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PRESS PREVIEW: Tuesday, March 9, 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM
ABSTRACT ART AND MODERN SYNAGOGUE ARCHITECTURE
MODERN ART, SACRED SPACE: MOTHERWELL, FERBER, AND GOTTLIEB OPENS SUNDAY, MARCH 14TH
New York, NY – The Jewish Museum will present Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber, and Gottlieb from March 14 through August 1, 2010. This new exhibition focuses on a revolutionary moment in American synagogue design. In 1951, architect Percival Goodman commissioned three avant-garde artists to create works for his Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey. Robert Motherwell, Herbert Ferber, and Adolph Gottlieb – each regarded as a prominent figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement – created, respectively, an expansive lobby mural, a monumental exterior sculpture, and a large-scale Torah curtain. Congregation B’nai Israel drew national attention as the first congregation to introduce contemporary abstract art and was heralded as an outstanding example of modern religious architecture.
In addition to the lobby mural, exterior sculpture and Torah curtain, the exhibition includes a model of the Percival Goodman building, as well as drawings, photographs, and documents which highlight the collaborative and creative process of this pioneering project. A short video situates the project in the history of American synagogue architecture.
This exhibition marks the first time the three major artworks of Congregation B’nai Israel have been exhibited together in a museum since their creation over sixty years ago. The synagogue has lent the Motherwell mural and Ferber sculpture while undergoing a renovation and expansion. The Gottlieb Torah curtain was a 1987 gift from Congregation B’nai Israel to The Jewish Museum, after upkeep of the delicate textile by the congregation was no longer feasible and a replica was made to take its place in the synagogue.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, American Jews experienced a greater acceptance in a society that was more open to religion. At the same time, the founding of the State of Israel provided American Jews with a sense of confidence and pride that helped them shed the feeling of being outsiders. Greater opportunities and higher standards of living precipitated a mass movement of American Jews from city to suburb, which was closely followed by a suburban synagogue building boom. To many Jewish communities – especially of the Reform and, to a lesser extent, the Conservative movements – modern design signified a move in a new progressive direction toward a distinctly American Jewish identity.
Driven by a desire to participate in the post-Holocaust restoration and invigoration of the American Jewish community, Percival Goodman (1904-1989) dedicated himself to synagogue design, eventually building over sixty facilities for Jewish congregations across the country. Goodman envisioned his designs as entirely modern, not based on historical building styles as previous European and American synagogues had been. He believed synagogue design should serve the functions of the congregation – worship, study, and social gathering – through simple and direct means, using organic materials and natural light whenever possible. This reflected a philosophy common to many modern architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, and Eric Mendelsohn, who all designed synagogues in the mid-twentieth century. As one of Percival Goodman’s first synagogues, Congregation B’nai Israel set a precedent for integrating modern art and architecture in houses of Jewish worship.
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was perhaps the most well-versed of the Abstract Expressionists in art history and theory. He created a striking mural, one of the largest paintings of its time, The Wall of the Temple, for the synagogue’s lobby. For the Millburn project, Motherwell, the only one of the three artists of non-Jewish descent, turned to Columbia University art historian Meyer Schapiro, who he had studied with, for guidance on background reading. He immersed himself in Jewish symbolism and, utilizing the bold, abstract painting style he had established in the late 1940s, produced a mural that though abstract, alludes to the Tablets of Moses, the Diaspora of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and Jacob’s Ladder, among other symbols. Motherwell made over fifteen studies for the mural, twelve of which are included in the exhibition.
Adolph Gottlieb’s (1903-1974) twenty-foot Torah Ark Curtain transforms his influential pictographic painting style into a dramatic, richly symbolic tapestry. Over the surface of the curtain Gottlieb abstracted traditional Jewish symbols such as the Tablets of the Law (Ten Commandments), the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the Ark of the Covenant. He also included stylizations of objects developed for synagogue use and emblems that have become synonymous with Judaism, such as the Lion of Judah and the Star of David. Following a traditional practice in which women of the congregation work together on the synagogue’s ritual textiles, the deep red velvet curtain was sewn by the women of Congregation B’nai Israel under the direction of Gottlieb’s wife, Esther.
At the suggestion of the synagogue’s rabbi, Dr. Max Grünewald, Herbert Ferber (1906-1991) took the Burning Bush as his theme, twisting lead-coated copper into shapes suggesting branches reaching skyward. Grünewald, a distinguished rabbi from Mannheim, Germany, had witnessed two of his temples’ destruction by the Nazis. He explained: “The Burning Bush was burned but never consumed, which reflects the fate of our people.” In Ferber’s exterior relief, And the bush was not consumed..., the artist created an abstract work that simultaneously evokes the traditional biblical motif of the branches of the Burning Bush, from which God first reveals himself to Moses, and the Tree of Life, symbolizing God as the source of all things. As Ferber’s first major commission, the Millburn project occupied him for over a year. The original commission was for a six-foot-tall piece, but Ferber thought this would be too small for the synagogue’s façade and volunteered to double its size. To create the final sculpture, Ferber bent cut-out sheets of copper into long hollow forms, which were then covered with lead to achieve a uniform color. At the request of the Museum of Modern Art, the synagogue delayed its art dedication ceremony by several months so that Ferber’s new sculpture could be included in the museum’s Fifteen Americans exhibition of 1952.
Herbert Ferber studied sculpture for three years, taking night classes at the tuition-free, instructorless Beaux Arts Institute of Design, while studying to be a dentist during the day. He managed to have two successful careers, maintaining his dental practice and publishing scientific articles throughout his career as an artist. By the time of the Millburn commission, Ferber had had solo exhibitions at prestigious galleries, been featured in Time magazine, and won a prize from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for his earlier figurative sculpture. In the mid-1940s, he turned to working abstractly and joined the avant-garde Betty Parsons Gallery. His milieu included members of the adjacent Samuel Kootz Gallery, such as Gottlieb and Motherwell.
Adolph Gottlieb was one of the original members of “New York Artist Painters,” a group of abstract painters founded in 1943. By the time of the Millburn project, Gottlieb was an established artist, with eleven paintings purchased by the Guggenheim Museum, and had been included in several major group exhibitions and forums. He also was the principal organizer of The Irascibles, a group of prominent avant-garde artists who protested the conservative policies of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950. Themes of renewal and rebirth became common in Gottlieb’s work with the onset of World War II. Like other artists of the period such as Lipchitz, Rothko and Chagall, Gottlieb’s postwar work reflects concerns with physical and spiritual transcendence, universality, and the continuity of human existence.
Robert Motherwell was the youngest of the trio of artists, at thirty-five, and the only one not to attend art school. His painting career began after his initial studies in philosophy, followed by graduate studies in art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University in 1940, who encouraged him to devote himself to painting. After his 1941 voyage to Mexico with the Surrealist painter Matta, he began to make “automatic” drawings (deriving imagery from the unconscious) and created his first mature paintings. By 1944, he had his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery in New York, and soon after became the leading spokesperson for avant-garde art in America.
Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber, and Gottlieb was organized by Karen Levitov, Associate Curator at The Jewish Museum.
The exhibition was made possible by major grants from the Dedalus Foundation and Edith Ferber.
About The Jewish Museum
Widely admired for its exhibitions and educational programs that inspire people of all backgrounds, The Jewish Museum is the preeminent United States institution exploring the intersection of 4,000 years of art and Jewish culture. The Jewish Museum was established in 1904, when Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated 26 ceremonial art objects to The Jewish Theological Seminary of America as the core of a museum collection. Today, the Museum maintains an important collection of 26,000 objects—paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, archaeological artifacts, ceremonial objects, and broadcast media.
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