By DAVID JAGER November 13, 2023
Judaism has always had an uneasy relationship with sculpture, where the proscription against idolatry placed restrictions on the creation of three-dimensional objects. Nevertheless, New York City has been home to some of the most notable Jewish sculptors in recent history, many who came to prominence doing decorative work for synagogues, commissioned civic works, studies of Jewish figures and Jewish life, and sculptures on universal human themes.
The sculpture of Ella Kogan falls into this particular and often obscured historical vein, whose work will be showing in Victor Gallery at its 59th street location on the upper east side this November. Kogan has spent the last thirty years as a sculptor in the New York metropolitan area, inspired by what she considers a form of visitation: “It is impossible to know where my inspiration to sculpt comes from” she says “or how these faces appear to me. You might say they come from God”
However, Kogan does not identify as a Jewish artist first and foremost. “My origins are Russian and Jewish, but my allegiance is to humanity as a whole” she says emphatically. “My art is not about one person or one group of people, it is about the whole world that is beautiful and ugly, ruthless and humane.”
Before Kogan, sculptors such as Elie Nadelman made their mark in the city with highly romanticized human figures that represent universal aspirations or values. Kogan also addresses human aspirations, but only as they manifest in individual faces and bodies, a process she calls ‘showing the soul beneath the face”. She specializes in portraits and figures whose heavily textured countenances convey larger cultural moments and psychological truths.
Whoever her subjects may be, Kogan’s struggle with her medium is intensely physical. Her hands imprint themselves deeply and repeatedly on each piece, recalling the expressionistic work of another noted New York sculptor, Jacques Lipschitz. While Lipschitz’s deeply textured dynamics are often put at the service of figures, Kogan’s faces are driven by inner conflict: they twist and turn within themselves.
Inner tensions are made visible through physical exaggeration and distortion, as in her bust ‘Scream’ with its extended and agonized neck, or the narrowed, nearly triangular face a troubled old man, locked away in his own cycle of anger and complaint. In this way Kogan’s portraits recall the similarly distorted and expressionistic portrait style of her idol, Egon Schiele.
Kogan also has an aptitude for character study. An astute observer, she takes pleasure in capturing a broad range of personalities. “Drunken Boris and Nagging Natasha” brings two salt-of-the-earth Russian peasant archetypes to life. She also addresses historical moments. “Laugh, Cry, Middle East” is a figure that serves as an allegory for the Jewish people bending backwards in laughter that borders on tears, the serpent of ancient enmities slowly tightening around its neck.
Kogan can also be contemplative. Her portrait of the poet Yevtushenko shows him bending under the sheer weight of history, lost in melancholic thought. Similar weightiness can be seen in her hooded figure ‘Monk’. Both pieces recall Shirley Moskowitz, who similarly captured hardship and tenderness as she did her sculpture ‘Refugees’.
As a whole, her preoccupation with human presence is such that she deems none of her sculptures complete until they transcend their inert materiality. She always strives for her sculptures to come alive, to become distinct, living ‘beings’.
“There is often a moment when a figure teeters on the edge of coming alive.” She says. “Then, the changing of the smallest detail will suddenly make the figure present, help them to appear fully. That is when I know it is ready to be cast in bronze.”
Kogan admits that her engagement with her work is the opposite of conceptual, harkening back to an earlier time when sculpture was less the imposition of an idea and more of an active physical collaboration with form and material:
“The act of sculpting for me is both exhausting and deeply intuitive. I surrender my will to the subject, in a way. Once I enter the studio, I feel the presence of the figure I am sculpting directing itself into being through my hands. I have no real control over this process. In this way, my subjects demand to be made, to come into being.” WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author