Commentary Magazine


Modern Art in the Synagogue, II:
Artist, Architect, and Building Committee Collaborate

In my first article in the December 1955 issue of Commentary, I asserted that in the last few years American synagogues were, “for the first time, beginning to make full use of the related plastic arts for both interior and exterior decoration.”

Not every temple has gone in for full-scale use of all the decorative arts. As a beginning, many of them have modernized their exterior decoration only to the extent of simplifying it. Sometimes such decoration goes but a step beyond the conventional menorah. But you can find modern mosaics and stone carvings in the small temples of towns like Lock Haven and Greensburg, Pennsylvania; and the work of Braverman and Halperin throughout the Middle West contains carvings by Esther Samolar, Frank Jirouch, and Arnold H. Bergier. For Temple Israel in Canton, Ohio, Bergier was asked to prepare four stone panels, and A. Raymond Katz a hammered-brass menorah for a free-standing pylon in the courtyard. (Mr. Katz provided another menorah and a cast-bronze decoration for the Ark in the interior.)

In other temples, however, the arts have been employed more extensively. Percival Goodman, of New York, has been more active perhaps than any other architect in pursuing this goal, as he has in creating a modern synagogue style. His temple in Millburn, N. J., built nearly five years ago, has already exerted a considerable influence on other architects: its one-story construction, use of a narrow, decorative brick (left naked on the inside surface), dispersion of rooms into wings rather than centrally massing them, use of an attractive, economical, and durable vinyl plastic partition rather than one solid wall for the sanctuary (the partition can be folded away to make a single large room)—such elements are being widely adopted. What distinguishes Millburn is its taste and tact: how its wings join each other, the varied decorative treatment of exterior walls and windows, the adornment of the brick walls of the sanctuary with Scriptural quotations wrought in brass set into them. And, beyond taste and tact, there is the boldness of its decoration.

Not the least interesting aspect of the integration of architecture and the plastic arts in the new temples is that virtually all the artists brought into the collaboration can be called modern, and quite a few of them advance-guard. When an architect like Goodman is asked to submit half a dozen names for the projects in a given temple, he does not try to make a three-way compromise between modern, moderate, and conservative in hopes of pleasing every taste, but asks for a completely modern group of artists whose work will be consistent with his own taste and style. In Millburn he engaged Robert Motherwell to do a mural for the lobby, Adolph Gottlieb to design the curtain of the Ark, and Herbert Ferber to create a sculpture outside the sanctuary.

Each of these works enhances the architecture without competing with it. Ferber’s piece, based on the theme “And the bush was not consumed,” is not representational but an abstraction. You cannot see an actual bush in it, or a flame, but, keeping the subject in mind, you can feel the suggestion of flaming branches in the complex thrusts of its curvilinear shapes even though this twelve-foot sculpture is a thing of copper and lead sheeting and rods. Uniquely mounted on a wood panel, it rises clear above the roof of the sanctuary; and this soaring note is in happy contrast with the low, spread-out stability of the building itself. Some people will find it a more effective religious symbol than the familiar Shield of David worked into the window frame beside it.

Motherwell based his design on traditional symbols—the Tables of the Law, a menorah, etc.—combined with invented symbols (which I will discuss later), all kept flat to make the painting a part of the wall: the theme of it is in fact “The Wall of the Temple.” To make more interesting patterns, Motherwell does not render the symbols literally: the menorah, for example, is not sedately symmetrical—none of its opposing branches pairs off from the central support. In view of its large areas of apparently bright orange and white, the mural is surprisingly subtle in its color harmony. Somehow the small areas of yellow ocher and gray balance the ingeniously toned-down orange and white. To my eye, the painting is somewhat too large to be seen effectively even across the full width of the lobby, which is rather narrow; it is, nonetheless, a highly successful design in itself and at the least an arresting decoration in its position.

Into the severe sanctuary, Gottlieb introduced an accent of vivid color and rich patterning at the focal point of the ritual: the Ark, which is otherwise set in a simple recess flanked by polished birch slabs from floor to ceiling. The curtains, their long red velvet folds richly varied with appliquéd patterns derived from traditional symbols, ingeniously (a few perfunctorily) simplified, are therefore more than accessory decoration: they are at the heart of the service. In his easel painting Gottlieb has worked frequently in a “pictographic” idiom, and this was easily adaptable to the design of the curtain.

