The Icon and the Artist
Clockwise from left: Justice RBG, oil on canvas, 2016; Legend, print edition, 2020; Justice4All, (detail) oil on canvas, 2019; GeorgeRuth, oil on canvas, 2018.
As Jac Lahav ’08 tells it, the story about the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg holding him as a baby was not one that really loomed large over his life.
“It was never some claim to fame,” says the Israeli-born artist, recalling that only as a teenager had he heard in passing something about the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice having come over for dinner some dozen or so years prior. Ginsburg was at the time friendly with his mother, who was early in her career as a law professor—and held the infant Jac while her host cooked.
Yet, when he wound up pursuing a master of fine arts degree in painting at Brooklyn College and embarking on a project, The 48 Jews, Ginsburg was on his mind.
“RBG was famous. She earned it,” he says of her inclusion in his series of portraits of well-known Jewish people. His work was first picked up by the Jewish Museum in New York and went on to run in several other venues.
A few years and an established art career later, Lahav—who names current and former Brooklyn College professors Archie Rand and Vito Acconci as his mentors—found that Ginsburg popped up again, when he was working on his Great Americans series. The project started with 16 portraits that deconstructed George Washington as the father of the country. When Lahav was looking for a counterpoint, he thought: Who better than Ginsburg to serve as matriarch to Washington’s patriarch? She’s an icon sui generis who could easily fill the nearly seven feet of canvas Lahav employs in the collection of larger-than-life Americans—from Oprah Winfrey to Benjamin Franklin—in which he explores cultural identity, celebrity, and how historical figures are perceived.
Finally, Lahav had to admit to a “love affair with her image,” if not a cosmic connection born out of a fated snuggle. And despite being clear that he doesn’t want to be “the RBG artist” (and having an extensive body of work to back that up), he has been painting portraits of Ginsburg for the last decade, amassing nearly two dozen in all.
He painted another portrait, Legend, during the quarantine. And when she died in September at age 87, Lahav’s Ginsburg pieces, along with the old story about her holding him as a wee one, took on new life.
A few art publications celebrated his work, and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, installed one of his Ginsburg pieces, from Great Americans, and kept it on view through mid-October.
For his part, Lahav reached out to an art dealer friend and arranged for a run of prints of Legend, which he sold through Election Day raising $1,400, the proceeds of which he will donate to Planned Parenthood of America.
“She was this light that sort of held everyone together,” he says.