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Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell painting in his studio on
Fourteenth St. in New York, 1952.
Photograph by Kay Bell Reynal
© Archives of American Art
The brightness of the mural is the brightness of the sun-lit ancient Mediterranean, and also the brightness of the optimism of modern painting and architecture.

—Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Robert Motherwell was perhaps the most well-versed of the Abstract Expressionists in art history and theory. Having studied with the preeminent art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia, Motherwell devoted much of his time to writing and lecturing about what he and his contemporaries were painting. For the Millburn synagogue mural, The Wall of the Temple, Motherwell—the only one of the three artists of non-Jewish descent—took it upon himself to study Jewish religion, mysticism, and iconography to prepare for this undertaking. He consulted Schapiro, who suggested a long list of books as well as a visit to “The Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue.” Schapiro also provided scholarly sanction to use representational, or graven, imagery, stating that ancient synagogues included symbolic figures, animals, human hands, and other motifs.

Utilizing the bold, abstract painting style he had established in the late 1940s, Motherwell infused this mural, one of the largest paintings of its time, with Jewish symbolism. Like many Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell was interested in the Surrealist notion of “automatic” drawing—deriving imagery from the unconscious. For this work, he immersed himself in Judaic iconography so that the images that emerged unconsciously “had a tendency to be Jewish.”

Motherwell made over fifteen studies for the mural, many of which are seen here. As his drawing Iconography: The Wall of the Temple shows, Motherwell ascribed symbolic meaning to the abstracted imagery in this mural, the only representational work in his oeuvre. His written description identifies the Tablets of Moses, the Diaspora of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and Jacob’s Ladder. Motherwell embraced the collaborative nature of the Millburn commission, and was receptive to the rabbi’s suggestion that he include the Ladder of Jacob and the architect’s request that he change the predominant background color from its original blue to orange in order to complement the wood of the building.

After completion of this mural, Motherwell’s synagogue collaboration continued with his design of a tapestry for Goodman’s Beth-El synagogue in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Gottlieb also designed stained-glass windows.


The Wall of the Temple and Selected Studies

Motherwell, The Wall of the Temple
Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991)
The Wall of the Temple, 1952
Oil on Masonite
96½ x 192½ (245.1 x 488.95)
Congregation B’nai Israel, Millburn, New Jersey
Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Study for Mural

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991)

Study for Mural, 1950

  • Watercolor and crayon on board
  • 14 x 28 1/2 in. (35.6 x 72.4 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift, 1994-681
  • © The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

Not on view Works on Paper

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Study for Mural

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Study for Mural


Mural Study for Synagogue
  • Graphite and oil on paper
  • 11 x 22 in. (27.9 x 55.9 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift, 1994-685
  • © Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

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Mural Study for Synagogue

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Mural Study for Synagogue


Study for Mural

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991)

Study for Mural, 1951

  • Ink and crayon on paper
  • 14 3/16 x 21 5/8 in. (36 x 54.9 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift, 1994-686
  • © Dedalus Foundation

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Study for Mural

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Study for Mural


Tablets of Moses, Jacob's Ladder and Burning Bush
  • Ink on paper
  • 14 9/16 x 17 in. (37 x 43.2 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift, 1994-687
  • © Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

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Tablets of Moses, Jacob's Ladder and Burning Bush

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Tablets of Moses, Jacob's Ladder and Burning Bush


Untitled (Candelabra)
  • Ink on paper
  • 14 1/4 x 25 1/2 in. (36.2 x 64.8 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift , 1994-688
  • © Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

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Untitled (Candelabra)

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Untitled (Candelabra)


Untitled (Tablets of Moses)
  • Crayon and ink on paper
  • 12 x 7 in. (30.5 x 17.8 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift , 1994-689
  • © Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

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Untitled (Tablets of Moses)

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Untitled (Tablets of Moses)





Online Collection: view works by:
Herbert Ferber
Adolph Gottlieb
Robert Motherwell