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In Millburn, Goodman was designing a structure suitable for a congregation of two hundred souls and for a capacity attendance (on the High Holidays) of six hundred. Recently, in Springfield, Mass., his Congregation Beth-El was completed, which accommodates five hundred families in its main chapel. In itself, the increased size of the temple would have little meaning; what is significant is that here, in working on a larger scale, and with a completely free hand, Goodman has achieved his outstanding design to date. The structure, occupying less than a quarter-acre of its twelve-acre setting, is every inch of it “built”—in the sense that one speaks of a story being fully “written.” Everything has both an aesthetic and a functional point. From the sanctuary to the custodian’s apartment, nothing seems careless or accidental or unnecessary or not thought out: the building is thoroughly realized as a temple.

With a certain Japanese quality due to its canted eave-beams, its portico, and its sensitive use of wood (combined with a richly decorative brick—there is hardly any steel in the structure), the temple makes, too, a quasi-Japanese impression of economy in many details. It is said, for example, that by use of a plastic partition somewhat similar to the one in Millburn in place of a contemplated all-wood wall, enough money was saved to pay for virtually all the temple’s art work, which cost around $25,000. The total budget for building, decoration, and furnishings was $750,000—a modest sum for so magnificent a result. In the enthusiastic opinion of Beth-El’s Rabbi Eliezer Levy, every building committee should be made to know that the beauty and economy of his temple are owed to the free hand given the architect.

The free hand included the planning for the decoration, and the choice of the artists to execute it. Millburn had been a pilot venture; its success encouraged Goodman to incorporate a greater number of art works in Springfield in keeping with its larger scale. The exterior sculpture here, designed by Ibram Lassaw, on the theme of the “Pillar of Fire,” soars to a height of twenty-eight feet, yet—situated as it is in a shallow niche of a huge brick wall, where it can be clearly seen from the avenue of approach to the temple as well as from the broad lawn before it—it falls lightly into place, an airily monumental work. Like Ferber’s “And the bush was not consumed,” this sculpture is also completely abstract, and in the same openwork idiom. It has, however, a quality of its own derived from the sculptor’s way of producing variations within the seemingly equal lengths and identical shapes of its metal strips curving upward to suggest flames. Yet, at a distance or even closer up at first glance, all this writhing metal seems almost decorous in its symmetry, a charming symbol for the temple.

In the sanctuary, once again Adolph Gottlieb’s work provides the high color notes. For the Ark he designed a red and white curtain and a shallow V-shaped valance close-packed with traditional and other symbols to give it the richness of a Torah crown. For the rear wall opposite the Ark he has created a panel of twelve more open designs, easier to see as a whole than the valance: these, executed in tapestry by Edward Field, are entirely abstract, though the motifs allude somewhat to the twelve major days in the Jewish religious calendar. Between these beautiful linear patterns and harmonies in rose-violet-gray-buff-black expressive of the holidays, and the vivid valance symbolic of the Torah, the gamut of Jewish life is encompassed. At the same time, they furnish the needed brighter hues and tones to contrast with the dull browns of woodwork and upholstery and the bronze of Lassaw’s fine menorah and Eternal Light.

The sanctuary is full of ingenuities and harmonies which can only be tediously described in words. It does not, however, entirely escape a touch of theatricality in the area of the Ark, where the white of the curtains seems to “jump,” and the free-standing wall of marble behind the Ark makes a kind of backdrop for the too obviously balanced tall redwood columns that are the sentinels of the Ark. The bima has assumed something of the air of a stage which is set for a morality play in modern dress. Perhaps this is not altogether out of keeping with the spirit of a congregation composed very largely of college graduates.

Beth-El has a secondary chapel for memorial services and other small gatherings. This chapel is intimate not only in dimension but also in decoration: the menorah stands near a small Ark (designed from the description of the original Ark in Exodus); there is a row of miniscule stained-glass windows in solid luminous colors. For this room Motherwell designed a combination rug and wall hanging (behind the Ark). Imaginatively conceived for this particular position, the rug is not equally felicitous throughout; there is more invention on the wall than on the floor: perhaps the artist should not have been asked to combine two essentially separate objects in one design. One of the rug’s details raises an interesting point. To break up the monotony of the extensive border, the artist used the names of the Patriarchs and the Twelve Tribes in a regular Hebrew script. To the naive eye of someone who does not know Hebrew or Yiddish well, this would seem to be an ingenious device—a variation on the use, in Cubist collages, of a printed page or, in Cubist paintings, of a few carefully traced capital letters—to enrich otherwise blank planes. But to someone who knows either language well, the device is naive—literal and formal, the equivalent, in English, of writing “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,” etc., in Palmer penmanship. For such a person, the lettering becomes decoration only when it is treated with imagination.

