Modern Art, Sacred Space: Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb

March 14 - August 1, 2010

In 1951, renowned architect Percival Goodman commissioned Abstract Expressionist artists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Herbert Ferber to create contemporary works of art for the modern synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, that he designed. The exhibition features the three site-specific works by these artists, as well as studies, in-progress photographs, and an architectural model.

After World War II, American Jewish populations began a mass movement from city to suburb. Without the close-knit neighborhoods of the city, the synagogue became a center not only for worship, but for education and socialization as well. Architect Percival Goodman envisioned this space as entirely modern—not based on historical building styles—with a pared-down aesthetic and, significantly, a close collaboration between architecture and contemporary art.

In a revolutionary move, Goodman charged three avant-garde artists with commissions to decorate his 1951 Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey. Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, and Herbert Ferber—each of whom went on to become a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement—created, respectively, a large-scale lobby mural, a velvet Torah curtain, and a monumental exterior sculptural relief.

Motherwell’s written description of the mural identifies the Tablets of Moses, the Diaspora of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and Jacob’s Ladder. The mural, one of the largest paintings of its time, is one of the few works in which the artist worked in a semi-representational manner; however, his abstraction of the objects is in keeping with the bold style that he established in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gottlieb’s iconographic design for the Torah curtain, now in the collection of the Jewish Museum, is a late example in the development of his influential pictograph paintings of 1941–53. Ferber’s monumental exterior relief, entitled And the bush was not consumed, expresses a religious theme in an abstract three-dimensional form.

The exhibition marks the first time these works have been exhibited in a museum setting since they were created over sixty years ago. In addition to these major works, the exhibition will include studies, and photographs, as well as an architectural model of the Goodman-designed synagogue, to highlight the creative process of this ground-breaking collaboration.

The exhibition was made possible by major grants from the Dedalus Foundation and Edith Ferber.

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