The AbEx Synagogue

Motherwell, The Wall of the TempleRobert Motherwell, The Wall of the Temple (1952), oil on masonite, 96-1/2″ x 192-1/2″; courtesy the Congregation B’nai Israel, Millburn, New Jersey; (c) Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York

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Arrogance isn’t a characteristic peculiar to twentieth-century American artists, but the New York School had a special knack for it. The acute inferiority engendered by the achievements of European modernism elicited an overweening, chip-on-the-shoulder mien to Ab-Ex pronunciamentos—as if the cosmos shifted every time Mark Rothko went to the hardware store to buy a gallon of turpentine. All that heavy breathing can be a bit much, but it’s to the New York School’s credit that its finest achievements were powered, rather than burdened, by high-flown pretensions.

I was reminded of Abstract Expressionism’s bombastic bent, as well as its saving graces, upon visiting Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber, and Gottlieb, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum focusing on the relationship between advanced art and religious traditions. In 1951, the architect Percival Goodman commissioned three artists—the painters Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell, and the sculptor Herbert Ferber—to create artworks for the Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue located in suburban Millburn, New Jersey. Goodman’s design for the synagogue was boxy, streamlined, and nothing if not High Modernist. It was, in fact, a radically new take on religious architecture, as well as an emblem of the increasing integration of Jews into American society.

Goodman’s building was a conscious response to the Holocaust and, as such, intended as a hopeful step into the future. When it came time to adorn the synagogue with art, he looked to the New York School as a means of reinforcing this progressivism. The gambit was risky: Abstract Expressionism was in its artistic heyday, but it had not yet become a cultural touchstone worthy of postage-stamp commemoratives. Gottlieb, Motherwell, and Ferber were, as the Herald Tribune put it, “highly controversial avant-garde abstractionists still far short of wide acceptance even in the art world.” For the work on the Millburn synagogue, the artists had to answer only to Goodman and, for iconographic matters, the rabbi; in all other respects, they were granted remarkable freedom. The artworks are on display at the museum during the synagogue’s current renovation and expansion.

Given the spiritual context of the project, you’d think some humility would have been in order, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. “How to get better religious art is very simple,” Gottlieb opined, “just commission an artist.” Given his magisterial design for the synagogue’s Torah ark curtain, Gottlieb’s chutzpah is deserved. A soaring tapestry dominated by a rich burgundy and interspersed with metallic fibers and tassel-like appliqués, it distills Judaic symbols—among them, the Star of David, the Tablets of The Law, and The Lion of Judah—through the pictographic vocabulary favored by Gottlieb at the time. Perhaps it was the artist’s own Jewishness that brought a rare heft to stylistic motifs defined largely by self-conscious primitivism. This salutary groundedness is also evident in an adjacent suite of exquisite pencil-on-vellum studies.

As the only gentile of the three artists, Motherwell did his homework before creating a large painting for the synagogue’s lobby. Motherwell consulted Meyer Schapiro, his former professor at Columbia, and boned up on Judaic lore until the automatism he gleaned from the Surrealists produced images appropriate to the commission. Motherwell also took heed of the rabbi’s suggestions for specific images—the Ladder of Jacob, in particular—and Goodman’s request that the painting’s dominant color match the wood in the synagogue. The rabbi and the architect should be commended: The Wall of The Temple (1951), with its encompassing field of smoky orange and stark array of hieratic shapes, is a testament to the benefits of compromise and among Motherwell’s most authoritative canvases.

Ferber isn’t as well known today as Gottlieb or Motherwell, but his reputation was such that the installation of And the bush was not consumed … (1951) on the synagogue’s exterior was postponed so that the piece could be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Fifteen Americans exhibition of 1952. A towering edifice of lead-coated copper, Ferber’s transcription of the Burning Bush is spectacularly aggressive, with dramatic blade-like forms, scabby surfaces, and spiky clusters. The rabbi didn’t take an instant liking to Ferber’s sculpture, and it proved distracting enough to cause traffic problems on Millburn Avenue. Whether that will again prove the case once the piece is returned to the synagogue remains to be seen. In the meantime, there is much pleasure to be gained from the Jewish Museum’s concise and powerful exhibition.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 2010 edition of The New Criterion.

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