Several over-door sculptures by Lassaw handsomely round out the decoration of Beth-El. One other feature, which I believe unique, has been devised to preserve the aesthetic purity of the temple. In place of the memorial tablets that are usually mounted chaotically on lobby walls, Beth-El has a rack in which the nameplates of the families holding memorial services on the given day are placed. Afterwards these plates are filed away. The dead are thus publicly remembered every year, and perhaps more effectively than by a permanent clutter of tablets of conflicting styles—when they have any style at all.

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Three times as large as Beth-El is another edifice designed by Mr. Goodman in association with Braverman and Halperin—Fairmount Temple in Beachwood Village, a suburb of Cleveland. Scheduled to be completed some time this year for the 2300-family congregation of Rabbi Barnett R. Brickner, it will be one of the largest temples in the country. It includes a sanctuary connected with a large social hall; a separate chapel building; a separate auditorium building; and three school buildings. It will also have large office units to accommodate three rabbis, the school supervisory staff, and the administrative staff; and a recreational unit. All of these structures are one story high and continuously interconnected, with three garden courtyards to provide “breathers.” These widespread multiple units make up what Rabbi Brickner calls a “campus temple.”

By way of decorative art the plans call for mosaic columns at the entrance, bronze reliefs in the sanctuary, specially designed menorah and Eternal Light, tapestries on the movable wall dividing sanctuary from social hall, and some other small pieces. Although the roster of artists cannot be given yet, it is an all-modern cast and includes at least one eminent artist who has not hitherto worked in the field of synagogue art.

It is interesting to note that Park Synagogue in Cleveland, designed by the late Eric Mendelsohn and built in 1950 at a cost of some two million dollars (it is estimated that Fairmount will cost a quarter of a million more), limited its decorative treatment to the background of the Ark, and kept this treatment purely formal in character. Possibly the architect did not wish any art with a power of its own to compete with the “floating dome” he created over the sanctuary. This structure of blown concrete (over various materials: copper-sheathed outside and lined with acoustic tile inside) is 110 feet in diameter and rests on seven pillars embodied in the walls of the room, so that the “ceiling” is all dome. This is engineering become a work of art. One clause in the contract is worth noting. It specifies that, while the decorations may be abstract in over-all design, they must nevertheless be based on recognizable motifs.

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At first glance, Congregation. Kneses Tefereth Israel, now under construction in Port Chester, N. Y., seems less indebted to architectural traditions than any of the new synagogues. It is wholly modern in style. But it is modern without bleakness, achieving both exquisiteness and classic dignity—even a kinship with the classic. Not that this temple designed by Philip C. Johnson is Greek re-revival. It has no entablature resting on columns—it has no columns. Mr. Johnson works in an entirely contemporary idiom; he is well known for his Museum of Modern Art in New York and the glass house he built for his own home in New Canaan, Conn. The ground plan of the synagogue is an ellipse set against a rectangle, the long axis of the ellipse being parallel to but shorter than the length of the rectangle. The structure built on the ellipse constitutes the entrance; the one on the rectangular plan, the sanctuary and related rooms; and the first rises only part way against the façade, so that the two units do not compete for attention: the sanctuary is dominant, as it should be. Not in any external likeness but only in the purity of the proportions—in length, width, and height—of these two simple, mathematically fundamental shapes does the synagogue recall the seemingly inevitable unity of the Greek temple. In a happily distant way, too, the curved shape of the entrance contrasting with the right-angled block of the sanctuary recalls round columns before rectangular peristyle. The synagogue’s whiteness (but it is sheathed in an off-white pre-cast stone, not marble) also recalls the Greek temple—at least as we know the ruins today, with their original paint eroded.

That the worshipper—and sightseer—should not merely glimpse such beauty in passing, Mr. Johnson has set the main façade at right angles to the street. One has thus, as one approaches from a distant gate (the temple is set in a ten-acre tract), a good long satisfying look at it.

