The artist JÃ³zsef Jakovits (1904-94) is little known even in his native Hungary, except in intellectual and artistic circles, where he is hailed as Hungaryâ€™s foremost Surrealist sculptor. In the Hungarian National Gallery he is labeled â€œPost-Surrealist.â€ Jakovits viewed himself as a Primitivist, declaring his main sources to be â€œcave painting, the tribal art of primitive peoples, and the archaic periods of the great religious culturesâ€â€”including Judaic lettering and mysticism. Jakovits is virtually unknown in the United States, despite having lived as a practicing artist in New York City between 1965 and 1987.
Jakovits left Hungary after the countryâ€™s powerful cultural czar, GyÃ¶rgy AczÃ©l, told him bluntly that his art could never be publicly accepted in Hungary but that he would make it possible for Jakovits to emigrate.Â Jakovits returned to Hungary also at AczÃ©lâ€™s urging, after they encountered each other again at a Hungarian reception in New York City, and AczÃ©l enticed him with the promise of an artistâ€™s apartment with studio in Budapest. This is fate that reads like fiction.
Several factors limited Jakovitsâ€™s reception during his decades in America, which he had hoped would deliver him recognition. He struggled with English. He shunned social interaction. He quoted Richard Huelsenbeckâ€™sÂ The Dada Drummer: â€œThe artist must by necessity stand outside the social group.â€ Tidy and efficient, he lived ascetically, in poverty, in a 430-square-foot apartment in a public-housing complex on Water Street. To meet his modest needs of $175 per monthâ€”including his art supplies from Pearl Paintâ€”he performed work provided by welfare three days every second week. He said a broad-hipped Jewish woman who worked for the city secured his survival package, which included being registered as a mentally challenged person eligible for aid. This surrogate status also inhibited him from seeking exhibitions and publicity. Despite his monasticism he had televisionâ€”he watched, from the outside looking in. While America experienced its volatile 1960s, as 1968 came and went, Jakovits was absorbed in painting, having switched his main medium from sculpture. The chance encounter with the Hebrew primer in 1966 was a revelation to Jakovits. He turned from Surrealism to mysticism. He dedicated himself to absorbing and celebrating the esoteric knowledge of Kabala. For more than two decades, he rendered Hebrew letters and kabalistic motifs, employing the flat colors, hard edges, and stenciled designs of Pop Art but in service of the sacred rather than the popular. His meditational motifs did not strike a chord. His work was scarcely acknowledged.