
From 1938 to 1950, Biberman taught at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. However, as a consequence of his brother Herbert Biberman, a Hollywood screenwriter and director, being accused of contempt of Congress and of being a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Los Angeles — Herbert Biberman was blacklisted and became one of the Hollywood Ten — Edward Biberman was accused of being a communist, too.
Anticipating being fired, he stepped down from his teaching post, though he later became a lecturer at UCLA Extension as well as at Loyola Marymount University.
“He was what I call gray-listed,” said Ilene Susan Fort, curator of the LACMA show, who obtained Biberman’s FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act, through which she discovered that, even until the late 1950s and early ’60s, the FBI was sending “encyclopedia salesmen” to his home to snoop around. “I was appalled,” she said.
Zada recalled that Biberman was “dedicated” to the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and donated to the agency several of his prints to auction.
Did Biberman’s ethnic background influence his work?
“Yes, I think so,” said Fort, who along with Zada, said Biberman was not religious.
“He was very much a humanitarian,” Fort said.
“His figurative work is all dedicated to social justice,” Zada said.
Have an idea for an L.A. Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.