Derived, again distantly, from another tradition are the stained glass windows (the colored glass windows of the average shul, crude in color and design, can hardly be dignified as “traditional”). These are narrow panels, each of a single luminous color (as in the small chapel of Beth-El, in Springfield), distributed in five tiers across the façade. On the exterior they provide an accent in the stone surface, but the awesome-ness of their pure color is felt only in the transmitted light of the interior: in the morning sunlight pastel-soft violet, red, green, yellow beams stream through the air and lie aslant the floor in rich patches. One’s eyes are naturally drawn upwards to the topmost of these glowing panes, so that they add to the mere physical height (40 ft.) of the sanctuary something of the loftiness which is the incomparable property of the soaring arch. This effect, however, is felt maximally only at the High Holidays, for it is only then that the entire space below becomes the sanctuary. To allow the temple to carry out its year-round secular and quasi-religious functions, the architect frankly divided up the main floor with aluminum partitions eight feet high: these are easily “knocked down” when the full congregation of four hundred families attends the major service of the year, and nothing then stands between the eye and the windows.

At this writing, with the temple itself incomplete, I cannot speak concretely of the accessory decoration. To avoid conflict with the stained glass windows, Mr. Johnson is confining the interior decoration to carved doors for the Ark (which he is designing himself), and a screen behind it. Outdoors, there will be bronze columns before the entrance. All of this, together with a menorah and Eternal Light, will be the work of Ibram Lassaw, whose style, the architect feels, is consonant with that of the temple itself.

One looks forward with more than mere curiosity to Temple Beth Sholom in Philadelphia, which has been designed by America’s old master in architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. Under consideration for several years now, the temple is scheduled to rise from the ground this spring.

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How much should be spent on art for the synagogues, temples, and centers? Only too often people who do not care for art raise their voices when they ask the question, as if it were unanswerable—or as if they did not want to hear a reasonable answer. But, coolly considered, the question can be reasonably answered. Percival Goodman tries to get 2 per cent of the building cost allocated for art. While he admits that he does not always get that much, it is his hope that “as time goes on, it will be taken for granted as a necessary element in the cost.” In Springfield, he got more than 3 per cent. In Hillcrest in Queens—not Mr. Goodman’s work—the art came to 2.6 per cent of the $600,000 building cost.

The centers have nothing comparable to show. Yet if only one per cent of the 45 millions budgeted for the 135 new community centers had been allocated for art and the sum divided—let us say equally, for the sake of simplicity—it would have come to no more than $3,300 a piece, enough to hide the aesthetic nakedness of many a too practical building. Actually, the sum spent for decorative art was only a small fraction of one per cent. Even in Buffalo, which paid a moderate $2,600 for its mural, the expenditure was only 0.3 per cent of the building cost. To pass by such smaller centers as those of Columbus and Englewood, not one dollar will have been spent for art in the million-dollar jobs in Syracuse, N. Y., New Haven, Conn., and the $1,750,000 center in Milwaukee (compare this with the $750,000 total cost of Beth-El, in Springfield, with all its fine works of art).

Apologists assert that it is easier to obtain money for art in a synagogue than in a center, that donors readily understand that a place of worship is “something special”—and that something special costs money. This is undoubtedly true, and in several of the postwar synagogue-centers (generally called “Jewish Centers”) the synagogue has been the avenue of entrance for what art there is. In a place like the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, N. Y., however, the chapel is too detached from the huge center proper to permit the Ark area, which is its sole adornment, to carry over. (And the sanctuary would be better off, too, in this case without its wall of intricate rococo symmetries designed by the late Arthur Szyk, the miniaturist painter, in the manner of a traditional Torah breastplate,-magnified a thousandfold.) But some of the synagogue-centers have also integrated the arts with their architecture, and in these the religious unit gives its blessing to the social unit in various measure.

At the Rego Park Jewish Center, which is not far from the Forest Hills Jewish Center, the architects Frank Grad and Sons, of Newark, N. J., related the two-story center unit, with its simple façade, to the imposing five-story temple structure by giving them a common flight of steps and a common basal course of red granite; the facing of their separate entrances is in the same material. This kind of unity is rather contrived, an architectural marriage of convenience. But the temple’s art also serves the social area in part. Thus, the foyer is bounded on all sides by massive birch doors bearing symbolic wood carvings in high relief by Don Benaron: one pair of these doors gives on the lobby of the social center. More importantly, the mural designed by A. Raymond Katz, six feet high and extending over the thirty-six-foot width of the temple’s entrance, is on perpetual loan to the social center. The rest of the decoration belongs exclusively to the sanctuary.

