“Do not separate yourself from the community,” the great sage Hillel warned.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of pre-state Israel, explained why: individuals are dynamic. The search for meaning changes people. But a community, built on collective principles and made up of many voices, promotes constancy.
That tension between the need to explore and the need for stability infuses the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display in “Body of Work,” a retrospective of the art of Philip Mendlow showing through Dec. 18 at the Berger Gallery of the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
The dozens of pieces in the exhibit reveal an artist devoted to self-discovery, but Mendlow’s life is also a story of devotion to others, particularly the local arts community.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, Mendlow studied art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology before being stationed in Paris during the Korean War. After his discharge, he stayed in Europe, attending the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill and traveling across the continent.
In 1958, he returned to Pittsburgh to start a career as an artist and a teacher.
He became academic dean of the Ivy School of Professional Art and, after that institution closed in 1980, went on to teach hundreds of students, including noted artists Corliss Cavalieri and Keith Haring, at La Roche College, Carlow University, the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh and the Creative and Performing Arts High School.
Local banks and public institutions commissioned major works from Mendlow. He held leadership positions in numerous local art societies. He even brought art to area prisons.
“For many years, he was one of the most competent and prolific artists and teachers in the Pittsburgh area,” said Thaddeus Mosley, a local sculptor and friend of Mendlow.
But by the time Mendlow died in November 2007, his renown in Pittsburgh was limited to those he touched personally; the daily newspapers didn’t even publish his obituary.
Eric Mendlow, Philip Mendlow’s nephew, aimed to correct that, proposing the idea of a Mendlow retrospective to numerous museums and galleries around Pittsburgh without success. Eventually, he found Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum.
“What resonated for me was that Eric had gone to a few other museums in Pittsburgh whose missions are really distinct and clear and for whom there was just not room for a show like this,” Hiller said. “Part of my mission is to support underrepresented artists.”
Together, Hiller and Mendlow combed through the five decades of Philip Mendlow’s prolific output looking for pieces that represented the major trends of his career: the early painted abstracts, landscapes and nudes, the switch to sculpture that defined his later years, and, of course, his numerous self-portraits and busts.
These self-portraits anchor the exhibit, showing how Mendlow translated his search for self-meaning into different styles — from abstract to representational — and different media — from paint on canvas, to charcoal on paper, to carved wood, iron and stone.
Those who knew Mendlow use a rich and contradictory list of adjectives to describe him: sly, quiet, mischievous, challenging, intense, reticent, prolific, incisive and introspective.
These various sides of his personality all come out in his work. “Self-Portrait at Mirror” (1960) is mischievous: what appears up close to be meaningless color and form is revealed to be a pair of glasses — his own — when seen from afar. “Stroke” (1998) is intense: a small bust screams in anguish as a metal bolt protrudes from just under its left temple, representing the actual stroke and epilepsy Mendlow suffered during his life.
Although Mendlow rarely delved into explicitly Jewish themes, the exhibit includes his most representative examples. In one segment of the exhibit, a cluster of painted self-portraits from the 1960s sits next to a carved face from 1995 called “David,” which sits next to a pair of sculptures carved in the mid-1990s of the faces of Chasidic men.
Those rare Jewish pieces emerge less from a cultural heritage than from Mendlow’s general fascination with mythology and totems: the ancient stories and symbols that are said to explain the world. Mendlow looked for himself both in the distant past of King David and the near past of his eastern European ancestry.
“It’s still that psychological searching for the self,” Eric Mendlow said. “Who are we? What is our place in the world?”
Even though he had the renown and talent to make it in a larger market, Mendlow never left Pittsburgh. He lived and worked in Squirrel Hill, just a few blocks from his grandparents’ home on Marlborough Street. At the end of long days, he and other artists congregated at the Squirrel Hill Café to eat, drink and discuss art into the night.
What made him stay here?
“That’s sort of what is puzzling about him,” Hiller said. She believes Mendlow loved the vibrancy of the local art scene in the 1960s, and the ease of life in this particular city.
“Pittsburgh just has that kind of pull on people,” she said.
Mosley believes Mendlow never fancied moving to New York, where the competitive art world meant giving up teaching and community positions.
“Phil was a quiet sort of reticent person,” Mosley said. “I never felt that he had aspirations in that light at all.”
But Eric Mendlow believes his uncle struggled with whether to stay or go.
“That was something that haunted him,” he said.
Philip Mendlow highlighted that search for himself and his place in the title of a sculpted abstract from 1978: “Atlas,” the name of both the Greek god that held up the world and for a book of maps: a symbol of stability and a symbol of exploration rolled into one.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)