Jules Kirschenbaum devoted his career to creating images that examine the human condition. Although he worked in an era that celebrated abstraction, Kirschenbaum chose to continue in the Western tradition of representation, drawing inspiration for his subject matter from philosophy, literature, art history, and religion. Kirschenbaum, an excellent draftsman and colorist, executed beautiful compositions with the precision and splendor of the Old Masters, but he did not make his mark as a painter of pretty pictures. Kirschenbaum offset his beautiful scenes with incongruous subjects, creating disconcerting contradictions that he hoped would provoke an emotional and even spiritual response.
Kirschenbaum was born and raised in New York City. His father, a dealer in books, manuscripts, and prints, instilled a lifelong love of fine arts, literature, and music in the young boy. His father regularly took him to museums, and Kirschenbaum continued this tradition in his adolescence, spending hours alone in a gallery consumed by a single painting. Kirschenbaum enrolled in the High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) in 1944 and then continued his studies in 1948 at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he trained under Xavier Gonzalez (1898–1993), Arthur Osver (1912–2006), and Charles Seide (1915–1980). Kirschenbaum was particularly close with Gonzalez and spent several summers as Gonzalez’s assistant during the professor’s summer art program in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod. By 1951, Kirschenbaum had stopped attending classes regularly. The Brooklyn Museum did not offer a degree to its students, so Kirschenbaum essentially navigated through life with only a high school diploma. But in spite of his lack of formal education, Kirschenbaum enthusiastically read and studied, developing a wide-ranging knowledge of literature, philosophy, and art history that would inspire and inform his art throughout his career.
In 1951, Kirschenbaum toured Europe with his friend from the Brooklyn Museum Art School, Charles Tauss (1927–2000). Both artists had a passion for fifteenth-century Italian and Netherlandish painting. Later in his career, Kirschenbaum, speaking about Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian, recalled, “When I was a kid I never wanted to be president. I thought I would much prefer to draw a foot as well as Andrea Mantegna." The two friends traveled to Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland to see the work of their heroes. This pilgrimage had a major influence on Kirschenbaum. Upon his return, he adapted a Renaissance vocabulary and abandoned his early interest in surrealism. His paintings changed technically as he put a greater emphasis on line and form in his compositions in the Vasarian tradition of disegno, and experimented with tempera in place of oils, hoping to mimic the clear, polished effect that Early Renaissance painters achieved by employing this medium. Kirschenbaum also began constructing contemporary scenes using famous Old Master idioms. He organized his 1954 painting The Playground according to Alberti’s rules for istoria: nine figures in diverse poses fill an urban playground with one figure in back, who looks towards the viewer, acting as an interlocutor. In Cain and Abel (1955), Kirschenbaum made an overt reference to Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian, arranging his jeans-clad Cain and Abel, who appear as modern-day fisherman, in the same poses as St. Sebastian and his onlookers.
Kirschenbaum achieved success early in his career, receiving his first solo show at the Salpeter Gallery in New York City in 1955 and winning The National Academy of Design’s coveted Hallgarten Prize that same year. In 1956, Kirschenbaum and fellow artist Cornelis Ruhtenburg (1923–2008) married. Kirschenbaum and his new wife left New York to study at the Institute of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy on a Fulbright scholarship and remained abroad for two years. On their return, they settled in Meshoppen, Pennsylvania, where Kirschenbaum’s artistic career continued to advance. The Salpeter Gallery held another well-received exhibition of his work in 1959, and in 1961, the National Academy of Design honored him with its highest award, the Benjamin Altman First Prize for Figure Painting. He was elected Associate of the Academy the following year. But in spite of his growing success, Kirschenbaum became increasingly frustrated as figurative painter in a contemporary art scene that favored abstraction and, later, pop art.
The Kirschenbaums relocated to Iowa in 1963 when the Director of the Des Moines Art Center offered Kirschenbaum the position of artist-in-residence. Contrary to his earlier disparaging comments, he began experimenting, arguably unsuccessfully, with abstraction during the 1960s. He abandoned his complex, Renaissance-inspired compositions and focused on interior scenes and still lifes with swathes of color and with a single in the background value that eliminated the illusion of three-dimensional space.
After becoming increasingly disillusioned with his position at the Des Moines Art Center, Kirschenbaum and his wife planned to return to Pennsylvania, but in 1967, he was offered a position as principal painting instructor at Drake University in Des Moines. Kirschenbaum would go on to teach at this institution for the rest of his life. His curriculum recreated his own interdisciplinary and dynamic education. He committed himself to teaching his students about art history, literature, philosophy, and music in addition to painting technique. A celebrated professor, he received a Levitt distinguished professorship from Drake University in 1984 and the President’s Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching in 1989.
In the 1970s, Kirschenbaum gradually returned to realism. After his father died in 1970, he worked on a series entitled Meditations on Death, in which he explored the concept of mortality. As he had earlier, Kirschenbaum allowed other art forms and practices to inspire his subject matter. He became particularly fascinated by the Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that seeks to define the nature of the eternal universe in relation to the finite individual. For the next fifteen years, Kirschenbaum included text and images referring to the Kabbalah in his work. He hoped that his Kabballistic paintings would inspire the same sense of awe in his viewers that the Kabbalah had excited in him.
In 1978, Kirschenbaum taught a group of graduated students to paint with egg tempera and, in doing so, renewed his own interest in the medium. Kirschenbaum believed, in the tradition of early Flemish painters, that the visible world is a manifestation of a greater force, and by carefully studying objects, he and his viewers could aspire to experience these supernatural wonders. Paintings from the latter part of his career feature solidly defined objects and a convincing sense of space. In this mode, he carried on his investigation of mortality and death. He continued to pull imagery from the Kabbalah, but also became interested in the concept of final judgment after reading Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe, the title of which refers to the burning of heretics during the Inquisition. He later created vanitas images in the tradition of seventeenth-century Netherlandish painting, in which he skillfully rendered a dense accumulation of objects, skulls, and bones. Finally, Kirschenbaum began including anatomical models in his works. Dividing these bodies into parts, Kirschenbaum explored the qualities that make a body human. All of this themes appear in Kirschenbaum’s final four, and perhaps most powerful, works: The Manikin Dreams; Yamantaka, Me, Oblivion; Earthbound Scholar, and Skulls II. These works serve as more than just the end to this chapter of Kirschenbaum’s career; they symbolize the culmination of a life devoted to intense investigation into artistic practice and into human nature.
Kirschenbaum died of cancer in 2000. His legacy lives on today in public and private collections nationally and internationally. The Des Moines Art Center has held two solo exhibitions devoted to the artist: Jules Kirschenbaum: Painting Survey, 1950–1983 (1984) and Jules Kirschenbaum: The Last Paintings, 1992–1999 (2001), which focused on his later work. In 2006, The University of Iowa Museum staged the retrospective, Jules Kirschenbaum: The Need to Dream of Some Transcendent Meaning. Kirschenbaum’s paintings are included in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; The National Academy of Design, New York; the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska; and The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.