The mural by Mr. Katz is executed in mosaic, a medium that has come back to life in recent years and which this artist has used skillfully, sometimes dryly, in synagogue decoration. Here, at Rego Park, he has interwoven motifs of the Jewish holidays and symbols of the names of God in a complex design in full palette where the exuberant flow of line and color holds the eye rather than any single detail. Even the boldness of the hand holding a ram’s horn which is the central motif is unstressed by ambiguity, for the fingers also shape the letter shin (standing for Shaddai). The fluency of this design is of the order found in good easel painting, and if one doubts for a moment that such subtlety is appropriate for so stubborn a medium as ceramic and glass, he has only to recall that the great Byzantine mosaics are more subtle in their modeling and means of modifying areas of solid color than their “primitive” quality would lead the unsubtle to think.

(In his book published three years ago, A New An for an Old Religion, Mr. Katz has given examples of the tremendous pictorial possibilities of the characters of the Hebrew alphabet, based either on their pictographic origins or, more significantly, on the aesthetic manipulation suggested by their shapes and lines. Possibly his finest demonstration of these possibilities is to be found in his mosaic mural in Temple Beth Shalom, in Union, N. J. High on the wall above the Ark, it is an invocation of the seven names of God—Echod, Shaddai, Adonai, and so on—given only by their initial letters. These are modified, almost transformed, by twisting and swirling, by elongation and fantastication, against a background of calm cloud forms in solid color. What began as an ayin becomes a plant in the tornado of Yahweh’s wrath; a shin quivers in multi-color. With their emotive quality, these straining figures communicate a sense of the Ineffable Name disguised in the seven. I say “figures” because the letters are as “real” as chairs or faces. Only to one who did not recognize the Hebrew letters as such, would this mural seem wholly abstract.)

In the sanctuary of Rego Park, Mr. Katz was given another and even more difficult assignment—stained-glass windows (another medium which modern artists are reviving. In Temple Emanuel, Cleveland, the seven sprightly, semi-abstract panels by Merle James are small, and intended as decorative accents rather than major elements. In Har Zion Temple, Philadelphia, the design of a large memorial window of unusual dimensions was approached with considerable imagination by Dr. Stephen S. and Louise Kayser, even if it is not as competent as their windows in the sanctuary and assembly hall. These, in turn, contrast favorably with the technically more accomplished but wholly conventional rose windows over the entrance to the sanctuary. It is significant of the change of taste in the past quarter-century that it will not be feasible to use any of the once-prized Tiffany-designed windows in Rabbi Brickner’s present Euclid Avenue Temple for the new Fairmount Temple, as originally proposed.) In Rego Park, two obstacles hampered Katz and to some degree defeated him in advance. First, the center building occupies practically its whole site, for no additional land was available in this built-up neighborhood. As a result, the lower left-hand windows (as one faces the pulpit) do not receive natural daylight; and an unilluminated stained-glass window is a contradiction in terms. Secondly, apparently for engineering reasons, part of what should have been window space is taken up by wall; that is, instead of three stained-glass windows on each side, there are six. This more than doubled the artist’s difficulties. Faced with the alternative of making twelve independent designs or attempting to unify each top and bottom unit, he chose the latter. By various devices and a vigorous baroque design in a harmony dominated by deep blues and ruby reds, he appreciably overcame the handicaps which should not have been imposed on him in the first place.

The Ark and its setting are an elaborate-to my taste, over-ornate—composition in wood and marble by Edouardo Battisti. But there is simplicity in the small chapel, where Mr. Katz had another inning: his pair of hammered-brass menorahs, small and delicate, make the large bronze ones in the sanctuary look like what they are—solid, competent objects from a standard catalogue.

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Not many miles from Rego Park, at the Hillcrest Jewish Center, the sharing of the decorations by center and temple has been solved in a more subtle and satisfying way by the associated architects Glaberson-Klein, of New York.1 Though the exterior form is as plain as a Friends’ meeting place, this is a beautifully integrated work of architecture and art, of religious and social center.

Since there is a single entrance and a common lobby, the mural on the façade and the mural in the lobby perforce serve both the religious and the social units; and the curvilinear shape of the lobby makes for a more animated relationship between the two and suggests their manifold activities. Justly enough, the third work of art belongs to the sanctuary: it is, on the doors of the Ark, a charming miniature mosaic by Raymond Katz blending a few traditional motifs into its largely abstract play. The sanctuary itself is as small and intimate as a jewel box, and one structural detail (among others) contributes to that feeling: a niche-like wall behind the Ark broadens upward and outward to become a kind of canopy, a hung ceiling in which a large glass panel bears a wooden Shield of David. This sweeping panel almost physically unites rabbi and Ark and congregation. The beauty of Hillcrest’s large auditorium is also architectural: in its proportions, the overlapping shell design of its lofty ceiling, and its simplicity of surface. Moreover, the simplest of color schemes carries out the structural feeling.

