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Abstraction in the Synagogue

It's sobering to consider that an exciting and concise exhibition about a 1950s New Jersey synagogue and its artworks can serve as a periscope through which we can view the New York art world of the time, postwar American architecture, suburban demographic trends and, not incidentally, a moment in the history of the American Jewish community. That's what happens in the Jewish Museum's remarkable exhibition "Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb," which focuses on only three works of art—four, if you include the architecture—and raises more questions than it answers. In 1954 Peter Blake, the not-yet-famous architect and curator-writer, published a kind of handbook for the design of American synagogues. After looking back on earlier buildings, which had tended to adapt historical, often exotic, styles in order to create buildings that would convey some sort of authenticity, Blake surveyed what was already then an amazingly rich group of contemporary designs by architects as notable as Erich Mendelsohn and Philip Johnson. They were eventually joined by names as varied as Frank Lloyd Wright, Minoru Yamasaki, Max Abramovitz, Walter Gropius and Louis Kahn—all of whom designed synagogues. None, however, were as prolific as Percival Goodman (unjustly less famous than his social-critic brother, Paul), who designed more than 50 synagogues between 1948 and 1983, among them Congregation B'nai Israel in Millburn, N.J.—the subject of this fascinating exhibition. (Goodman's best New York building may well be his 1959 Fifth Avenue Synagogue on East 62nd Street.) Eschewing historicity in favor of modernism and, unlike many of his more famous peers, without a signature style of his own, Goodman designed synagogues that tended to be suffused by daylight (in preference to stained glass), more easily achieved on the expansive building plots available in the postwar suburbs. Determined to integrate art into the 1951 Millburn synagogue, Goodman commissioned three artists whose reputations were not yet firmly established. Robert Motherwell painted a massive oil-on-Masonite mural for the synagogue's lobby, and as the only non-Jew of the three artists he was advised by his former Columbia University professor, the noted art historian Meyer Schapiro. The exhibition includes 13 studies in which we see Motherwell grappling with the arrangement of the several symbols that he was eventually to incorporate in the mural: a Torah scroll, Jacob's ladder, the Ten Commandments and a menorah (candelabrum), along with starlike line configurations that supposedly represent diasporic movement. It's a forceful work, very much a statement of place, which must have enormous impact as one enters the synagogue's lobby. Herbert Ferber's "And the bush was not consumed . . ." is a towering, 12-foot-high "burning bush" sculpture created as a kind of emblem for the synagogue's external wall—a major announcement to passersby that this is a building to be reckoned with, rather than just some nondescript modernist suburban structure. This was especially important considering that the architectural mode of the day no longer asserted anything overtly ecclesiastical. Ferber was a practicing dentist who also worked as a sculptor, and his lead-coated copper synagogue sculpture refers back to the welded abstractions of Julio González while also suggesting the barbed wire of Europe's recently opened concentration camps. While Ferber has by now faded somewhat from public view, it's worth noting that the synagogue's dedication ceremony was delayed for several months in order for the work to be included in Dorothy Miller's important 1952 "Fifteen Americans" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The majestic, almost 20-foot-high curtain that Adolph Gottlieb designed for the Torah ark—the only one of the works to be inside the sanctuary itself—was actually sewn by the women of the congregation, supervised by the artist's wife. Its colorful design includes an encyclopedic range of traditional Jewish symbols, some of them abstracted beyond recognition. In that sense, the curtain fits neatly into the pictographic mode that Gottlieb used prior to his later grand, formal and fully abstract paintings. And therein lies some of the fascinating issues surrounding these works, which were created at the time that nonreferential abstraction was gaining prominence. Motherwell's often specific references in his painting titles (e.g., "Elegy to the Spanish Republic") challenge the viewer to discover what might be—but usually are not—readable symbols. Yet for this synagogue commission the abstract forms in his painting are clearly legible. Gottlieb's art at this time often consisted of indecipherable signs and symbols also evident in the work of fellow painters as varied as Joaquín Torres-García, Mark Rothko and Bradley Walker Tomlin. But the ark curtain contains no such mysteries, as every bit of it can be read (sometimes with the aid of a guide, provided in the exhibition) as a meaningful part of traditional Jewish iconography. Architect Goodman was comfortable creating a modernist structure that can now be seen as a highly refined forerunner of anonymous suburban mall construction, with no denominational references: Is it a synagogue? church? bank? Yet the artists he persuaded to join his groundbreaking venture—each of them firmly embedded in the nonfigurative abstraction that so rapidly became the fashionable art of that time—must have felt some strong pull toward giving the congregants something recognizable. Pure abstraction must have seemed too great a risk. Nevertheless, as the exhibition—an important footnote to the Jewish Museum's recent "Action/Abstraction" show —demonstrates, this was a signal moment in the history of American art. That especially fecund time in New York's art world opened up new possibilities, too rarely explored, for the aesthetic union of religious and secular cultural worlds. Mr. Freudenheim, a former art museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution.

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