Synagogue Art of the 1950s
Wong, Janay Jadine, Art Journal
During the 1950s and 1960s approximately one thousand new synagogues were consecrated in the United States, a significant number of which directly commissioned work by Abstract Expressionist artists.(1) The synagogue projects provided the opportunity for many abstract artists to work on large-scale and important commissions. Such noted sculptors as Herbert Ferber, Ibram Lassaw, David Hare, and Seymour Lipton and such painters as Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb collaborated with architects on synagogue projects at this time. The sculptors accepted numerous commissions: Lipton, for example, completed six pieces for two synagogues, and Lassaw created over fifteen works for five temples. Nevertheless, despite the breadth and importance of the synagogue projects, they have generally been dismissed as evidence of gallery owner Samuel Kootz's entrepreneurial skills, which thereby ignores the significance of these works within the context of American Jewry's redefinition of Judaism in the light of the Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel. Although abstraction had long been used to decorate the synagogue, the acceptance of these progressive artists signaled "the new" at this point in history for American Jews.
Prior to World War II, art in the American synagogue, as in synagogues throughout the world, was confined generally to liturgical objects. Although these items were often decorated, they were not considered sculpture but rather functional religious items. The second commandment's injunction against the rendering of any human or animal form that could possibly be worshiped as a deity not only discouraged figurative art, but aroused suspicion regarding artistic creativity in general. Within this restrictive context, the shift from the conventional liturgical object to the use of large-scale sculpture in the synagogue is quite remarkable and causes one to question the motivations behind the shift in Jewish aesthetics.
In order to appreciate fully the significance of placing modern sculpture in the synagogue, a brief overview of the history of synagogue art and architecture is necessary. As a result of the Diaspora, the architecture of synagogues, rather than reflecting a single style, had been transformed into a pluralistic expression that, from place to place, largely mirrored that of the Jewish population's new home. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find synagogues modeled after such designs as the Greek temple, the Moorish mosque, the Gothic cathedral, or the Byzantine or Romanesque church.(2) Before 1950 the American synagogue followed this pattern, resulting in art and architecture that can best be described as eclectic. Following World War II, however, American synagogue art and architecture underwent a radical transformation. Such forms as the Moorish mosque came to be seen as foreign to the lives of the modern Jewish congregation. Synagogues were commissioned in the modern style, employing such leading architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Percival Goodman. These architects adopted a new attitude toward synagogue art, viewing it not as a separate entity but as an integral part of the architecture that must be taken into account at the preliminary stages of the building's design.
One of the first examples of a synagogue commission in which modern architecture was combined with modern art was B'nai Israel, consecrated in 1952, in Millburn, New Jersey. B'nai Israel, designed by Goodman, incorporated the sculpture, painting, and ark curtain design of Ferber, Motherwell, and Gottlieb, respectively. Each of these artists created art work for the synagogue that was consistent with both the subject matter and working method of the New York School and that was meaningful in terms of Jewish religious imagery. For example, Motherwell's sixteen-by-eighteen-foot mural in the foyer of the synagogue represents not only the twelve tribes of Israel, but also the Diaspora, the ark, and …
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Publication information: Article title: Synagogue Art of the 1950s. Contributors: Wong, Janay Jadine - Author. Journal title: Art Journal. Volume: 53. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1994. Page number: 37+. © 2008 College Art Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.