Isaac Mizrahi, Blackbird, 1991.
Photo: Aimee Rubensteen.
An Unruly History
At the Jewish Museum
By Aimee Rubensteen
A six-pointed brass star on a brown suede belt. That's it. Just one Star of David accessory anchors a major exhibition of Isaac Mizrahi’s career at the Jewish Museum. The current show, titled Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, on view through August 7th, heavily publicizes this one look. Mizrahi’s choice to utilize the Jewish symbol in a runway look in 1991 was novel and inventive. Complete with an ostrich-feather hood, stretch wool jersey bodysuit, and stretch wool jersey pants, the look, Blackbird (Fall 1991), still readily warrants a second glance. However, is one Jewish reference enough to solidify the American fashion designer as a Jewish artist in a Jewish institution? Can Jewishness be subtler than spelled-out bling?
Defining Jewish Art is an age-old conversation that continues to generate endless dialogue today. Jewish content reigns supreme in certain curatorial circles. However, Jewish identity seems to be the minimum and, frequently, the maximum, requirement for representation at the Jewish Museum. Case in point: Isaac Mizrahi’s exhibition with just one overt visual reference to his Jewish identity in An Unruly History. To be sure, the exhibition mentions Mizrahi’s attendance and upbringing in the Jewish orthodox day school system at the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Still, Mizrahi is highlighted as an American fashion designer. (The curators choose to italicize American for emphasis in the exhibition wall texts).
Left: Photo by Will Ragozzino/SocialShutterbug.com.
Right: Isaac Mizrahi. Photograph © Jason Frank Rothenberg for Fabricut.
In this way, the exhibition surveys Mizrahi as a major player in American fashion design, and celebrates him as a synthesizer. Mizrahi, born in 1961, continually questions fashion’s status quo. From swatches and sketches to eveningwear and costume designs, the exhibition provides a peek into Mizrahi as the fashion designer, artist and entrepreneur.
Through over 250 works, including clothing, photographs, and an immersive video installation, Mizrahi’s ability to juxtapose high and low culture is consistently apparent. In fact, mixing a $25 sweater with $2,500 trousers is a Mizrahi trademark. Mizrahi’s High and Low (2004), pairs a Target sweater with hand-beaded lace pants re-embroidered in cashmere. Another “cultural mash-up” is crystallized in Baby Bjorn Ball Gown (1998): the ruby-red duchess satin strapless ball gown and matching baby carrier is both practical and ironic. (If I could afford it, I would buy the look for every mom I know.) These two looks are strong not only because they are practically wearable, but also, because they dismantle expectations – two characteristically American traits.
Photo: Aimee Rubensteen.
That the exhibition doubles as a shopping boutique is the most entrepreneurial (and American) bit of the show. Mizrahi created three new made-to-order coats for the exhibition. Suspended by a wire and rotating ever so slowly, each coat is displayed as a work of art for sale. All three coats are the same shape, but differ in their prints and fabrics. Daisy (2016) presents a hand-embroidered sequin print of its namesake, while Dropcloth (2016) mixes painter’s canvas backed with wool felt, and Bubble (2016) layers hot pink silk, chiffon, tulle and gazar. No need to exit through the gift shop here. An Unruly History utilizes the galleries for its own capital. Combining evening and sportswear, formal and casual, couture and mass market, Mizrahi’s greatest invention is found in his careful balancing act of following the rules and continually breaking them.
Before leaving the galleries, and turning away from the statement pieces (a handbag worn as a hat!), I notice the way the museum’s walls are dressed for the show. White, sheer scrims line the walls of multiple rooms. During a private viewing of the exhibition, the tour guide mentions that Mizrahi utilizes the same type of scrims in his runway shows. A mesh scrim placed at the entrance to the runway provided an element of allure and excitement before the outfit (and model) was in full view, to be seen completely with a bang. Similarly, in the galleries, the scrims function as a blank canvas for the looks on view to take center stage; but also, the scrims are sheer enough to provide a peephole for the larger context of the first exhibition of Mizrahi’s work to be hosted in the Jewish Museum’s walls. Even at its seams, An Unruly History harnesses Mizrahi’s personality and knack for juxtaposition.
Installation views of Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History at the Jewish Museum, New York City.
Photos: Aimee Rubensteen.
With all its entrepreneurial flair, the Museum misses its opportunity to educate viewers more about Jewish heritage, and Mizrahi’s Jewishness. Instead, viewers are left to make their own conclusions about the role of the Star of David in the Blackbird outfit. What are the implications of using a cheap Jewish star belt and pairing it with luxurious ostrich feathers? Mizrahi’s Blackbird is an embodiment of a complex cultural identity functioning in style equilibrium. This would hardly matter if the exhibition was displayed in another museum or another gallery. A Jewish star may be as emblematic as it is elusive as a fashion accessory, but in a Jewish Museum, it is a statement piece that deserves to be explored with full force.
Isaac Mizrahi, Blackbird, 1991. Photo © Conde Nast.
Aimee Rubensteen is an independent curator and art critic living in Brooklyn. Focusing on contemporary artists that utilize unconventional materials, Aimee’s exhibitions use art as a platform to encourage viewers to act as participants rather than just observers. Aimee works at Sotheby's as the Administrator for three specialist departments: Ancient Sculpture & Works of Art, African & Oceanic Art, and Pre-Columbian Art.
The exhibition Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City from 18 March - 7 August 2016.