Both the exterior and the lobby murals were designed by Anton Refregier. The first, executed in ceramic tile, consists of five panels, each of which is a packed composite of motifs expressing its theme: the Sabbath, Peace, the Fruitful Life, Righteousness, and Eternity. Although the thematic burden is heavy, the artist has assimilated it and it has not thrown him off balance. Each panel comes through cleanly in a flexible use of the medium: the background tiles are of solid color, mottled, or formally patterned, as their part in the over-all design dictates, while the design proper is applied in simplified planes and in as varied a color range as if it were on canvas. In “Jacob’s Dream,” the mural in the lobby, the artist uses the same simplified realistic style to flatten the forms and make them part of the wall. Set in a shallow recess and well lighted, the painting is a cool harmony of yellow-reddish brown earth colors and blues. Like the ceramic tile mural outside, this is not especially stirring art but, intelligent and skillfully executed, it achieves both the symbolic and decorative intent it strives for.

One of the most challenging problems in any of the new communal buildings was the façade of the four-story Milton Steinberg House, a memorial to the late rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, which adjoins it. Here it was decided to use a stained-glass “curtain wall,” as a façade without structural function is called. That the commission should have been given to Adolph Gottlieb, who is an outstanding advance-guard painter of easel pictures, many of them in a “pictographic” idiom that some people find cryptographic, and who had never worked in stained glass before, is surprising enough. So is the solution with which he came up—partly on its own account, partly because it demonstrates how persistent is the hard-won style of an artist who knows his own mind in whatever medium he turns to.

Since the Milton Steinberg House is essentially a secular building, largely given over to classrooms and offices, Gottlieb reasoned that the over-all design transmitting subdued, glowing colors as traditionally used for high-ceiling sanctuaries was not appropriate. The space behind the curtain wall was divided into four floors, so that one could only have seen fragments of an over-all design from any room; and students and teachers were there, not to indulge in mysticism, but to make a rational attack on Hebrew grammar, history, or whatever subject, and for this they had to use their eyes on books. The beautiful radiance of stained glass was not optically desirable for sustained reading. On the other hand, artificial light within the room overpowers the light transmitted by stained glass, and in effect blots out its design.

In an effort to use daylight to maximum advantage, Gottlieb arrived at a compromise solution: confining his pictographic designs to narrow strips, he used a diamond pattern in pale pastel shades for the rest of the window. This, made of a highly translucent type of stained glass, admits daylight to the class rooms, while the richly colored inscribed panels decorate them. The panels are made up in twenty-one different designs suggested by the Jewish holidays, interpreted largely in traditional symbols and partly in invented ones.

Happy as Gottlieb’s solution may be (he looked vainly for a precedent to guide him), it may still be said that the diamond pattern is too easy a way out and dodges the task of exacting the full design-potential of so rich a medium as stained glass. And it is true that in both France and Germany all-over designs of both figurative and abstract character have been achieved. But none of these, so far as I know, compares in size with the Gottlieb window or is limited by the architectural conditions imposed on him.

The building committee of the Park Avenue Synagogue must have had an uneasy time deciding on the general style of the memorial, for the synagogue itself, built a generation ago, has the elaborate façade and interior of the then favored “Oriental” look. To set up an annex (with corridors leading to the synagogue) in a modern style would make for architectural discontinuity and perhaps reflect on the style of the old building; but to make the new building pseudo-Oriental to match it, when the trend to the contemporary was so strong, would be to invite mockery. No compromise was possible; it was one or the other. The decision to be contemporary has been justified by the result. Even the cost of the curtain wall—$46,000—is said to be less than what an all-marble front would have come to.

