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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



The Jewish Museum has two appealing summer shows, one for grownups and one for the kiddies. “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey is a show about a cartoon monkey in a series of children’s books by a German-born husband and wife who fled the Nazis & found a new home in America. When I strolled by this show yesterday, I observed that it seems to have reached its target audience, with children lounging on the animal-shaped pillows on the floor of one gallery, and perusing the books on display there. The New York Times reviewed this show before they got around to reviewing the show for adults. This may or may not say something about the Times (though I suppose I shouldn't talk, as I’m only reviewing the show for adults a month before it closes, and not reviewing Curious George at all). At any rate, the show for adults is “Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb,” a presentation of three large works of art by three top abstract expressionists that were commissioned by the modernist architect Percival Goodman for the Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, in 1951 (on view through August 1, as is Curious George ).

Organized by Karen Levitov, “Sacred Space” also includes a small-scale model of the synagogue itself, a number of preliminary drawings by Gottlieb and Motherwell, photographs documenting the creation and installation of the Ferber, plus assorted memorabilia. The model shows the Goodman building to have been a stylish, functional and classically simple building. A show about the commissions, staged in 1951 by the trail-blazing Samuel M. Kootz gallery in Manhattan, inspired articles in publications ranging from the Magazine of Art to Time as the first synagogue to introduce contemporary abstract art, and an outstanding example of modern religious architecture in general. Currently, the synagogue is undergoing renovation and expansion. That is why the Ferber, a 12-foot high outdoor sculpture made of lead-coated copper, and the Motherwell, a 12’ x 16’ lobby mural made of oil on masonite, are available for loan to this exhibition. The Gottlieb, a 20-foot high Torah Ark curtain made of red and gold velvet, appliqué and embroidered with metallic thread, is owned by the Jewish Museum. It was given to it by the congregation in 1987 because the upkeep of the fragile textile in Millburn was no longer feasible (a replica was made to take its place in the synagogue).

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 60 years ago. And, since this is an appearance in an artistic context, it becomes incumbent upon critics to evaluate the art as art. I hope that my readers will not think me a Scrooge if I say that not all the work is of equal quality. Gottlieb did his best to integrate Jewish symbols with the “pictograph” technique he had used in his paintings of the ‘40s, with boxed-in little images on a grid, but only the top & less detailed half of the curtain does this successfully, even charmingly. The bottom half, alas, is a little turgid -- though several of the intricate, pencil-on-vellum studies for the curtain, on the opposite wall of the gallery, are also lovely.

Motherwell, as a picture label reminds us, never went to art school, but studied philosophy at Harvard and then art history at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro. Only 35 at the time of this commission, he went back to Schapiro for guidance on what to depict, and wound up with a cluttered & overly ambitious set of images, incorporating Moses’ tablets of the Ten Commandments, Jacob’s Ladder, the Ark with a diagram symbolizing the Diaspora superimposed on it, and a seven-branched candelabra. I’m sure Schapiro loved it, but then, art historians are all too often more concerned with iconography than formal values. Moreover, Motherwell allowed himself to be talked by Goodman into changing the background of the painting from blue to orange, in order to complement the wood of the building. Maybe this works in situ, but by itself, Motherwell orange is not nearly as nice as Motherwell blue. It’s not a bad painting, it’s just not the best Motherwell ever painted – and again, some of the preliminary drawings for it are wonderfully free and personal, especially Numbers 5, 6, and 9 through 12.

The huge, spiky Ferber is absolute dynamite, the finest Ferber I’ve seen. The theme is the flaming bush from Exodus, "that burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed." Ferber conveyed this effect of the flames ascending to the sky with long, alternately broader & narrower shapes that flare upward, combined with staccato bursts of small, jumbled clusters of thin straight sticks to suggest the branches of the bush, but almost equally suggestive of barbed wire. The silvery-gray color, with its granular surface, sets the composition off to perfection. It must look terrific when placed on the upward-flaring wall that seems to be its natural habitat, but if you don’t want to wait for the renovation to be complete, the Jewish Museum is open & free on Saturdays. While you’re there, you might also want to take a peek at another example of abstract expressionist religious art, the delicate tracery of the Bimah screen by Ibram Lassaw and the sturdy Torah Ark by Lassaw and Philip Johnson, from Kneses Tifereth Israel, a synagogue designed by Johnson in Portchester, NY (1956-57). These works are on view in the museum’s permanent collection, on the third floor, called “Culture and Community.” It’s a pity that the Lassaw has blackened with the passage of time; it’s made of wire covered with bronze and copper sheet, and should have the gilded glow that I associate with better-preserved Lassaws. .. (©Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)
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