Scottish Painter, Jewish Mural: Robert Motherwell

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How It’s New York:  The mural “The Wall of the Temple) was commissioned for Congregation B’nai Israel, in NJ (tristate), in 1951.  
How It’s (Scottish) Irish: Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was of Scottish descent.  There’s a Motherwell, Scotland,which he visited on the Grand Tour with his parents as a young man. The American Scottish Foundation honored him in 1987.  And in an Oral History Interview in the Archives of American Art, he describes himself as a Scot:  

… I used to look at them appalled; you know, looked at Curry, Paul Cadmus, Guy Pene du Bois, John Carroll, Fletcher Martin, All the people who were the reigning stars of American art. And they used to look to me so parochial, so corny, so ugly, so nothing, that I couldn’t believe it. I mean I really looked at it as “the Emperor has no clothes.” And there the Scot comes out in me. In the end there’s something puritanically implacable about my mind if I really see something. And nobody could have convinced me that I was wrong. And actually I think I was right.

A version of this article first appeared in Baristanet, last week.

Congregation B’nai Israel is my hometown synagogue, so I grew up with this art.  It couldn’t be more Jirish for me to learn that the on non-Jewish artist commissioned was a Celt (who also went to Stanford, Beat Cal!).  Very fitting!  And, it proves that the eye of an outsider (be it the J or the rish) can see clearly.

Millburn Synagogue Welcomes Back a Motherwell

BY  |  Thursday, Jan 26, 2012 10:30am  |  COMMENTS (1)
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People go to their houses of worship to pray, to celebrate, to mourn.  At Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, there’s the added attraction of the opportunity to bask in the beauty of important modern art.  Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell’s painting”The Wall of the Temple” returns to B’nai Israel after an absence of two and a half years.  A welcome home party, with a dedication of the mural, reception, and activities for children, took place on Saturday, Jan. 28 at 6:30 p.m.  The public is invited.    Karen Levitov, Associate Director of the Jewish Museum, spoke about  the painting and its significance.
When the work was first created, says Levitov, it was

“written up in major art magazines and publications.  It brought art to a different community; it was a way to put modern art into another framework, in 1951.  Now, more than 50 years later, it’s being brought into that light again.” 

Motherwell was getting his start when the mural was originally commissioned. Levitov called it a “major piece, one of his largest and most important works.”  He was the only artist of the three commissioned who was not Jewish.


The painting, along with Adolph Gottlieb’s 20-foot Torah curtain, and Herbert Ferber’s 12 foot high sculpture “…and the bush was not consumed,” were all commissioned by Percival Goodman, B’nai Israel’s architect,  in 1951.  Rabbi Max Grunewald, the Congregation’s first rabbi, worked with Goodman and the artists.  The works were part and parcel of the modernist, low to the ground, Frank Lloyd Wright-like look and feel of the new building.  Motherwell’s painting was put in storage in 2009 when construction on the synagogue renovation endangered it.  In 2010, from March to August, the works were on exhibit at the Jewish Museum as “Modern Art, Sacred Space:  Motherwell, Ferber and Gottlieb.”  (The Congregation took a field trip to see their work on display; I wrote about it with a bit of humor for the Forward

When church groups go on field trips, do they heckle the bus driver?
“NO! WRONG WAY!” Kvetched the back of the Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) bus, when the driver went towards I-78 not down Vauxhall but, inexplicably, down Valley.

.  The Torah curtain remains at the musuem permanently,  where it has been since 1987, to protect it from disintegration.  A fascimile of the work hangs in the sanctuary.

Motherwell’s mural is abstract, but has recognizable iconography, including the tablets of Moses, the diaspora of the 12 tribes, and Jacob’s ladder.  The last was a suggestion of Rabbi Gruenewald, Levitov explains. Katy Rogers,  of the Dedalus Foundatiion, which was founded in 1981 by Motherwell to foster public understanding of modern art, points out how unusual it was for Motherwell to explain his work to the public in that way.  The “Interpretations by Motherwell” in the pamphlet explains that

“the mural is arbitrary in not representing a particular place in the natural world; the mural is not arbitrary, in that there is a reason for everything in it.” 

Motherwell tells the viewer where to look to find the symbols in the painting (titled “The Mural” in the pamphlet, but named “The Wall of the Temple” in his notes), and their meaning.  He writes: “The brightness of the mural is the brightness of the sun-lit ancient Mediterranean, and also the brightness of the optimism of modern painting and architecture.”  The brightness is in part the “walls of the temple” that are orange wooden planks– an unusual color for Motherwell at the time.  Levitov says the color was a suggestion of the architect, meant to complement the building.

Rogers, manager of the Catalogue Raisonné, is working on a catalogue of the artist’s complete works, scheduled to be published by Yale Press in 2012.  “It was a very special project to him.  He was very interested in the spiritual.”  That is partly why, Rogers says, the work is unsigned (discrediting the idea that he didn’t like the painting’s original site).  Rogers says that he likely didn’t want to have his signature displayed in a spiritual place, that the art was not about him.   Levitov adds that when asked to sign it later, Motherwell said that anyone who saw it would know it was a Motherwell.

The Dedalus Foundation undertook the costs of the restoration and exhibit at the Jewish museum.  Over years of hanging on the low wall in the synagogue’s original lobby, the painting had become damaged– only one rail separated it from the public, and in time tables holding prayer books covered half of it during the holidays.  “A nail had gone through it; someone had spilled coffee on it– it’s what happens when you’re living with a piece of art, and it happens more when it’s hundreds of people,” Rogers said.

Board of Trustees member Arthur Draznin was concerned about the damage the painting and the other works faced, and when the time came to begin the synagogue’s reconstruction, took an instrumental role in arranging the transfer of the art to the Jewish museum.  The process began in 2008   A collector of abstract expressionistic art, Draznin felt the painting was

“not being properly respected.   Here we have this masterwork, really a masterpiece, that was shown at MOMA in 1952, and many people in the congregation didn’t know much about it.  Most people don’t understand art, forget about modern art.  I thought if we reintroduced the painting, it might take on greater importance to many members of the congregation.  They will better understand how special the synagogue was when it was done, and how special it is to have something like this.”

He declined to say what the painting is insured for — noting the recent spate of vandalism against New Jersey synagogues — but said the work is “an important piece by Motherwell.”  He, with trustee Phil Darivoff,  approached the Dedalus Foundation.  “They came out to take a look. They knew it very well, and agreed to undertake the responsibility of paying for the restoration and exhibit.”
The painting is now hung  on a prominent wall in the lobby of the newly renovated synagogue.  It is properly lit, says Draznin, and people will look at it more.  Some of the exhibits from the Jewish Museum exhibit, incuding a model of the synagogue as designed in 1951, will eventually be displayed as well.

 Congregation B’nai Israel, 160 Millburn Avenue, Millburn.

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