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One naturally asks what the public reaction has been to such modern art in the synagogue. The art magazines have of course covered it as art, but even the general press has given it a good deal of attention as news, perhaps as sensation but without playing it up as such; Time, Life, and Fortune have all lavished color coverage on it. But we may assume that the press would never say a harsh word, fearing that it would be mistaken for disrespect to the religion and an insult to the congregation (the artist’s susceptibilities wouldn’t matter). The feelings of the congregation are more significant; and there seems to be little doubt that a majority have approved of most of the art, sometimes hesitantly but often enthusiastically. That there is a minority which doubts and dislikes it is not surprising—the surprising thing is that it is so small. For the division of opinion among laymen over a modern work of art (and all art is created for the layman) is inevitable, when even an academic mural like Winters’ arouses controversy. And it was not many years ago that a magazine as progressive as Harper’s could print an article which seriously contended that Cézanne was no painter at all but a fraud promoted by a phony cult.

People come to art with varying degrees of experience of it—the only way one can learn to “know” art. Those with little experience are most impressed, perhaps only impressed, by a work which, they think, exactly reproduces nature. This has probably been true in all eras; what changes is the standard of what it is that constitutes “just like” a face or tree. In 1953, Katz painted four true fresco panels for Congregation Beth El, Norwalk, Conn. The themes were the Revelation at Mount Sinai, Prophetic Idealism, Jewish Learning, and the Rebirth of Zion. The artist submitted his sketches and they were approved. But when the paintings were finished the sponsors were dissatisfied with them—not with their weak points but with a certain archaism in the drawing of some figures and a primitive quality of space and scene which happen to be their chief merits. In other words, the pictures were not “real” enough. Apparently, the judges thought that the sketches were intended only to give a rough idea of the subject matter, which would be “fully” rendered in the final paintings. In the second panel, for instance, they may have been expecting Jeremiah, Micah, and Isaiah as “shot” by a candid camera on the Street of the Prophets. The “just like” standard in our time for many is the photograph.

How square this with the acceptance of modern art elsewhere? For there is no reason to suppose that the people of Norwalk are aesthetically more benighted than those of Millburn Partly, perhaps, the curtains of the Ark have been fairly easy to take, and they have helped to make the other modern works acceptable. For from ancient times there has been a play of free forms, of wholly abstract shapes, in the fabrics of many peoples. If you have to go to a museum to see Peruvian textiles, you can see the cross-stitch pattern of a Russian blouse on the street, the closely packed Yemenite embroidery on dresses off every ship from Israel, and a greater variety of abstract patterns on the curtains, rugs, piece goods, and flooring materials on sale in every department store. So prepared, the ladies of the congregation at Millburn and elsewhere, even if they do not hang Picassos in their living rooms, were quite at ease in executing the advanced designs for curtains of the Ark.

The appeal of being up to date has counted heavily in the acceptance of modern architecture and design for the building itself. The follow-up, that you should install modern art in a modern building, has been considered logical enough, but harder to sell. There is no gainsaying the fact that in many cases it has been a determined few on a building committee who have persuaded their colleagues or, failing that, “rammed down their throats,” as one rabbi frankly put it, the notion that modern art was the most suitable expression for them. Once the art is finished and in place, the will to believe it is good spreads from building committee to the rest of the congregation; approached in that spirit, with misgivings held in abeyance and dispelled by a good press, the art has time to work. If one has felt that El Greco’s “View of Toledo” is great painting, one comes in time to feel that Picasso’s “The Three Musicians” is great too. And the artists I have reviewed here are not more difficult than El Greco or Picasso.

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All this fine building and fostering of the arts has happened so fast that people in widely separated communities have hardly been aware of it as a general phenomenon. That is becoming manifest now as the movement accelerates. Whether the new temples and art will also help to evoke, along the way, a viable Judaism; whether the members of centers and synagogues, pursuing the American way of life in a tangle of dramatics and dances, gymnasiums and banquets, social hall log-rolling and in-sanctuary business deals (which are, however, standard practice in old-fashioned synagogues as well), will manage also—to quote an old friend’s pun—to become rejuvenated, is for the future to tell. The uncertainty finds its reflection in the prevailingly rationalistic approach of most of the artists to their work in the synagogue and the way they make use of the symbols of Judaism.

A self-conscious religiosity marks the mural by William Halsey in Percival Goodman’s Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which includes in its decorative plan a menorah and Eternal Light, and a Chanukah menorah by Arnold H. Bergier; a memorial book by Arnold Bank; and, designed by Amalie Rothschild, an ingenious four-part panel in gros point for the doors of the Ark: when the doors are open, the congregation sees two unbroken compositions.

Mr. Halsey’s mural—based on a high-flown exposition in words by Paul Goodman—“employing the traditional story and prophecy,” attempts nothing less than directly to “meet the modern, present-day way of posing the problem of religion . . . [which] has two integrally related parts: the Living God and the Messianic hope.” Conceived clearly in visual terms, the painting does not too visibly strain under its verbal burden—it arrives at a well-knit composition. It is serious and purposeful. But even if it were not so derivative in style—employing the arbitrary raying lines of one form of Cubism, the formalized drawing of the icon and the simplistic drawing of the comic strip, the stark line and the spirit of Blake—it would have been hard put to it to “prove the religion, especially to young people who question and think hard.”

Goodman’s italicized demand is rather too much to ask of one artist in a single try. Not even the minority of artists engaged in the new synagogues who acknowledge some religious belief would attempt so much. And the majority—which is my chief point—will not attempt it at all: primarily they are doing an aesthetic job. The spirit cannot be forced: the unreligious will not take root in the floor of a synagogue, nor even, when artists are called in early to plan its decoration, in its soil.

That is why they are uneasy with the traditional symbols of Judaism. Gottlieb, for example, uses them grudgingly, though ably, on the hypothesis that they are aesthetically dead; hence he prefers to devise new motifs which may or may not be understood as symbols. I have referred also to Motherwell’s invented symbols. The fact that he is not Jewish is hardly relevant, for he, like his fellow Gentile, Refregier, has for that very reason made a close study of the traditional symbols, which are not too familiar to him to have lost their evocative power. (True, he went astray in the lettering on the rug in Springfield, but a Jewish artist unfamiliar with the Jewish alphabet could have erred in the same way.) If the invented symbols were really symbols, they would be a welcome addition to a fixed inventory, but they are generally motifs having only aesthetic significance: their imputed symbolism is pure rationalization. I have in mind one panel of Gottlieb’s window which is said to symbolize Yom Kippur. Actually it is a subtle, involuted design, which the artist felt, apparently, as an expression of introspection—nothing more precise than that. Translate introspection into religious terms and you have mysticism, an inner reckoning—the spirit of Yom Kippur. But would a believer respond to this? He would probably do so more readily to Gottlieb’s device for Tisha b’Av in his wall decoration at Springfield: rectangular shapes at oblique angles to each other, which may be understood as the falling columns of the Temple.

In Motherwell’s Millburn mural twelve dots are said to stand for the twelve tribes of Israel. But dots do not evoke any more associations than asterisks or ampersands; they are in fact merely algebraic symbols. Crisscrossing past the dots in the mural are straight lines in an irregular, closed pattern whose function, aesthetically, is to break up the whiteness of the area. Symbolically, the artist calls the lines “the Diaspora, the dispersal of the Tribes.” If the dots were valid as symbols, the lines would then be validated by their association with them; as it is, they fulfill only an aesthetic purpose.

Curiously enough, there is a valid symbolical association in Refregier’s mural at Hillcrest, “Jacob’s Dream.” Here the Twelve Tribes are symbolized by stars, which have point in the context of the heaven-bound dream, and the lines which join them do convey, as they are intended to, a sense of unity. It is, of course, almost too obvious a device. Symbols should be more imaginative, and it is their imaginative variation that should be the goal of invention. If invention cannot achieve anything better than dots (and Gottlieb also used them in one of his window panels), the artists would be wiser to rely upon tradition for symbols, and play with them as freely as Katz does with the Hebrew letters. Has the inflexibility of the cross, as a design, hampered the painters of Christian themes?

In their sculptured menorahs, Katz, Las-saw, and Lipton, among others, have shown that the old basic form, which has been modified to the taste of so many times and countries, still lends itself to fresh design; and there is no reason why the old symbols cannot be revivified in two dimensions, too. A start has been made, and if it has been attended with some self-consciousness, that is symbolic of the uncertainty of present-day Judaism itself. But wherever the new temples—and centers—may lead spiritually, they will have performed a notable aesthetic service, having fostered a little renaissance.2

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Footnotes

1 See Morris Freedman’s “New Jewish Community in Formation” in the January 1955
COMMENTARY for a detailed description of this center.

2 Individuals as well as institutions may foster it: Ira Haupt recently commissioned a memorial chapel to his parents in Temple Beth Miriam, Elberon, N. J. Raymond Katz was the artist, designing the Ark, a mural, entrance doors (decorated with wood carvings and panels of carved glass), wrought iron lighting fixtures, curtains, and podium cloth.

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